Indigenous peoples join the national struggle in Colombia's strike

Claudia Pai and other Awá women participating in Colombia's Minga and demonstrations. Photo courtesy of Clever Bolaños, used with permission.

Since the first day of Colombia's ongoing National Strike, Indigenous peoples have joined the struggle for justice, equality, and health, drawing on their historical experience of resisting discrimination and unfair treatment. From the time of the arrival of the European conquerors in Latin America in 1492 and the birth of the Colombian Republic 200 years ago, Indigenous people have been challenging the governments that threaten their sovereignty and rights of self-determination, as recognized by the United Nations.

Colombia's National Strike was initially organized on April 28, 2021, against the tax and health reform bills, but it evolved into a social movement prompting support from all over the country. Although the government withdrew the tax reform proposal, popular indignation continued against poverty, corruption, and state-enforced violence.

Juan Orlando Moriano, Awá consejero. Photo taken by Willinton Rodríguez, used with permission.

Diana Jembuel, an Indigenous journalist from the Misak people, explained to Global Voices why her people supported the strike:

Besides the refusal of the tax and health reform, there is another critical issue: the return of aerial spraying with glyphosate, which impacts crops, land, water resources, and people’s health; in addition to the murder of indigenous leaders.

In April 2021, the Colombian government allowed Monsanto's glyphosate spraying on illicit coca fields after the herbicide had been banned since 2015 due to its potential carcinogenic effect. The European Parliament stated that this measure will “seriously affect ecosystems, biodiversity and community rights” and that this “decision comes against the background of increasing violence against indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations and defenders.”

The statistics of violence are discouraging. Last year, Indepaz, the Institute of Studies for Peace and Development, reported 269 Indigenous leaders killed from 2016 until June 2020. This year, 20 of the 60 social leaders assassinated belonged to Indigenous communities.

Indigenous leaders are murdered, among other reasons, out of defending their ancestral land, which they call Mother Earth, from settlers and opposing the presence of multinational corporations and drug dealers on their territory who profit from natural resources. 

On May 12,  Misak, Kokonuco, and other Indigenous peoples and Colombians marched in Popayán to the sound of music:

Indigenous guards protect protestors’ lives

During the first week of May, a humanitarian corridor was set up in Cali to transfer food and medical supplies after the movement of goods was disrupted by the protests. On May 11 and 12, another was set in Popayán to deliver fuel on top of other basic goods. Here, Indigenous peoples played a crucial part by setting up the humanitarian corridors with the help of the Indigenous guard, unarmed Indigenous men, women, and children who monitor and protect their ancestral lands in coordination with their traditional authorities and communities.

During the strike, the goal of the Indigenous guard is to protect the protestors in different locations. First, it was in Cali where young people protested and now, in Popayán.

Awá indigenous guard Photo by Clever Bolaños, used with permission.

Jhoe Sauca, the legal representative of the Kokonuco people, who are part of the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC), told Global Voices why they joined other protestors: “to strengthen the fight.” Sauca continued:

Based on our experience, we help organize and offer mediation with our Indigenous guard, who organized the humanitarian corridors in Cali and Cauca to provide food and fuel despite the attacks against them on Sunday 9 [of May], when at least nine people were injured.

Meanwhile, in the southwest of the country, in the Nariño province, Indigenous men and women protest on the streets. One of them is Juan Moriano, an Indigenous consejero, a community leader of the Awá People and also an Indigenous guard.

Juan Moriano told Global Voices that they have declared themselves in Minga, which refers to a collective community practice to support different social causes: 

Our Indigenous guard is here to defend the life and collective interests, and also to inspire young Indigenous people to keep this peaceful practice of protection. On April 28, when the National strike started, we declared ourselves in Minga with the purpose of unifying  forces demanding the Iván Duque's government to stop aerial spraying with glyphosate, the health reform, and to fulfill its obligations emanating from the Peace Agreement signed in 2016.

The Awá people continued to protest on the streets of Nariño against the murder of its people, the numbers now estimated at 42, as well as the disappearances and forced displacement of hundreds of Awá people from their land.

Claudia Pai, a consejera for families and women at the Awá's main organization, the Indigenous Unity of Awá People (Unipa), expressed that it is important to defend their rights in Colombia's multicultural state, where the right to life, dignity, and territory should prevail.

There is still cultural racism and even more [discrimination] towards women. For this reason, it is relevant to make visible our rights, and adhere to the Minga protecting our great territory, Katsa Su.

While this is happening in Nariño, María Montano, a Misak vicegovernor of a reserve in Morales in Northern Cauca told Global Voices that dismantling conquerors’ monuments is another act of resistance because the colonizers carried out the extermination of Indigenous people.

Toppling down of Sebastián de Belalcazar monument in Cali on April 28. Photo by AIS0 Communications, used with permission.

Last year, the Misak people toppled the monument built in honor of conquistador Sebastián de Belalcazar in Popayán, the capital city of Cauca, a province strongly impacted by violence against Indigenous leaders. During the current strike, the Misak removed two more: the statue of Belalcazar in the southwestern city of Cali and the statue of  Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada the founder of  Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia.

While many people understand the need to rewrite historical narratives from the perspective of historically oppressed peoples, other Colombians denominated these actions as vandalism.

María Montano responded to this criticism:

We are not vandals, Sebastián de Belalcazar was a rapist, a murder… Conquerors stole our land. It is why the Movement of Indigenous Authorities of South-West Cauca reject these monuments. We demand the rights of the Indigenous to be respected.

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