The seeds of peace

Imprisoned Colombian indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia talks to New Internationalist. Robin Llewellyn reports.

Feliciano Valencia in the centre for harmonisation. by Robin Llewellyn

Five days before armed and masked men would approach the little house where he is detained, Feliciano Valencia looked out over the plains of Cauca stretching away between the twin sierras of Colombia and said: ‘This is beauty!’

All the plains and the mountains were once the homeland of Valencia's Nasa people, who, prior to the Spanish conquest inhabited an area stretching from beyond Cali in the north to beyond Popayan in the south. At the start of the 20th century the Nasa still farmed the plains below, but in 1915 the police forced them out at gunpoint, many chose a life in the high mountains while others remained to rent small lots paid for by free labour on the new sugar haciendas.

The haciendas remain today, their fields still give off the sweet smell of the sugarcane and sometimes the ash of the cane stubs that are burned after the fields are cut rains down in the streets of Santander de Quilichao, the market town downhill from where Valencia is detained. Nowadays many are either rented or owned directly by InCauca, a foreign owned bio-fuels and sugar products company, but since the founding of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca in 1971 the Nasa have refused to provide free labour and have occupied many haciendas as they seek to restore the land to their reservations.

Feliciano Valencia with the baby who he had been separated from for 54 days while held in a maximum security prison.

Robin Llewellyn

Valencia is known to many Colombians as the human face of indigenous blockades of the Panamerican Highway visible in the land below, and of the occupations of sugar plantations throughout the department. In 2000 he and Cauca's indigenous movement were awarded the national peace prize for peacefully campaigning for the restitution of ancestral land and for the recognition of indigenous rights.

At the end of November demonstrators filled the streets of the capital Bogota to demand his release and urge the state to recognize indigenous jurisdiction over indigenous territory. Although the little house is a ‘centre for harmonization’ – the indigenous equivalent of a prison, and Valencia is beginning a 16 year sentence, his satisfaction was clear. On one knee he held the baby who he had been separated from for 54 days while held in a maximum security prison, ‘where they bring all the high-risk criminals... But here I've come to a world where I can encounter nature, my people, where I can recover after those 54 days of permanent torture that affects one physically and spiritually.’

Indigenous activists rally in Bogota.

Minga Juvenil Nacional

He was transferred to indigenous territory to serve his term, and there, confined to the land around the centre for harmonization, he can mingle with his people. ‘They will bring me my horse, he will graze the field here. And they'll bring me my dog, I've missed him so much.’

Valencia is serving a 16 year sentence for 'co-authoring the kidnap' of a soldier, Chaparal Santiago, who, dressed as a civilian, had entered a demonstration of 14,000 indigenous people during tensions with the conservative Uribe administration in 2008. The indigenous guards that protect native territories arrested the soldier and found a book with instructions for bomb-making in his bag, creating suspicions that he had been infiltrating the community to cause explosions that would taint the indigenous movement as having been infiltrated by FARC guerrillas.

The soldier was tried by the council of the indigenous territory on which he'd been arrested, sentenced to lashes on his legs and released, but the army then launched a legal suit against leading indigenous figures that were first dismissed in court in 2010, before abruptly resurfacing in September.

The prosecution of Valencia for a community's actions was dismissed by UN Human Rights representative to Colombia Todd Howland as resembling ‘something out of Kafka’, for lacking a direct link to Valencia and for ignoring the Colombian constitution's commitment to indigenous jurisdiction. Indigenous law can be administered when an alleged crime occurs on indigenous land, carried out by an indigenous person and impacting indigenous people.

The statue of Simon Bolivar in Bogota wears indigenous colours during indigenous demonstrations in Bogota.

Minga Juvenil Nacional

According to Valencia, ‘Chaparal Santiago wasn't arrested on the Panamerican Highway, which is a public road, but he entered indigenous territory. ...Secondly, he identified himself as an indigenous. He said ‘I am an indigenous and I belong to the indigenous council of Quintana, my family are there. If you want, phone the reservation's governor who can verify that I'm indigenous.’ Thirdly, the affected community were the 14,000 indigenous people concentrated there … and fourthly Chaparal had things that put the community at risk including a notebook with instructions in how to manage explosions. Therefore the requisites established by the law were met, in terms in which we could establish justice.’

To many activists the detention of Valencia is much more than the isolation of a figure who, as a former presidential candidate, can unify indigenous and non-indigenous Colombians. It was also part of the criminalization of social protest and the erosion of indigenous jurisdiction as a means to erode the privileges that indigenous territories can exercise in terms of excluding activities such as mining from their territories. His sentencing was condemned by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca as a ‘coup by the state against our constitutional rights, [that] revokes the peace treaty that the constitution of 1991 represents in our history.’

Colombia is on the verge of another accord, as a peace deal between the state and the FARC is expected to be signed by 23 March 2016. Agreement has been reached over structures of transitional justice, limited land reform, and political participation. The 51 year insurrection of the guerrillas could finally be coming to a close, and much has been written on whether Colombia is at last leaving its violent history behind.

The highlands of the two sierra in front of us have a beauty that captures even those accustomed to them, but are frequently used as refuges by the paramilitaries and guerrillas, who cross the plains that lie between them to transport drugs en route to the Pacific coast. The 'blocs' or 'fronts' that constitute the FARC are self-financing and several have said they won't respect any peace agreement, and the paramilitary drug trafficking groups such as the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, and the Black Eagles are, according to Colombia's National Centre for Historic Memory, now the most responsible for human rights violations in the country.

