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Indigenous Peoples Six Years After the New Colombian Constitution

The National Association of Peasants was created in 1970 to implement agrarian reform in Colombia through the office of the National Indigenous Secretariat. Because the peasant movement was not directly concerned with the Colombian indigenous movement and their cultural demands, indigenous organizations were formed to demand cultural rights and the recuperation of resguardo lands. Resguardos are reserves, established in the last century, that consist of a delimited territory and collectively registered land title associated with an indigenous community.

In 1971, the Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), and the Indigenous Union of the Chocó (UNDICH), were formed, followed by the Regional Indigenous Council of the (CRIVA). In 1974, the Arhuaca Indigenous Confederation was organized, COLA, and the Regional Indigenous Council of Tolima (CRIT), appeared in 1975.

The CRIC became the leading organization of the national indigenous movement. Their central objectives were to recover and increase resguardos and strengthen indigenous cabildos, (composed of a governor, mayor, and five or six members). This form of political organization, originating in Hispanic political practice, replaced the cacuque system in indigenous communities. Cabildos serve as mediators between the indigenous and white communities, press for defense of land rights and the unity of the community, promote indigenous culture, education, and language, and the just implementation of laws concerning indigenous peoples. In 1975 the CRIC first published the journal Unidad Indígena, or Indigenous Unity, with the slogan "Unity, Land, and Culture," which became an important tool for linking these various regional organizations at that time.

For the Colombian government, the rise of indigenous land struggles was interpreted as a threat. In late 1979, President Julio Cesar Turbay proposed a reorganization of government relations and the creation of an "Indigenous Statute" that sought the disintegration of community organizations, the conversion of cabildos into Communal Action Boards, and the end of collective resguardo ownership that was originally recognized in 1890. The Indigenous Statute became the primary catalyst of the indigenous movement and led to the First National Indigenous Encounter in Lomas de Ilarco, Tolima, in 1980. A number of regional indigenous organizations participated, as did indigenous representatives from Ecuador and Venezuela. An Indigenous Coordinating Body was created to prepare the First National Indigenous Congress.

The First Indigenous Congress took place in Bosa, near Bogota, in 1982. More than 2,000 indigenous representatives from Colombia participated. Within this Congress, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC was formed. It's major goals were to defend indigenous autonomy and territories; to recover stolen lands; to establish collective ownership of resguardo to control natural resources; to promote community economic organizations; to defend indigenous history culture, and traditions; to establish control over bicultural education; to recover and promote indigenous medicines and health services that are sensitive to the social and cultural characteristics of the communities; to apply Law 89 that was established to protect and maintain indigenous communities; and to establish solidarity among all exploited and oppressed peoples.

According to Christian Gros, the Indigenous Development Plan, PRODEIN, would serve as a precedent in the formation of a National Indigenous Council. This council would mediate between the State and indigenous communities, recognize the errors of integration or assimilation policies and the marginalization of indigenous people by the State, and integrate economic, social, and institutional development with respect for ethnic identity. These goals and demands sought to abolish both government paternalism and the lack of State services in indigenous communities. Ideally, ONIC would directly participate in developing official state policy for indigenous communities.

In 1991, the National Constitutional Assembly led to a new constitution that recognized the autonomy and the fights of indigenous people, and their participation in national political processes. How was this new constitution established? What are the results of these changes? Antonio Jacanamijoy, General Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin COICA, Governor of Putumayo in 1988, Vice President of ONIC, 1992-1994, and Area Coordinator of COICA, 1992-1996, answers a few of these questions.

MCR: Who participated in the Constitutional Assembly?

AJT: "As ethnic minorities, we wanted direct participation in the National Constitutional Assembly, just as we stated in the Third National Indigenous Congress in Bosa, in June of 1990. Nonetheless, the government and different sectors of traditional parties did not support this demand. With this opposition, it was a difficult task to struggle for a seat in the Constitutional Assembly while the different professional politicians, or politiqueros, of the country were actively participating due to their long time political careers. Nonetheless, participation was achieved through the representation of Francisco Rojas Birry on the part of ONIC. This participation was invaluable because, for the first time, an Indian was part of the ruling board at the moment of its establishment. In addition, we achieved over 37 articles within the Political Constitution of Colombia."

