Socialist Worker

Colombia: an inspiring battle for indigenous rights

by Mike Gonzalez
Issue No. 2126

Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe bluntly admitted, “Yes, the police fired on the indigenous protesters.” This followed several days of attacks by police and the military on the communities of the Cauca region.

Uribe – the US’s closest ally in this part of South America – had appeared on TV time and again to explain that the indigenous communities are fronts for the guerrillas of the opposition Farc, and that they had attacked the forces of the state.

News footage tells a different story – armed troops backed by tanks firing on marchers who for the most part are carrying sticks.

According to indigenous Indian leaders, the troops move into the fields and trees firing small arms.

This upsurge in violence from the Colombian government is a response to a growing and determined movement.

The 1.3 million indigenous peoples of Colombia make up around 3.5 percent of the population. They have fought for many years now for cultural recognition and civil rights.

The Colombian constitution is in fact clear in its recognition of the right to autonomy of the ethnic groups – but the paper promises are rarely fulfilled.

It was significant that Colombia abstained in the 1997 vote on the UN declaration of indigenous rights.

As one leader of the Colombian Indigenous Peoples Organisation (ONIC) put it, the right to autonomy and to cultural recognition is meaningless without land – the communities are the land they occupy.

And it is land that is at the centre of the struggle of indigenous communities, not only in Colombia, but throughout Latin America.

The traditional territories of the indigenous communities across Latin America are often in areas rich in oil, in minerals, in gold and diamonds. Or they are rich agricultural areas, where the potential profits to be made from export crops are enormous.

This is what lies behind the “war on drugs” and its twin the “war on terror”.

The conversion of community lands into estates producing flowers or soya and other export crops is central to capitalist globalisation strategies.

But these areas have produced the food that sustains local communities. In recent years the fumigation of great expanses of territory, ostensibly to stop the growing of coca (the basis for making cocaine), has driven whole populations towards the city slums or left them to starve on their now useless land.

It is a violent process wherever it occurs – but particularly so in Colombia, where the rule of the drug barons has placed large parts of the country under the control of the armed paramilitaries that the drug trade has financed.

The Colombian government’s assurances that it is imposing the rule of law have a hollow ring when week in and week out officials at the highest level are exposed for their links to the drug cartels.

What is most moving is to see the swelling ranks of communities that are willing to take on this violent and repressive regime.

In the past month the gathering of indigenous peoples known as the Minga (or Mobilisation) has brought 50,000 people together.

Their weapons – mainly sticks – are no match for the weaponry supplied to the Colombian state by the US.

Yet in recent days the marchers have filled the Pan-American highway to the town of Cali in the Cauca region, and their resistance continues.

Increasingly that resistance is taking on a continental dimension. This is, after all, more than a battle for cultural rights and autonomies – it is a challenge to the central priorities of a global capitalism whose brutality will only increase as it struggles to find a way out of its crisis.

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Tue 4 Nov 2008, 18:30 GMT
Issue No. 2126
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