Colombia: Tens of Thousands of Indigenous March for Rights, against Free-Trade Treaty

Article excerpt

An estimated 35,000 to 70,000 demonstrators marched 100 km to Cali, the capital of the southwestern department of Valle de Cauca, arriving there Sept. 16 in what could be the largest demonstration of indigenous people in Colombian history. Marchers from dozens of ethnicities protested against killings, torture, displacement, and disappearances that have plagued native peoples during the multifaction Colombian civil war. They also stated their opposition to the free-trade agreement (FTA) under negotiation between the US and Colombia.

March on Pan-American Highway lasts 6 days, 100 km

The Consejo Regional Indigena del Cauca (CRIC) announced the march in August and organized it under the rubric of "the defense of the right to life and the guarantee of human rights...no more war, no more massacres, no more removals, no more kidnappings and no more assaults." Indigenous leaders said the demonstration sought to protest against "all expressions of violence, plundering, exploitation, and death, come what may."

The march left from Santander de Qulichao and moved toward Cali along the Pan-American Highway. Union leaders, Afro-Colombian people, and other sympathizers joined the native marchers on their six-day trek to Colombia's third-largest city. The Associated Press reported that most marchers came from the Paez and Guambiana tribes.

Seven indigenous communities of the neighboring department of Cauca planned the march. Cauca stretches from the Andes Mountains in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and is the ancestral home of the well-organized Nasa community. They organized the march as a "minga"--an indigenous word for an ancestral practice of communities joining efforts toward a common goal--for life and against Colombia's four-decade armed conflict, which pits the government forces and right-wing paramilitaries against leftist guerrillas. Native communities frequently find themselves in the crossfire as different groups battle for territory.

It was not only insurgents and paramilitaries the demonstrators wanted to reach; organizers also had grievances to present to the government. Guambiana leader Jeremias Tununbala said the Colombian government is the principal violator of the collective rights of the indigenous communities. "With each act of agrarian reform and policies of globalization, the Colombian state is taking our lands," said the representative for the 24,000-person group.

"The violation of human rights begins with the state itself, it's not the armed groups," said Tununbala, who believes native land rights, autonomy, and cultural identity are also endangered by the FTA that Colombia is negotiating jointly with Ecuador and Peru to open trade with the US (see NotiSur, 2004-04-02). The FTA has received opposition from Colombian indigenous peoples because they fear that it will hurt them economically and diminish their sovereignty as Indian nations.

The Colombian government claims that native land rights were "not even remotely up for discussion" in FTA talks. Jesus Ramirez, national director of ethnic groups in the Ministry of the Interior, said indigenous lands "are sacred, they are part of the Constitution and are not an issue in FTA discussions, nor will they be, nor in any manner will the government think of touching them."

President Uribe warned organizers against blockades

President Alvaro Uribe and his defense minister warned organizers against blocking the highway and committing violence, even though the organizers had said that they planned neither. "Peaceful protest is totally respectable, but all possible preparations must made so the protest doesn't degenerate into violence," said Uribe. Speaking to the Consejo Social Indigena in Popayan, the capital of Cauca, Uribe said that the indigenous must avoid terrorist infiltrations, disorder, and blockades. And if there were blockades, "the police and army would have to come to clear them and there could be contusions, there could be injuries. …