Innovative Resistance in Cauca


As indigenous and human rights groups have amply documented over the past few years, Colombia’s Native peoples are increasingly targeted in the region’s armed conflict, not only by the paramilitary and their allies in the Colombian army, but also by various guerrilla organizations. In a sense, Native peoples are caught between two fires--the Colombian military and other armed groups--accused by the paramilitary and the army of being guerrilla supporters, and by the guerrillas of lending support to the paramilitary. The territories they inhabit, which in some regions comprise a majority of available lands, are coveted as corridors for the movement of supplies and troops, and in many cases provide fertile ground for the cultivation of the lucrative illicit coca crops whose sales fuel the conflict.

The indigenous policy of land claims has come at loggerheads with the landlords who bankroll the paramilitary and who pay taxes to the guerrillas. Nevertheless, indigenous territories--called resguardos--are distinct legal entities under Colombian law, recognized as communal in nature, unavailable for sale or for rent, and governed by indigenous authorities. That is to say, indigenous presence in many parts of the country serves as a barrier for the free exercise of dominion by armed groups, including the Colombian military. The political position of these communities--maintaining autonomy in the face of the political projects of the left and right, as well as of the traditional Liberal and Conservative political parties that have controlled Colombian politics for almost two centuries--is incompatible with the ideologies of armed groups. As a consequence, indigenous communities throughout Colombia have suffered kidnappings and massacres, they count in the ever-growing rolls of the displaced, their towns are constantly attacked, and their traditional authorities are harassed and leaders continually threatened. But these communities are by no means defenseless.

Three decades of ethnic organizing by Native peoples have impacted the Colombian political landscape, producing a vital array of local, regional, and national indigenous organizations that have been active in legitimizing and strengthening indigenous authority, reclaiming lands, and providing concrete and culturally specific alternatives in education, economic development, and health. Three indigenous representatives of these organizations were instrumental in guiding the Constituent Assembly in 1991 to frame a constitution that recognizes Colombia as a multiethnic and pluri-cultural nation. Since then, they have lobbied for a redrawing of territorial units, originally proposed by the 1991 constitution but never codified in law, which would legitimize the goal of autonomy that has always guided their political action. And in an unprecedented wave of electoral victories, they have sent representatives to national and provincial legislatures, have taken control of numerous municipal governments, and have even been voted into executive positions at the provincial level, supported by coalitions of indigenous, labor, peasant (campesino), and urban popular organizations.[1] The significance of the entry of Native peoples onto the Colombian political stage is more apparent when we recall that only two percent of the Colombian population is indigenous; these organizations represent a small percentage of Colombians, but have achieved a voice that greatly surpasses their numbers in setting a new agenda for the nation. The indigenous movement thus poses a clear threat to the Colombian elite and its traditional political parties, as well as to the paramilitary that defends that oligarchy. It also menaces the guerrillas, who view ethnic organizations as firmly under their tutelage.[2]

Despite the dangers to which indigenous communities and their leaders are subjected, the indigenous movement provides them with concrete alternatives for self-defense and arms them with innovative proposals for transcending the impasse of armed conflict. The broadest and most inspiring array of alternatives has been presented by the various indigenous organizations of Cauca, a mountainous province with a considerable indigenous population in southwestern Colombia, whose ethnic movement has served as a model for organizing Native peoples throughout the country. The work of two regional organizations, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO), has transcended regional boundaries.

Shamanistic Protection

While visiting the Nasa community of San José del Guayabal in Cajibío, Cauca in summer 2001, I was invited to participate in a shamanic ritual aimed at protecting residents against armed actors operating in the vicinity. The people of San José moved to Cajibío in the wake of a 1994 earthquake and landslide that devastated Tierradentro, their resguardo. With their transfer from the largely Nasa environment of Tierradentro to Cajibío, a region long marked by peasant land struggles and violent conflicts, the people of San José were confronted by the simultaneous presence of two guerrilla organizations--Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Cajibío borders the Pacific coastal plane and the intermountain valley in which the provincial capital of Popayán is located, thus serving as a vital corridor for the movement of all armed actors. Faced by immanent danger, residents of San José, like other Nasa communities, felt the need to establish a buffer to protect themselves from the turbulence of their new home.

