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Opinion: In Colombia indigenous protests follow communities being displaced and leaders murdered

Thousands of indigenous people have attended a minga -a collective action for the common good – in defence of life, writes Kieran Duffy.

Kieran Duffy Writer

IN COLOMBIA INDIGENOUS protestors have gathered in the Sat Tama Kiwe ancestral territory near the Pan American highway connecting the cities of  Popayán and Cali to hold a minga – an indigenous word meaning a collective action for the common good.

The protests come following serious infringements of rights and thousands of people have attended the minga in Defense of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice and Peace.

In November 2018, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International said that the government needed to protect the people’s right to protest peacefully. 

Every day, thousands of people and communities are being forcibly displaced; the government of President Duque must take decisive measures and immediate action to protect them.

Protests

In recent weeks, Colombia was paralyzed by a wave of protests and strikes.

Indigenous Colombians, tired of state neglect, a crumbling peace process and constant acts of violence, blocked major highways and battled with riot police.

Despite reaching an agreement with the government their leaders have since been targeted for assassination.

Since taking office last year, President Iván Duque has attempted to undermine the peace process designed to end decades of civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  

Funding for many programmes has been cut and peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) suspended. Controversially, his government also seeks to resume using carcinogenic chemicals to exterminate illegal coca crops.

Meanwhile, right-wing paramilitaries, seemingly in collusion with the police and military, have carried out a campaign of threats and murders against activists, including indigenous community leaders.  

The impact of this falls on remote rural areas where the conflict largely takes place. Many of those living in such regions are indigenous Colombians who have suffered chronic state neglect for centuries.

Recently hundreds of families have been displaced from their homes Colombia has more internally displaced people than any country other than Syria.

Frustrated by the government’s non-compliance with previous treaties, refusal to stop displacements or to consult indigenous communities on infrastructure projects, as well as it’s continued undermining of the peace process, indigenous groups blocked the Pan-American Highway, shutting down much of southern Colombia.

The protests soon spread to other regions and many black Colombians, who suffer similar neglect, joined them. One student was killed by police in the city of Cali following a violent demonstration.

Eventually, the government gave in and agreed to allocate part of the national development budget to indigenous groups.

On 9 April, Duque travelled to Cauca to discuss the terms with indigenous leaders, but he soon left claiming he could not meet with leaders in an open town square. This excuse is suspect as Duque has previously appeared in open in some of the most dangerous parts of the country.

Nevertheless, the highways have remained open ever since.

On 10 April a paramilitary group known as “Las Águilas Negras” (The Black Eagles) offered rewards for the assassination of indigenous leaders. Since then, three have been murdered.

In total, fifty activists have been murdered so far this year. In general, the war appears to be heating up, with rising homicide rates in conflict zones.

This wave of political violence is largely allowed to continue because there is no political will to end it. Most urban Colombians are totally unaffected by these murders or the conflict in general, so they are unconcerned.

Many of those who voted for Duque are actually entirely suspicious of indigenous and black Colombians, viewing them as a front for guerrillas. They privately applaud the right-wing paramilitaries.

Meanwhile, the war in Colombia has too often been ignored internationally. Even at the height of the violence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it received little attention in the global media.

Perhaps this is because the Colombian government has been a close US ally for decades.

It is certainly more common to hear condemnation of political repression in countries that are hostile to the US such as Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Nevertheless, Duque’s efforts to undermine the peace process hit a stumbling block last week, as Congress refused to allow him to alter the special justice system established to investigate crimes committed during the conflict.

Centrist and left-wing parties joined to reject the motion, isolating his ironically named Democratic Centre party, which is actually a far-right group.

The United Nations and the European Union have also pressured Colombia to uphold the terms of the peace process. Duque may be forced to continue the peace process with the FARC even as he escalates the war against the ELN

Beset by so many domestic challenges, and with constant upheaval in the neighbouring country of Venezuela, the outlook often seems grim for Colombia.

However, Duque’s efforts have provoked an enormous backlash, both in Congress and at a grassroots level.

With the president constitutionally limited to one term, opposition figures are keenly awaiting the 2022 election.  

Last year, the former guerrilla member Gustavo Petro achieved the best ever result by the left-wing candidate in a Colombian presidential election.

In the midst of all this turmoil, such a candidate may seize the opportunity to win a historic victory.

Whatever happens, it seems a lasting peace is a long way off.

Kieran Duffy is an Irishman living in Bogotá, Colombia. He writes about the country’s politics and the ongoing peace process. 

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Kieran Duffy  / Writer

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