MCR: How was this political participation won?

AJT: "This achievement has been much debated. At the international level at one time, the Colombian government and its different agencies in different international conferences said that participation in electoral processes had been given to us, the indigenous peoples. However, it was not the case; this was a struggle. We had to carry out a huge campaign to gain at least one constitutional representative in the face of a huge political machinery that was in place, and which still exists in Colombia. For this reason, we, the indigenous peoples, do not consider this a gift of the government. If, from the beginning, they had accepted our participation in the Constitutional Assembly as we were asking without having to take a vote, it would have been evidence of the goodwill of the government; but that was not the case. Therefore, they cannot be telling the world that it was really `a gift.'"

MCR: What was that struggle like?

AJT: "For the first time, we saw unity in the diversity of indigenous peoples. There was unity around the candidacy launched by the ONIC. Although, some time ago many leaders had participated in regional, municipal, and even national politics...when it became known that we sought to gain participation in the Constitutional Assembly, the people began to mobilize. In the old days, a white politician running for election would provide a truck for transportation and our indigenous compañeros would use this support to cast their vote for one of the traditional parties. In this struggle, the indigenous compañeros came down on foot from trails, into the towns to vote for the indigenous candidate. There was a complete landslide of support for our list to the National Constitutional Assembly. Therefore, in different towns and cities, there was support for this new initiative, for a new kind of politics within the larger national indigenous movement. Among these constitutional gains, Article 171 provides for an additional two senators elected by special national vote for indigenous communities."

MCR: What repercussions did this participation have for the indigenous movement at the organizational level?

AJT: "We have participated in the electoral process since 1992. At one time, this achievement almost broke the unity of ONIC. The government began to disregard ONIC as an organization, arguing that the presence of the senators was sufficient representation. In a meeting of the Directive Board of ONIC, we analyzed this situation because we were very concerned, and are to this day, because when the government called for consultations or meetings, it did not call the president of ONIC, and was in this way ignoring a long process of struggle. Internally, we understood that the senator was our delegate to the Colombian congress, but ONIC was still the legitimate representative body In a directive board meeting, the official delegates of ONIC decided to suspend the legal status of the political arm and asked the Electoral Court to liquidate this juridical certification. It is worth mentioning that until then ONIC had two legal statuses: one political and one organizational. Later, the ruling council of ONIC determined that each sector of ONIC would present candidates for the elections, and the national organization would dedicate itself purely to social and organizational work. In the 1994 elections, Gabriel Muyuy (previously a representative of ONIC) was elected to the senate as a representative of the Colombian Indigenous Movement (MIC), and Lorenzo Muelas replaced Floro Alberto Tunubalá of the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO)."

MCR: Does the indigenous organization consider itself politically represented by the indigenous congressmen?

AJT: "If we look at the political participation of the indigenous compañeros here in Colombia, we see that the struggle is aimed at achieving certain reparations, laws, and decrees. Since the Colombian indigenous congressmen have been active in the organizational process, this is reflected in actions aimed at the organizational aspect. I maintain the opinion that if an indigenous compañero is anywhere, he does not necessarily have to be in an indigenous political party. Of course, one could also be in a traditional party, but the important thing is not to lose the vision of support for unity among indigenous peoples. If an Indian state deputy, governor, senator, representative, mayor, or council member is elected, not by the indigenous movement, but by a traditional party or by another movement, it is important to not lose the vision from which they come. We cannot obligate our companions to march for a certain political line. In this respect, ONIC has given political autonomy to member organizations to participate how they want at the political level."

MCR: Has this decision by ONIC prevented factions from arising within the indigenous movement?

