“We are a peaceful army”
Indigenous Guard defends native lands and autonomy.
At least 35 indigenous peoples in Colombia are facing extinction due to ongoing land conflicts, issues with large-scale land owners, businesses and multinational companies, and illegal armed groups that have operated in the country for more than 40 years.
The country is home to 1.3 million indigenous people, 2.8 percent of the country’s 47 million people, according to the National Statistics Department, or DANE. They represent 80 ethnicities, and the country’s constitution recognizes their right to own their native lands.
But this population is mired in conflicts.
“More than 1,500 members of our communities were killed between 2002 and 2010,” said Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC. “Both civilians as well as members of armed groups kill and displace us. They want to take our ancestral lands away from us.”
Faced with this situation and a lack of protection by the state, thousands of indigenous Colombians decided to revive an old institution: the Indigenous Guard.
One of the most well-known is a guard in the southwestern Cauca department, which was created in 1971 along with the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, or CIRC, a group of 112,000 indigenous citizens from 29 communities, said its regional coordinator, Alberto Menza.
“We are against any kind of dispossession,” Menza said. “There are 2,500 members of the guard and we make sure that the community is not displaced. We solve problems, we exercise control over the land. We are the resistance because we are not willing to let ourselves as a people disappear. Just like our elders and spirits have defended and taken care of the land, the Indigenous Guard of Cauca protects and defends our land.”
The staff: symbol of resistance
“We are a peaceful army. For a weapon we have a staff,” said José Domingo Calderón, considered a sabedor, or “wise man” of the Kokonuka people.
He said that this club is a symbol of unarmed resistance.
“Each is carved by hand and guard members later attach green and red ribbons to it,” said Calderón. “The green represents unity with nature and the diversity of the land. The red stands for the blood spilled by our ancestors.”
Members of the guard are elected by community assembly, “but when they need all of us, we react,” said Martha Cecilia Tunubalá, secretary of the Secretariat of the Defense of Life, a branch of the CIRC.
The guards are not a police force, but “a humanitarian and civil resistance” mechanism, she said.
“They are not paid and their work goes beyond watching over the land.” she said. “We are the right hand of the governor of the [indigenous] reserve, and we obey him, but our greater authority lies with the community and we participate in all of its activities.”
For example, they work for human rights, culturally-sensitive education, health care, women’s and children’s rights, economic rights, community companies and communications, like radio station Radio Payuma’t, and the CIRC’s webpage.
Tunubalá, a descendent of the Nasa and Misak people, and who has been a part of the Indigenous Guard for eight years said that members also participate in a school for Traditional Indigenous Law, and office that helps those who had joined the guerrillas and then defected.
“There is no difference between men and women [here],” she said. “We’re all working for the same thing.”
Agents of peace
In a demonstration that they can establish a struggle with a peaceful spirit, without violence or weapons, the Indigenous Guard has been able to rescue some hostages of guerrilla forces. One of the most notable cases was in 2004, when hundreds of Indigenous Guard members entered the jungles of Caquetá and rescued the then-mayor of the municipality of Toribio, Arquímedes Vitonás Noscué, who was abducted 15 days earlier by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s largest guerrilla group.
“We have also avoided that the army forcefully recruited many of our young people, whom those authorities want to involve in the conflict,” said Tunubalá.
Some years ago, the National Liberation Army took the towns of Puracé and Kokonuko and the FARC took over the municipality of Caldono,” said Calderón.
“At that time, when the guerrillas were shooting the police, the indigenous came out into the street with their staffs, and with music and songs they were able to get the guerrillas to leave and they transmitted the message that they had nothing to do with the conflict that the country was experiencing, and that it was unjust that their land would have to suffer the consequences,” he said.
On other occasions, the Indigenous Guard had taken on the task of protecting the community when it was caught in a crossfire between different sides in the armed conflict. Such was the case in Cerro Tijeras, in Cauca, where the FARC and the army were fighting for 22 days in late September. The Indigenous Guard relocated displaced families and ensured the safety of refugees.
“The Indigenous Guard is proud to be recognized for its role in the community, “said Tunubalá, who is waiting for all the guards “to become agents of peace in the entire country.” —Latinamerica Press.