The Nasa have been continuing to occupy the sugar plantations and replant them with fruit trees and maize in a process they call ‘the liberation of Mother Earth’, and which has seen many killed through massacres and assassinations. These include the catholic priest Alvaro Ulcué Chocué, since immortalized in the Nasa anthem, who was assassinated in Santander de Quilichao in November 1984, the day after the army destroyed indigenous encampments on the sugar hacienda of Lopez Adentro, and two days after he presented the legal arguments of indigenous claims to ancestral land to army generals.

In December 1991, only months after the constitution was ratified, paramilitaries killed 21 activists occupying the El Nilo hacienda. An investigation pointed to the active involvement of Santander de Quilichao's police major but charges were dropped. Under international pressure the government committed to hand over 15,600 hectares of the plains to the Nasa, but has yet to fully deliver on their promise.

In the nights of the 13 and 16 November 2015 the indigenous guards protecting the centre for harmonization surprised and deterred a group of armed and masked men approaching the little house where Valencia is detained. Their identities were never revealed and they have not returned, but Valencia is under an array of death threats that, prior to his detention, meant he was provided with an armoured car and offered armed escorts. Valencia accepted the car but had always traveled instead with the (unarmed) indigenous guards.

But he faces other threats. The judiciary of Cauca is ‘impregnated with politics’, he says.

‘Why? Why, because before condemning me we were in the process of the liberation of Mother Earth in Corinto, in [the hacienda of] La Emperatriz. We had blocked the Panamerican Highway in La Agustina, and there was a strong debate in respect of the use of violence to empower private property, in this case the private property of the land of the sugarcane industry in northern Cauca... We were beginning to question many things that impacted on the Cauca oligarchy... precisely in this moment came my condemnation.’

Indigenous Guards outside the Tribunal in Popayan, Cauca, demanding the liberty of Feliciano Valencia.

Robin Oisín Llewellyn

In the following days thousands of indigenous activists descended on the centre for harmonization to greet Valencia before touring Cauca and then proceeding to the capital where they would hold meetings with civil society and seek (unsuccessfully) to meet government officials. Valencia outlined the message of the demonstrators:

‘One: respect indigenous rights. Two: make the Colombian state guarantee the functioning of indigenous jurisdiction as well as recognize it, and three: ensure that the actions taken by indigenous governments to defend land, territory, the respect for biodiversity and the environment, are guaranteed. These are… things that we have always fought for as indigenous peoples. But we emphasize the theme of indigenous jurisdiction because it has been warned that there will be prosecutions against many indigenous governors, indigenous territories, indigenous authorities, and many members of indigenous communities, who will all have the same luck as I have in this moment.’

The great Colombian writer Alfredo Molano argued that the valley of Cauca ‘must once have been a forest of enormous, wide-canopied saman trees, like those that still exist in bloody Santander de Quilichao. Today all of the valley is covered in sugar cane. Six companies dominate production. The land has been bought or rented, and fumigated with glyphosate to accelerate the maturation of the cane and make more money in less time. Nothing other than cane can be grown. There is not one centimeter of the great plain where that plant is not grown. There is no cotton or rice, as was once; no cassava or plantain. Needless to say the plains are deserted of those who once tended the land: thanks to the paramilitaries and their violence. Nor are there workers, the cane-cutting machines have replaced them. Six-trucked road trains carry the cane to be refined into sugar and bio-fuel.’

Molano describes how national legislation to benefit a handful of families in Bogota has filled the plain with the crop, to the extent that these families are now having to spread the industry to the llanos, the eastern plains neighbouring Venezuela. Molano writes: ‘All this criminal destruction in the name of progress and the pockets of four huge companies inflated and financed by the government... The panorama is identical to that described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath: desolation, solitude, and dust in the west of California; the hunger and the fists of the disinherited next to the tractors and the expanses of land devoted to producing cornflakes.’

Death threats continue to be made against members of Nasa communities throughout the region, and in November activists occupying the land of the sugar hacienda of Arriba Garcia filmed the local landowner supported by an alleged member of the FARC as the two fired their pistols at the demonstrators.

In late December the Colombian Congress finally passed a bill that has been circulating since the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, that lets agro-industry legally claim vast tracts of land which are judged to be ‘unproductive’. The measure has been condemned by the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Oxfam, human rights and displacement NGOs.

During the weeks in which Valencia had been detained in San Isidro, indigenous guards had been holding vigil outside the gates of the prison, and had sung the anthem to where Valencia listened in his cell.

...the Nasa
have been struggling
from the conquest until today.
Alvaro, all the people miss you
for your brave work,
for denouncing injustice,
for denouncing the assassin and the oppressor.

The seed that you planted will never die,
a thousand Alvaros will be born,
and the path of the struggle
shall shine as they follow it.’

As the shadows began to gather in the plains below, Valencia concluded:

‘We will keep trying to enhance the understanding of peace, beyond that of which they're speaking of in Havana... All that we have been doing as indigenous people in 44 years [since the establishment of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca] is what we understand to be the peace of the indigenous: rights, autonomy, recognition, guarantees... This is what peace means for us.’