AJT: "This has been prevented in part. However, a representative, in any way, has his power and it is impossible for the ONIC to control this. If we analyze everything, we see difficulties within all of the indigenous organizations besides ONIC, and this has had many repercussions in those organizations which have been directly active in politics. In some situations, these internal conflicts are resolved, in others they appear with more force."

MCR: How was the Indigenous Organizations of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) consolidated?

AJT: "The OPIAC was formed two years ago. The first congress was held in the Vaupés with the participation of 60 delegates from various state departments, ten delegates for each of the six Amazonian states: Vaupés, Amazonas, Guainia, Putumayo, Caqueta, and Guaviare. We will celebrate our second anniversary on July 5th. OPIAC continues to participate within the structure of ONIC, working for unity, training, and the development of the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon in the context of different national and international settings. This was agreed upon by the delegates of the first congress."

MCR: Overall, how do you see the 1991 Constitution?

AJT: "There have been some grand achievements which, little by little, have been turning into difficulties for indigenous peoples. The development of the Constitution is not as we had hoped. If you open the Constitution, it seems advantageous to indigenous people. The indigenous peoples see that the Constitution says a lot of nice things, but the truth is something else. It is not a reality. For example, the constitution speaks of creating Indigenous Territorial Entities (these are departments, municipalities, and indigenous territories governed by indigenous councils in conjunction with respective state governors). Until now, they have not been formed because they were to be legislated and the government does not want to. The congress does not want to pass the Law of Territorial Regulation. Six years after the new constitution, there is no political will by the representatives of traditional parties to carry out these reforms that would really benefit not just the indigenous people, but other social sectors of Colombia."

MCR: Why do you consider the implementation of the ITEs so important?

AJT: "We made this proposal in the first place because, since time immemorial, we have been speaking of indigenous autonomy within our own territories which cover everything: land, forest, everything within the territory. Speaking of common law, the national laws do not recognize them because the law of indigenous peoples is not written, it is verbal, but it has much respect. Therefore, we saw that it was very necessary to consolidate these territorial entities, with their own authorities, with their own administrative functions. We had assistance in designing this project from the European Union, but the project went no further. Papers come, papers go. We spoke with the Minister, with the Senators, but the indigenous representatives could not do anything because it's two against 100 representatives from other sectors of society"

MCR: Is autonomy being achieved in some way through the transferrals [of public sector funds]?

AJT: "Of course there are some things which benefit the indigenous peoples, but not in what we would like to have-real autonomy. The resguardo have begun to participate in the funds of the nation. In the last two years the resguardo have benefited with the administration of mayoralities and government offices. Thus, the transferals come by way of the municipalities, in a way that we have not really exercised real autonomy"

MCR: This autonomy would not lead to conflicts with other social groups? Would the whites accept rule by indigenous people in the constitution of the ITEs?

AJT: "This is very complex. When we spoke of the constitution of the ITEs, there was a huge disturbance. The first ones to get worried were the large [white] landowners, because it touched their territories, and the old-style politicians were not going to be able to continue using us as the majority of their voters, because in that sense, we are the majority"

MCR: Do you think that in participating in elections the indigenous movement can be coopted?

AJT: "I don't think so. As I was explaining, one thing is the political question and the other is the organizational question. Of course, we will continue struggling for our rights as indigenous peoples. Unity always existed around the struggles of the same Peoples."


Arango, Raul, and Enrique Sanchez. 1989. Los Pueblos Indígenas de Colombia. Bogotá: División Nacional de Planeación.

Gros, Christian. 1991. Colombia Indígena: Identidad cultural y cambio social. Bogotá: Fondo Editorial CEREC.

Morales, Trino. 1997. "El movimiento indígena en Colombia." In Indianidad y descolonización en América Latina. Grupo de Barbados, eds. Documentos de la segunda reunión de Barbados. Mexico, D.E: Editorial Nueva Imágen.

ONIC. 1990. Tercer Congreso National Indígena, Memorias. Bogotá: Gráficas. 1991. Unidad Indígena 100.

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