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The Liberation of Mother Earth in Cauca
Levi Bridges / Monday 23 March 2009

In Colombia, many indigenous people inhabit officially designated resguardos , or reserves, in highland areas where insufficient space fails to fulfill the agricultural needs of an increasing population. The lives of the indigenous Nasa are further complicated because they live in Colombia’s Cauca Department, a violent area where fighting between the army, the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary groups often leaves indigenous people caught in the crossfire. Together, violence and malnutrition caused by the land deficit have resulted in numerous Nasa deaths. Like many indigenous peoples in Latin America, the contemporary problems within the Nasa community began centuries ago. During the Spanish conquest, European settlers claimed flatter lowlands better suited to agriculture for themselves. Hundreds of years later, indigenous groups from Mexico to Bolivia barely eke out a subsistence living cultivating crops on the steep hillsides their ancestors were forced to inhabit. Such is the plight of the Nasa.

On December 16, 1991, the sun barely penetrated the clouds in the highlands of Cauca. More than 50 Nasa had gathered to discuss a land dispute on the El Nilo ranch. Years earlier, a previous landowner had permitted some Nasa to live and cultivate crops on unused portions of the land, but when the estate was sold, the new owners sought to expel them. As the daylight faded, and the owners had still not arrived, some returned home, while others gathered around small fires to share a hot plate of food.

Suddenly, the still quiet of dusk was broken by the intrusion of approaching vehicles. Without warning, gunshots and screams signaled the beginning of the supposedly nonviolent meeting which the Nasa had waited for all day. “The shots came from far away,” recalled Caroline Corpus de Dicuè in a court testimony just days later. “We could not see who was firing because it was already dark ... another group nearby were boiling beans ... they were the ones who were killed. We were … running uphill towards our house ... later they burned our house and clothes ... they burned the belongings of all the Nasa living in El Nilo.” On the following morning, the blood of twenty Nasa—men, women and children—stained the green grass.

Today, many believe that drug traffickers purchased the El Nilo estate and, with the compliance of local police, orchestrated the 1991 massacre that left behind eight widows and 40 orphans. Despite warnings from armed groups and local authorities that they could be risking their lives by remaining in El Nilo, the Nasa who inhabited the ranch sought to resolve the matter through a legal agreement between themselves, the new landowners, and the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform. Because of these prior admonishments, many Nasa now refer to the El Nilo massacre as Another Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a play on words of the novella written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel Laureate of Literature.

Following the 1991 massacre, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights conducted an investigation into the El Nilo killings. The Colombian government agreed to abide by the Commission’s recommendation that the surviving Nasa be awarded 15,600 hectares of land as recompense. Nearly two decades later, the Nasa have only received a little more than 11,000 hectares.

Tragically, the consequences of violent acts like the El Nilo killings are often forgotten in Colombia. Walking through Popayán, Cauca’s Departmental capital, to investigate the effects of El Nilo 17 years later, distracted by the ways in which the morning sunlight enchantingly plays against the shadows of the white-washed colonial buildings, I can almost forget the grim reality of the massacre. Inhaling the rich aromas of the ubiquitous cafes which dot this bustling university town, I make my way to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC). Inside Feliciano Valencia, leader and member of the CRIC’s Council of Chiefs, greets me with a warm smile. But when asked how life for indigenous people in Cauca has changed, a furrowed brow representative of deep worry erases his bright-eyed demeanor.

“The situation is worse now than ever,” says Valencia concernedly. “I feel like we are being exterminated.” Valencia’s opinion stands in stark contrast to that presented by President Alvaro Uribe’s conservative government, which insists its military crackdown on the FARC and paramilitary groups has brought peace to Colombia. Valencia instead explains how fighting has displaced indigenous people, while the paramilitary presence in Cauca has increased. “In 2002, we saw more paramilitary presence of privately funded armed groups in Cauca,” he admits. “At first, we believed they had come to combat the FARC, but we have since realized they are here to open up economic zones.”

The conflict Valencia describes initially began because Cauca is home to more indigenous people than any other department in Colombia and is a major agricultural center for valuable crops like sugarcane. Today, increasingly large scale mono-agricultural production in the region chokes the supply of locally produced goods, increasing food prices while consuming land which could be used by rural people. “The government insists that we do not need more land to earn a living because we can find work on large farms in the area,” says Valencia. “But we want to grow food in the same sustainable agricultural methods as our ancestors.”

