PIENDAMÓ (IPS) – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to a native reserve in the southwest of the country Wednesday to meet with thousands of indigenous people who had gathered there for nearly a week, demanding an end to fighting in their territory.
IPS learned that Santos decided to come to the town of Piendamó, in the southwestern province of Cauca, against the unanimous advice of his cabinet. “I had the conviction that I should be here today,” the centre-right president said.
After handling the negotiations for a month, Interior Minister Federico Renjifo said on Tuesday Aug. 14, when the president’s meeting with the native protesters was officially announced, that “I am happy to be here. These are people who want to live in peace.”
Indigenous people in this part of the Cauca region are demanding that all armed groups involved in the conflict that has raged since 1964 between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the security forces stop fighting in their territory.
According to their reports, more than 2,500 civilians have been affected by the armed conflict in this area over the last year and a half, including around 100 people who have been killed.
La María is an indigenous reserve collectively belonging to the Misak or Guambiano people. And along its southern border is the territory of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), home to the Nasa or Paez Indians.
The Nasa, numbering 300,000 of the estimated one million indigenous people in this country of 46 million people, are the second largest of Colombia’s 90 indigenous groups.
Everyone entering La María, designated by the local indigenous people in 1999 as a place of “coexistence, dialogue and negotiation,” had to go through four security check points set up to safeguard the president.
The first three were manned by the Indigenous Guard, a traditional civil resistance defence force made up of volunteers, both men and women, armed only with decorated staffs and red and green scarves representing their authority.
But at the last check point, it was the police who searched everyone entering the meeting-place, assisted by the Indigenous Guard.
The members of the Indigenous Guard carried out a meticulous search, pulling out each object from every knapsack, bag or container, and turning pockets inside out.
“They’re not familiar with search methods,” a policewoman commented to IPS in a sympathetic tone as she watched the scene at the first check point along a dirt road that runs uphill from the Pan-American Highway to a 40-by-120-metre open-sided tin-roof and guadua bamboo structure, where indigenous assemblies are held.
The policewoman said that before noon, the Indigenous Guard found a hand grenade in one man’s pocket. He tried to flee, but was caught. The incident was kept quiet, to prevent Santos’s visit from being cancelled.
The native organisers of the gathering estimated that Santos met with 18,000 people. But one observer who described to IPS the ins and outs of the complex previous negotiations calculated that there were 8,000 indigenous people in La María at the time, while a presidential security agent put the number at 7,000.
“They seem to be very well organised,” the agent said. “They really have control over the perimeter.”
Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux played a key role in achieving the simple but significant step of getting the president to visit La María.
The obvious diplomatic pressure translated into the presence of Bruno Moro, resident United Nations coordinator in Colombia, and Todd Howland, director of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Colombia.
“We are here to facilitate the continuation of this dialogue and the generation of results that will improve the lives of indigenous people,” Howland told IPS.
“This mobilisation is significant. They know their rights, they are expressing themselves peacefully to bring about change, and the state has responded by listening to them,” he said.
“It is clear that 80 percent of the population, which lives in urban areas, is enjoying peace,” which is why “many people in Colombia do not understand that the armed conflict is affecting the rural population,” Howland added.
“And the indigenous people are saying ‘this conflict has to stop, and they have to take us into account, because of what is happening in our territory’,” he said.
IPS was told that during the previous discussions of the agenda, it became clear that Santos was interested in discussing human rights questions and the indigenous movement’s call for peace in their territories.
The indigenous protesters were also told that the president would not reach any decisions in the assembly, but would merely listen to their proposals, which is what happened.
Santos said he preferred that other issues raised above all by the governors of the local “cabildos” or native councils, such as autonomous indigenous health care and education, or the need to expand the reserves, be dealt with in smaller side meetings, rather than the plenary meeting in La María.
During the previous debate, on Monday Aug. 13, there were hinted threats of “all or nothing” by one indigenous faction. In the end, the current that applied pressure to discuss “everything” – that is, the human rights questions as well as the other issues – won out.
For two hours, the indigenous spokespersons outlined their main concerns, ranging from the fighting in their territory to the question of autonomous government, stipulated in the 1991 constitution but never implemented, and the need to preserve native culture through culturally-sensitive education and health care.
Each of these issues was briefly set forth in broad strokes by different native leaders, in a disciplined, concise manner.
The spokespersons said their participation in further negotiations with the government were conditioned on a halt to “aggression by the military forces in indigenous territories” and an end to killings of native people as a result of the violence.
Santos rejected this condition, although earlier he had apologised to the victims of what he described as “black sheep” within the armed forces.
Jesús Chávez, a leader of the powerful Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) – of which ACIN is a regional branch – pressed Santos to make concrete commitments.
The first demand voiced by Chávez was the abolition of legal recognition of a parallel indigenous association based on an evangelical group and created in 2009 by then president Álvaro Uribe and financed by the army, according to a source who will remain anonymous.
“We want that to happen right now,” the CRIC leader said, to applause and cheers.
The second demand was for the immediate revocation of concessions given to mining companies to operate in indigenous territories, which were granted without consultation with local native communities under the right-wing Uribe administration (2002-2010).
And the third demand was for “a determined effort and real progress to stop the war in Cauca, which is killing us. We don’t want any more shooting in indigenous territories,” Chávez said.
He asked Santos to order the armed forces to withdraw from a sacred hill called Berlín. In July, the Nasa forcibly drove soldiers away from a military base set up there, although the troops returned a few hours later.
Chávez said: “Let’s be clear, señor presidente. We are not asking the security forces to pull out of Toribío, but to leave the sacred hill, Berlín. We want them to do this as a sign of willingness to work towards peace.
“Are these three little things possible, señor presidente?” he asked, to laughter and applause.
Santos responded that he did not reach decisions without first ensuring that they had a sound legal foundation, and said he preferred to discuss these issues in bilateral meetings. That was the only moment that he was booed by the indigenous people taking part in the meeting.