COLOMBIA: Indigenous People Protest in Face of Threats
BOGOTA, Oct 15 (IPS) – At the top of the list of demands of some 7,000 people mobilising in the Cauca municipality of Piendamó is the clarification of the deaths of 13 indigenous people killed over the past two weeks in different parts of Colombia.
Thousands of indigenous, black, mestizo (mixed-race) and white representatives of social organisations gathered over the weekend in the southern region of Cauca to participate in the “minga” (a traditional indigenous meeting convened to achieve a collective purpose) on occasion of the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), which marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
In a public statement, the protesters denounced Tuesday that the army had injured 23 indigenous people and that three others were missing, as a result of “the repression exercised by the state against our peaceful demonstration.”
They also reported that army helicopters were overflying the indigenous reserve where the gathering is taking place.
Protesters were called to commemorate “516 years of resistance against a regime of terror at the service of multinational capitalist greed.”
Representatives of the union of judicial sector workers, the Asonal Judicial, and sugarcane cutters — both of which have been on strike for more than a month — joined the demonstration on Monday Oct. 13. These two additions are expected to double the current number of protesters, according to estimates by Manuel Rozental, a spokesperson for indigenous groups who spoke to IPS by telephone.
The demonstrators are waiting for Colombia’s right-wing President Álvaro Uribe to respond to a letter they presented on Thursday Oct. 9, in which they demand justice and recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, which are enshrined in the 1991 constitution.
But Uribe and his staff have so far remained silent. Cauca Governor Guillermo González Mosquera “is talking, at least, but he offers no solutions and assumes no responsibility,” Rozental said.
On Sunday “he warned us that military intelligence reports revealed that indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia could be targeted by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia),” he added.
But the indigenous movement gives little credence to González Mosquera’s warning, as it is common, in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict, for far-right paramilitary and leftwing guerrilla groups to hurl this kind of accusation at each other.
According to Rozental, “The FARC accuse the black eagles (right-wing paramilitaries), and the black eagles accuse the FARC.” The Colombian army is also present in the area.
Valencia himself told IPS that “in any case, it doesn’t matter who gave the order; the order exists.”
Valencia is a leader of the Cauca indigenous movement who has gained a reputation for fighting the modern-day slavery conditions to which native ethnic groups and afro-Colombians are still subjected by large landowners.
“This activity is different from participating in an armed conflict. We are an indigenous community with our own rules, and we expect armed groups and the State to respect them,” Valencia said.
But the armed groups involved in the decades-old civil war think otherwise. In the last two weeks, they were responsible for the death of 13 people, whose killers have not been identified.
According to representatives of indigenous groups, the latest victim was 39-year-old activist Nicolás Valencia Lemus, who was murdered on Sunday Oct. 12 at 8:30 am. As he made his way to Toribío, in the Cauca region, he was stopped on the road by hooded men who identified themselves as black eagles, forced him to get out of the vehicle in which he was driving with his wife and son, and killed him.
“Regardless of where they come from, the bullets only serve the cause of those who are against the people,” states a press release issued by the indigenous movement.
“As we celebrate the Minga para la Conmoción de los Pueblos (or Minga to Mobilise the People) and commemorate 516 years of resistance and pain, Nicolás’s murder must be clarified. Several armed groups who are looking to benefit from these acts of terror are active around the area where he was gunned down,” the press release adds.
“In the face of death, we will continue to speak out and defend life and dignity…The terror they spread will shame and condemn them. Their lives, guns and words will not be enough to cover up their abominable crimes. Nicolás Valencia Lemus’s death hurts us all and we will fight for justice to be done in his name,” it states.
Twelve other murders, besides Valencia Lemus’s, were committed in different parts of the country, including Nariño in the south, Caldas in the central region, and Antioquia in the northwest.
And it is not just murders: there have also been numerous threats and other attacks. On Monday, demonstrators who were headed for the Piendamó meeting were held up by the army for a few hours, but “they eventually let us through, and here we are,” Ezequiel, another activist, told IPS.
The Minga is also being held simultaneously in other regions, like the northern provinces of La Guajira and Santander, Boyacá and Casanare in the east, and the midwest province of Quindío. But the largest demonstration is taking place in Cauca, Colombia’s most heavily indigenous province, which is culturally close to Nariño and Putumayo.
Demonstrators also expressed their repudiation of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States, which is pending congressional approval in the U.S.
The indigenous people are calling for “treaties between peoples, treaties that are for the people and for life, and not treaties between those who are against the people and are killing our Mother Earth with their greed.”
They are also demanding “the repeal of the constitutional reforms and pillaging laws that surrender our wealth to corporate interests, and condemn us to silence, stupidity, forced labour, marginalisation and death.”
The statement mentions a number of regulations promoted by the Uribe administration, including the rural statute, the mining code, water laws and programmes, and the forestry law, which the movements “will continue fighting until they are repealed.”
They are also speaking out against the “terror spread by Plan Colombia (the U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy), (Uribe’s) Democratic Security policy, and ‘para-politicians’ (lawmakers linked to the far-right paramilitaries), which are infesting our country and sowing death and forced displacement with the false promise of achieving social recuperation.”
“With this protest — which is not a crime, but rather an obligation seen as a crime by those who fear freedom — we want to tell the world how the United States and the (U.S. army) Southern Command are setting up Coordination Centres for Integrated Action, from which they occupy our territories with the aim of handing them over to multinational corporations along with the wealth of our peoples,” Valencia said.
He also recalled the legislation currently in force in Colombia, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, land rights, trade union rights and other basic rights, and called for “the drafting of a peoples’ agenda that will allow us to go from a country with owners and without the people to a country of the people without owners.
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