By 2005, after the Colombian government had repeatedly failed to fulfill the El Nilo agreement, Valencia and others organized a movement called The Liberation of the Mother Earth, which aimed to retrieve their ancestral lands by holding protests where participants often use machetes to chop down sugarcane planted on the land they were promised in the El Nilo massacre settlement. “In our first attempt to liberate our mother earth, we ended up in a confrontation with the military, national police and ESMAD [specialized riot police] and 62 people were wounded,” Valencia explains. Since 2005, the Nasa have organized 30 protests, confrontations that have resulted in three Nasa deaths and countless injuries.

In June 2008, Valencia led me into northern Cauca to observe a three day protest organized by local cabildos (indigenous councils). En route, we boarded a bus together and I asked Valencia if he might answer some questions. Valencia, who like other activists in Cauca, has received death threats from local armed groups, raised a finger to his lips. “Later,” he said lowering his voice. “It isn’t safe for me to talk about this with you in public.”

On the way to the Nasa’s Las Huellas resguardo, we passed through verdant countryside; on our left lay interminable swaths of sugarcane and to the right steep sides of distant mountains. Valencia pointed toward the mountains. “That is our land,” he said. At the resguardo, we stopped at a small farm where we were greeted by an amiable woman named Dora Alicia Villaquiran, planning coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). “The government has to give us what they promised,” she said. “They can’t bring back those that were lost in El Nilo, but they can return land to the living.”

As we spoke, Valencia sat atop a wooden fence, his long black hair flowing over his shoulders, a machete strapped along his back. Behind him lay a corn field, communally grown for families on the resguardo, an example of how the Nasa would use small portions of the good farmland monopolized by sugarcane growers. Suddenly, a large bus stopped by the roadside and torrents of excited Nasa poured out from inside and even off the rooftop. In minutes, hundreds of Nasa shattered the serenity of early morning, many brandishing machetes, some wearing masks or voluminous scarves draped on their shoulders to shield themselves from tear gas assaults. Through the milieu, I watched men sharpen machetes while a 14-year-old boy showed off a makeshift crossbow to a crowd of attentive young men. “If they fire at me, I could use this to shoot rocks and shrapnel 150 meters,” he boasts.

Despite the almost warlike scene, the protests are meant to be non-violent, the machetes to be used for chopping down sugarcane in order to “liberate the Mother Earth.” And many Nasa carry sling shots to defend themselves from police who fire rocks at them, which, unlike shooting guns, is not illegal. As the protest began, a young boy named Orlando Baicue approached me. “This is my first time here, and I’m a bit scared,” he admitted. “But this land is rightfully ours and we have to reclaim it from large corporations,” he said with a wisdom beyond his years. I follow Baicue with a group of boys off the road into deep patches of sugarcane. Suddenly, materializing out of a line of people ahead of me like the bow of a familiar ship from impenetrable fog, Valencia appeared, urging me to observe from a safer point behind the army. When I returned to the road, Colombian soldiers who had gathered to hold back the protesters questioned me. “Our government has to come to an agreement with the Indians,” a burly commander explained while lazily thumbing through my passport. “But we have to protect private property.”

Young Nasa boys walking up the road approach the soldiers, who cupped hands over their mouths whooping to imitate the stereotypical and degrading image of Indians from the American West. The Nasa youth advance step by step, bravely staring men over twice their size holding M-16’s in the eye. The tension in the air is palpable. As the children hold back the army, Nasa men wearing masks steal through the infinite sugarcane stalks and begin fiercely chopping down the cane while others set sections of the field on fire. To hold back encroaching bands of riot police, daring young boys round the field’s edge and I watched for over an hour as riot police behind shields and children slung rocks at each other with sling shots. In an effort to deter the Nasa, the riot police launched smoke grenades into the field, shrouding the area in clouds of acrid smoke. Through the haze, I observed recalcitrant Nasa continually launch rocks back at their adversaries, the haze from the heat of the flames causing their bodies to appear as though they had stepped from the fuzzy scene of a Monet canvas.

