Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rise of the Original Peoples?

Combative Nasa indigenous people. 

Back in Bolivia, where a white minority dominated politics and business, an Argentinean friend observed to me that 'the world doesn't belong to the indigenous peoples.'

That's still clearly true. From Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego, the indigenous peoples who once possessed the hemisphere are overwhelmingly impoverished, subject to violence and victims of addictions, domestic violence and other severe social problems.

An Embera woman.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
Colombia has about 1.4 million indigenous people, divided into about 100 ethnic groups, altho many more Colombians have indigenous blood, and indigenous territories cover an astounding one quarter of the country's territory. A few dozen of those indigenous people, Emberas from the Chocó region, have been living for the past several weeks in a hostel in La Candelaria around the corner from Bogotá Bike Tours. You see them carrying handicrafts for sale on the sidewalks, or riding their bikes up and down the streets. One evening, I saw four Embera children seated on all four corners of an intersection, begging for coins.

Despite all of the indigenous territory, these people have none. "You know how it is," one young man who had brought in his bike for repair told me, "there are lots of violent groups there." Perhaps he was afraid to say which of these violent groups - drug traffickers, guerrillas or paramilitaries - had driven his people off of their land, or perhaps he didn't even know. But this group of Embera are waiting and hoping that the government can find them someplace safe to live. Meanwhile, here in the city, their culture is slowly contaminated by Western values and vices, and some may become sick, addicted or decide against returning to their traditional ways.
Nasa people in a recent meeting. (Photo: Nasa website)

The situation today is very different in Cauca Department, where a group of Nasa people have expelled soldiers from a guard post and arrested FARC guerrillas and whipped them for endangering the Nasa by invading their territories.

Now, the Nasa are in discussions with Colombian authorities about the conditions under which the military can enter indigenous territories. The issue is of obvious importance for Colombia's government and military, since many of the huge indigenous territories are located in strategic border regions or in mountains where outlaw groups could find secure refuge.

Colombia's indigenous territories are in red. 
The prospect of demilitarized regions without state presence is a worrisome historical precedent for Colombia. A self-declared 'independent republic' was where the FARC guerrillas got their start in the 1950s and '60s. And El Caguan, the demilitarized zone given to the FARC from 1998 to 2002 remains a black market in Colombian history. It was supposed to be a neutral area to stage peace negotiations, but the guerrillas used it to stockpile weapons and hold kidnappees.

Work on a reservoir which Nasa
leaders say will harm their territory. 
The indigenous peoples' plight is certainly understandable, caught as they are in the middle of conflict between outsiders, which nevertheless harms their land and their people. Indigenous peoples have seen their lands planted with drug crops and their children taken away to be made into guerrilla fighters. (Indigenous young men are excluded from the country's military service requirement.) Illegal drugs flow thru indigenous lands, particularly those near the Pacific Coast, leaving trails of violence.

But the NASAs' policy of giving the military and guerrillas the same treatment - as tho both forces had equal legitimacy - is mistaken. One is a legitimate arm of the state, the same state in which the indigenous peoples participate thru Parliament (where they have representatives), local authorities, public schools, government-built roads, state assistance and in many, many other ways. The guerrillas, on the other hand, are outlaws trying to tear down that state, who have planted drug crops on indigenous lands and turned their children into fighters.

The new assertiveness of the Nasas and other indigenous peoples probably won't lift them out of poverty. But it could enable them to protect their traditions and culture from outsider, and reduce the impacts of violence on their people. However, to do that they'll have to reach an understanding with the Colombian government which protects their sovereignety while not threatening the foundation of the Colombian state.

In the end, however, the greatest threats to indigenous people's ways of life may not be guerrillas or narcotraffickers, but mining, deforestation and other threats to the ecosystems they depend on.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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