The photos from rural Cauca, Colombia are so dramatic they’ve repeatedly made the international news: indigenous Colombian activists--bearing sticks, community spirit, and a whole lot of moxie--demanding that heavily-armed FARC guerrillas and government armed forces alike leave their territory. As the war between the FARC and the government heats up again in Cauca, civilians are — as usual — getting caught in the crossfire; the town of Toribío has been attacked 14 times this year, according to the BBC.
In response, Nasa activists last week shouted FARC guerrillas from their roadblocks back into the jungle, overran a hilltop government military outpost, and booed Colombian President Manuel Santos when he went to Toribío to hold a saber-rattling emergency cabinet meeting. (Yesterday, government forces used tear gas to drive out activists and re-occupy the post).
Last summer, in Cauca with Witness for Peace, I was able to interview two of those activists, members of the Indigenous Guard formed by the Nasa ethnic group. The Indigenous Guard , armed only with beribboned ceremonial staffs of office, has been standing up against armed groups for years--for example, marching into the jungle to successfully demand the release of Toribío’s mayor when the FARC abducted him in 2004. What empowers these activists? Here’s what I learned last year from two Indigenous Guard members, Manuel and German (as translated by Witness for Peace Associate Director Jess Hunter-Bowman):
Sojourners: What does the Indigenous Guard do?
Manuel: As members of the Indigenous Guard in Cauca, daily we have to dialogue with the armed groups -- that they must respect our territory. We use international humanitarian law to say that soldiers and members of illegal armed groups have to stay out of civilian areas. We explain to them that we’re not trying to put them at any military disadvantage, or give some benefit to one of the armed actors over another. We’re simply trying to demand respect for our lands, our lives, and for harmony.
We created the Indigenous Guard as a self-protection mechanism, because we know that the soldiers of the Colombian military are not going to protect us, the guerillas are not going to protect us. We needed to have our own mechanism, our own protection, so that we can stay in the land.
And it’s not just the Indigenous Guard that we have. We have our traditional representatives, our elders, we have ACIN [the Association of Indigenous Communities of the North], we have CRIC, the Regional Indigenous council of Cauca. We also count on our friends in the human rights community, domestically and internationally.
Sojourners: How do armed groups, whether the guerrilla or the state forces, try to derail your efforts?
Manuel: One of the main strategies that the government uses is to claim that we’re guerrillas. And the guerrillas claim that we work with the Colombian military. Many of our Indigenous Guard brothers and sisters have been persecuted—many have been killed by both sides in the conflict, and these are the consequences of struggling for self-protection in a nonviolent way.
German: The government has created a smear campaign against us, claiming that we work with the guerrillas. Also, both the guerillas and the Colombian government have created parallel [indigenous] organizations that they try to move into our communities to try to weaken our organizations.
Sojourners: It must be challenging to walk up to armed actors—what preparation enables you to do it?
Manuel: There’s a number of different things that lead us to the moment that we’re able to have that encounter. The first thing and the most important thing for us is to know who we are, and to recognize who we are as Nasa people, as the original inhabitants of this land, who’ve been here for thousands of years. We follow our traditional authorities.
German: We get a lot of training from our authorities on understanding the political context that we operate in. We also become authorities within our community, and having those roles within the community helps us to prepare for what’s ahead.
Sojourners: What are the prerequisites for joining the Indigenous Guard?
German: The first requirement is that you feel it in your heart that you are a Nasa person, that you are indigenous. And if you’ve been an authority figure in the community at any time, that’s even better because then it gives you a lot more understanding from which to carry out your duties.
Sojourners: What ages of people participate?
German: Fourteen years and up, men and women.
Being a member of the Indigenous Guard implies a great deal of responsibility. You need to take it very seriously. If a member of your family gets ill and you have to take care of those issues, then you go to the authorities and ask for permission to be able to take time to attend to family needs.
When it comes down to practical matters, those that carry the status of authority are the members of the Indigenous Guard -- but it’s important to note that for us every member of the community is a member of the Indigenous Guard because every member of our community is protecting our territory and everything that’s on it. It’s a philosophy: We believe in our communities.
P.S. If you speak Spanish, check out the ACIN webpage for updated info from the ground. And if you’re interested in learning alot more, check out Witness for Peace’s August delegation to Cauca (exact itinerary to be determined based on the security situation).