Caught in a Colombian Crossfire

Many Colombians were concerned that President Andrés Pastrana’s recent suspension of peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would dramatically escalate the civil conflict. Their fears appeared to be well founded when the Colombian military initiated a massive bombing campaign against the former zona de despeje before sending in thousands of ground troops to retake the zone’s principal towns. The FARC retaliated by launching an extensive bombing campaign against urban targets and the country’s infrastructure. But for indigenous groups in the southwestern department of Cauca, the violence began escalating long before the collapse of the peace process. In recent years, both paramilitary and guerrilla forces have increasingly violated the neutrality of indigenous reserves, known as resguardos.

These violent incursions into indigenous territories have resulted in the deaths of community leaders, the corruption of indigenous culture and the recruitment of their youths into the armed groups. According to Fabio Calambas, vice-governor of the Guambiano indigenous communities located near the Andean highland town of Silvia, “The end of negotiations has made no difference to us. We have suffered invasions by the armed groups throughout the peace process.”

The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), which is comprised of leaders from many indigenous groups in Cauca including the Guambianos, Paez and Yanacona, has responded to these invasions by repeatedly issuing statements declaring the neutrality of the region’s indigenous communities with regards to the armed conflict. But both the paramilitary forces of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the FARC have refused to recognize these declarations of neutrality. This fact was clearly evidenced on March 4 when a paramilitary death squad in the small town of Santander de Quilichao killed Samuel Fernandez Dizu, the former governor of the Las Delicias indigenous resguardo.

The murder of Fernandez Dizu occurred one day before a national forum organized by the CRIC was to be held in the city of Popayan to address the social, economic and cultural emergency faced by indigenous communities. At the forum, leaders vowed to continue their campaign of civil resistance against armed intruders by continuing to assemble entire communities to peacefully confront them.

The CRIC’s director, Anatolio Quirá, criticized the media for aggravating the situation by publishing reports that indigenous communities armed with sticks have confronted the armed groups. Addressing the media’s misrepresentations of the non-violent tactics used by indigenous communities, Quirá stated, “These sticks–bastones de mando–are always with us. They are not weapons. They are a part of the relationship between us and nature.”

Erroneous reports of stick-wielding Indians confronting one of the armed groups could prove deadly for members of indigenous communities often accused of harboring sympathies for one side or another. According to a Paez leader, Onesimo Carpces, “We have problems with all the armed groups because when the guerrillas come they say we are army collaborators and when the army comes they say we are guerrilla collaborators. For this reason we are not really free.”

Carpces, alcalde for the 6,500 Paez who live in Pitayo, admits that the problem of unemployment in the indigenous communities has resulted in some of their youths joining the armed groups or enlisting in the military. He claims the armed groups actively recruit indigenous youths disenchanted with a traditional way of life that has left them impoverished and with little hope for economic improvement.

The CRIC is attempting to combat this problem by encouraging indigenous youths to participate in regional conferences in order to develop a closer identification with their elders and traditional culture. But it is proving to be an uphill battle in a country in which 80 percent of the indigenous population lives in conditions of extreme poverty.

Because of the lack of commerce available for traditional food crops, which are difficult to transport to distant markets, many indigenous communities now supplement the meager subsistence provided by maize, plantains, yucca, coffee, beans, potatoes, wheat and onions with coca or poppy cultivation. As a result, says a young Yanacona leader, William Armando Palechor, “Indigenous communities have adopted illicit crops as traditional crops. In the high zones they grow poppies and in the hot zones they cultivate coca.”

The cultivation of illicit crops on indigenous lands has aggravated problems with the armed groups–paramilitaries in the lower elevations and the FARC in the Andean highlands–whose incursions onto resguardos have increased as they seek to expand their territorial control over the drug trade. According to Palechor, the FARC does not insist that the Yanaconas grow coca or poppies, “but they force communities to pay a tax for cultivating and commercializing illicit crops. Also, the problem is worse now because the AUC is present and there have been deaths. They say they have come to socially cleanse.”

The Guambianos have also experienced increasing incursions onto their resguardo by the armed groups–particularly the FARC’s 8th Front–because of poppy cultivation. According to Fabio Calambas, “We have problems with the armed groups who invade and conduct activities in our territories without authority. They occupy our territories with violence and then when the public forces arrive we are caught in the middle of the fighting.”

Some of the 16,000 Gambianos living in the region cultivate the beautiful red, violet and white poppies on small plots of land behind their mud-brick houses. They also grow high altitude food crops on fields spread across the steep mountainsides. While poppies only constitute a small percentage of the land under cultivation, they provide a far more reliable income for poor indigenous families than traditional crops. Legal food crops are mostly used for subsistence because of their low market value and the difficulty of transporting them from remote mountain communities to towns and cities. While traffickers from Cali willingly travel to the resguardo to purchase the valuable opium latex from Guambiano poppy growers.

But the individualistic nature of the drug trade has corrupted the economic culture of Guambiano communities. According to Calambas, “Our economy is not an exploitation economy, or an economy of profit. It is a subsistence economy in which we produce the minimum quantity required for consumption. It is our tradition. It is not capitalism, it is communitarian.”

In an attempt to deter individual Guambiano families from cultivating poppies and to encourage them to return to a more communal system of agriculture, the Guambiano cabildo has been developing crop substitution agreements with the government. One alternative project in which the Guambianos manually eradicated poppies and began breeding fish in large outdoor tanks was devastated by Plan Colombia’s aerial fumigation of illicit crops. Calambas claims, “We have suffered fumigations that contaminated the water and destroyed the trout crop. The few that survived were never bought. These fumigations have affected our crops and our lifestyle.”

In order to effectively eliminate poppy cultivation, the Guambianos need more arable land and a means of getting legal food crops to markets. Because of the rugged terrain 9,000 feet up in the Andes, there is a limited amount of arable land and much of the farming is conducted on the sides of steep mountains. According to Calambas, “The survival of the Guambianos depends on land. We want to negotiate with the government to legally obtain more land for the community. But when the land is in our hands, there must be another project to finance the traditional crops.”

Attempts to improve their economic condition by increasing their economic interaction with the outside world through the cultivation of illicit crops or alternative crop programs has only resulted in armed incursions onto indigenous resguardos and government fumigation campaigns. Additionally, indigenous leaders seeking to eradicate the illicit crops in their communities have become targets of the armed groups.

As a result of the escalating violence, Cauca’s indigenous communities are now organizing in order to defend their traditional culture and the neutrality of their lands, while at the same time looking to the government to help them improve the economic condition of their communities. This balancing act of maintaining their traditional culture while at the same time interacting with Colombia’s economy-at-large is made all the more difficult by a civil conflict that is being fueled by the profitability of illicit drug crops.


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