Indigenous Colombians are not only benefiting from the wave of indigenous political power sweeping Latin America, they are providing one of its most compelling examples. Their tool – a series of high-profile farm occupations.
Silverio Yujo, who is in his twenties, was one of a group of Nasa people who occupied El Japio farm in Caloto municipality in the southwestern department of Cauca on 12 October last year. ‘When we take back our land, we know we could be killed for it,’ he says evenly. ‘But land is fundamental – we need land to survive as a people. And there are no clear policies for agrarian reform in Colombia. So we say: “Let’s go together, and recover our land. If we die, it’s destiny.”’
So on the 513th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas – a date that began the loss of land and life for millions and is now dubbed ‘Day of Indigenous Resistance’ – indigenous Colombians took back the land. Frustrated at broken government promises of land settlements, the Nasa, Guambiano, Coconucos, and Kisgó peoples seized 15 large, idle estates owned by absentee landlords.
The State response was violent. Police shot one occupier dead at Japio and many more were injured. However, the Government and the regional indigenous council (CRIC) signed an accord on 16 December, which provided for 8,000 hectares to be returned to indigenous hands during 2006. The Nasa have also led a referendum campaign against a looming free trade agreement, organized massive demonstrations and put together an unarmed, but effective, Indigenous Guard force. Indigenous political power is shaking up Latin American politics. Bolivians have elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, following protests against privatization of the country’s gas and water resources (see page 29). In Ecuador a huge indigenous movement recently led protests that toppled the President, and in Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela indigenous populations are exerting effective political pressure.
But in the context of Colombia’s vicious four-decade civil war, indigenous activism comes at a greater price than anywhere else. An estimated 1,600 indigenous leaders have been assassinated over the past 20 years.
Overcrowding is also a problem. At the Guambiano community in Cauca, two or even three married couples are crammed into each of 313 small houses, forced to survive by farming one or two hectares between them.
The 12 October action has given rise to a new optimism. At the nearby El Corazón farm the Guambianos say the owner has agreed to try to sell the farm to the Government, which can then hand the land to them. Abelino Yalanda, one of the occupiers, points out: ‘This land was completely idle but we’ve already planted two hectares with crops to feed our community. This is why we took this land: to survive!’Caleb Harris