Sadly, many Colombians fail to understand why the Nasa are protesting. “They have enough land,” said Adolfo Leon, a journalist with Colombia’s RCN television station who stood with me on the sidelines. “I won’t even interview them,” Leon said, “because they work with the FARC.” Leon’s words echo those of many in the Colombian government who claim that indigenous people receive support from guerrillas. Sadly, mainstream Colombian media outlets, which have rarely explained the historical reasons which sparked the protests, instead portray the protestors as violent aggressors. This false representation misleads public opinion, and allows the government to strike back heavily against non-violent protests with little public scrutiny while protecting the interests of multinational corporations and large landowners who control extensive tracts of profitable land in Cauca.

Yet government officials in Bogotá like Rocio Gallego Salas, director of indigenous issues for the Department of the Interior and Justice, claim the Nasa themselves are the cause of the conflict. “We have tried to give the Nasa more land, but they have refused our offers because they only want specific areas in Cauca,” says Salas. “The price of that land has tripled since the sugarcane plantations bought it,” she explains. “And our budget does not allow us to purchase it.”

Instead, the government has offered the Nasa land in far away and dangerous departments like Putumayo and Meta. Rocio claims this should not be a problem because statistically many indigenous Colombians move away from their place of birth. Her argument is troublesome, however, because many rural Colombians leave their homes because they have been displaced by violence, not by choice. The Nasa want the remaining 4,282 hectares of land owed to them to be near their resguardos in Cauca—where nearly 70 percent of the area has now been consumed by sugarcane plantations that grow the plant for biofuel production. “Sugarcane cultivation in northern Cauca has displaced people and agriculture,” argues Giovanni Yule, former director of the ACIN. “The market is no longer ours; we are growing food to feed automobiles, when we should grow food to feed our towns.”

I was speaking with Yule inside the ACIN office in Caloto on the third day of the protests when, suddenly, a young Nasa man who had been to the hospital entered the office. His right eye was bandaged, covering a wound from a projectile fired from an ESMAD slingshot. I left the office and hitched a ride to the center of the protests where the roadside, covered with trash, tree branches, and large rocks used to form an impromptu vehicle barricade, represented the mayhem.

Stepping over the scorched earth of the sugarcane fields with a group of school children who were waiting for the conflict to resolve so they could return home through the roadblock, I watched a line of Nasa attempt to make a break past the army into the next field as riot police descended upon several young men and attacked them with clubs. Moments later, three days of protest suddenly ended as the police dispersed the protestors with heavy amounts of tear gas.

As the fading daylight of late afternoon drew long shadows away from the trees which dot the hillsides of the Las Huellas resguardo, the remaining protestors—men, women, and children—lay in a circle enjoying a hard earned meal of soup and arepas prepared in a steaming communal pot. Four Nasa had been severely wounded during the protest and although it seemed that the gains of the last three days were minimal, the crowd remained energized as Valencia spoke. “We are not just trying to reclaim land, but defend our rights over something we lost historically,” he said. “And we will keep fighting for what is ours, stepping over the same footprints as our ancestors, so our children can again walk freely over our ancestral lands.”

In the months since, the Nasa and other organizations have staged numerous other acts of civil disobedience and town hall-style educational meetings throughout Colombia to bring attention to human rights issues in the country. Despite the fact that their voices are finally being heard, the Nasa recently suffered a major setback. On December 16, 2008, the anniversary of the El Nilo massacre, the Colombian army opened fire on an official car of the CRIC, killing the driver Edwin Legarda Vázquez, who was husband of Aida Quilcué, chief counsel of the CRIC. In an official statement, President Uribe insisted that soldiers opened fire on the vehicle because it had failed to stop at an unmarked military checkpoint. Many, however, believe the gunshots were meant for Quilcué in an attempt by the government to stop the progressive indigenous movement.

When I left the Las Huellas resguardo last June, I was walking down a dirt road chatting with several affable mothers carrying machetes as the bitter smell of tear gas lingered in the air. Suddenly, Orlando, the boy I had met on the first day, ran up beside me appearing tired and excited after three days of confrontations with the armed public security forces. “I fell down and couldn’t see when they sprayed the tear gas,” he explained. “But I got back up and ran with my friends.”

“Are you still afraid of getting hurt?” I ask.

“Not anymore,” he replied with a bright smile. “Because we are going to achieve what we came here to do; we are finally going to liberate our Mother Earth.”