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“It’s the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that are most affected by displacement”
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Interview with congreswoman Orsinia Polanco Jusayú

Orsinia Polanco Jusayú

is Colombia’s first indigenous congresswoman and member of the Chamber of Representatives, the lower house in the country’s Congress, which designates one seat for an indigenous representative. (There are two seats reserved for indigenous people in the 102-member Colombian Senate.) Polanco was backed by the leftist political party, the Democratic Pole, in the 2006 March congressional elections. She is a member of the 300,000-member Wayuu tribe, the only matriarchal tribe in Colombia.

Latinamerica Press collaborator Anastasia Moloney spoke with Polanco in Bogota about the reality facing Colombia’s indigenous population.

There are around 800,000 indigenous people in Colombia. What are the major challenges facing indigenous groups there today?

Indigenous groups are caught in the middle of the country’s armed conflict and are frequently targeted and attacked by paramilitary and guerrilla groups and even the armed forces. The main challenge we face is how to best protect our territories, language and culture as guaranteed by the 1991 Constitution. We are by law, the autonomous and self-governing owners of our lands which are rich in raw materials, including oil, gas and coal.

Our territories are being exploited by illegal armed groups and international companies to benefit their own interests. There is little consultation with indigenous groups about mega projects planned on our lands, and if there is any consultation, it’s often just a formality. We’re entitled to an open consultation with the government, but we rarely get it. We’ve been cheated out of our enshrined rights and territories too many times in the past.

Another challenge is to find a common ground between indigenous groups and the rest of Colombian society and promote understanding between the two. For us, the environment is sacred and we believe in preserving it and living in harmony with it. For whites, it’s often about how to exploit it and make a profit out of natural resources without thinking about the environmental consequences. This basic difference causes mistrust between indigenous groups, Colombian society and the government in general.

Colombia is home to one of the largest [internally] displaced populations in the world. How is the displacement crisis affecting indigenous groups in Colombia?

Of all the people in Colombia, it’s the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that are most affected by displacement. They’re forced to flee their lands because of fighting between the illegal armed groups and the national army. We’re often caught in their crossfire. Illegal armed groups wish to control lands belonging to indigenous groups for strategic purposes and the production of raw materials

The Nukak-Maku of the Amazon, around just 400 people, is one of the last nomadic tribes left in the world. Earlier this year, their reserve was invaded by the guerrillas who wanted to control coca production. The Nukak-Maku fled to a nearby town. They have since returned to the jungle but many have died of the flu and diseases. Indigenous communities are being forcibly displaced as we speak.

How will the imminent free trade agreement with the US affect indigenous groups in Colombia?

Indigenous groups are against the free trade agreement which we don’t believe will defend our interests and benefit us, but on the contrary make us more vulnerable. We’re concerned about intellectual property rights regarding the plants we use for medicinal purposes.

There is disagreement among Colombia’s indigenous movements about whether to get involved in politics. As a member of Congress, why do you believe it’s vital to be political and not apolitical?

There are 84 different indigenous groups in Colombia. In order to defend our culture and lands, we must have solid representation at the national level by qualified indigenous leaders who still have solid roots in their own communities. It’s vital that indigenous leaders visit their communities frequently and not get stuck in Bogota. We must start participating in the political arena more actively and rigorously so as not to isolate ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll be forgotten by the state.

In the past, Colombia’s indigenous movements have found it difficult to remain united. My challenge, as someone who represents all the indigenous peoples of Colombia, is to break this trend. That’s why it’s important to forge a strong partnership with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia and the government. The Wayuu believe that it’s important to share and talk about our culture, be open to survive and not be silent.

As the first indigenous woman to be elected to the Colombian Congress, what are your challenges in terms of gender issues?

The government must invest more in education which I believe is the best way to empower and benefit women. I’ve known cases where teachers have been contracted by the local government to work in local indigenous schools but who have failed to show up and nothing is done about it. Also, universities outside the main cities should offer the same programs as those found in the big cities. When I wanted to study law, I had to go to Bogota because my local university in the Guajira [department] did not offer such a course. We must also promote bilingual education in our schools to preserve our language and culture.

The other challenge, irrespective of gender, is to erode the idea among indigenous people that central government is corrupt and self-serving. There is a profound mistrust between indigenous groups and the government.

I work and operate in two worlds — in the indigenous world and I understand how the world of the whites works. I’m like a bridge between the two, building trust and understanding between these two very different worlds.


Orsinia Polanco Jusay˙
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