Together with the inhabitants of the village, which is built in a line along the bottom of a ridge, I spent the night chewing coca and medicinal herbs while a shaman from Tierradentro monitored the dangers confronting the community by reading bodily signs. In the early morning we descended to the village, carrying small rocks, and we were instructed to blow coca against all of San José’s enemies--the Colombian army and police, the guerrillas, the paramilitary, and the gringos. My participation in ensuring protection against the latter, who threatened to fumigate Tierradentro’s poppy fields under the auspices of Plan Colombia, was greeted with humor, although the ritual was extremely serious. While Cajibío has been awash in hostility since the ritual, Guayabal has remained shielded from the carnage, protected as much by shamanic intervention as by intercession on the part of community authorities, who have managed to keep the guerrillas and the paramilitary out of the village. Like the Colombian elite, who shield themselves with armed guards and gated communities, Guayabal produced with these shamanic rituals what the indigenous movement jokingly calls an "armored car" for crossing the Colombian landscape.

The effectiveness of shamanic ritual resides in the reestablishment of cosmic harmony, one of its immediate outcomes, and fortifies communities against outside aggression. CRIC, AICO, and indigenous organizations throughout Colombia have also emphasized cultural revitalization as a political goal that contributes to achieving a specifically indigenous understanding of autonomy, unity, and territory, three of the most basic principles that underlie Native political organizing. Fundamental to the revitalization process is the reintroduction of a holistic ideology that merges politics with spirituality. Attention to the cosmic implications of political acts is emphasized in public meetings in which the nature of indigenous territorial control is debated and the future of indigenous autonomy is imagined. Shamans play an active role in most activities of these organizations, from the selection of the leadership and times and places for land claims, to the development of the curricula of local schools and the provision of health care in communities. As shamans put young people in touch with the complex balance of the cosmos, they hope the youth will be able to better weigh their alternatives, and choose to work with their communities instead of migrating to cities or joining guerrilla groups. At regional and national indigenous meetings addressing violence in Native communities, discussion revolved around the need to deepen indigenous people’s engagement with their supernatural environment. In discussion groups held at the November 2001 Congress of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, in response to heightening attacks against Native communities, cultural education and ritual participation in particular were repeatedly emphasized as a strategies for indigenous survival.

Guardias Indígenas 

Soon after my experience in Cajibío, a friend invited me to visit López Adentro, an interethnic settlement that was established in the 1980s when indigenous militants and their Afrocolombian allies occupied a sugar plantation (Espinosa 1996). López Adentro is located in northern Cauca, within the resguardo of Corinto, where agribusiness maintains an iron grip on vast sugar plantations and where large landowners have historically employed violent means to suppress the militancy of native peoples, Afrocolombians, and peasants. Corinto is a well-known center of armed conflict, a territory disputed by the paramilitary and FARC. The indigenous movement of this region has mourned the loss of many of its leaders, the most well known being Álvaro Ulcué, the Nasa priest of Toribío, who was gunned down in 1984 in the city of Santander de Quilichao by a police agent whom the movement feels was paid by the large landowners of the region. More recently, Cristóbal Sécue, a former president of CRIC, was murdered in 2001 by individuals identified by the community as members of the militias affiliated with FARC.

When I told my friend I feared for my safety, my friend said I would be secure in López Adentro, which is protected by a guardia indígena (indigenous guard)--also called a "civic guard"--comprised of community volunteers who, supervised by the cabildo (autonomous indigenous village council), patrol the village and maintain order at public events, armed only with staffs. Like the protection afforded by shamanic intervention, the guardia indígena has become ubiquitous in Nasa communities. Individuals from all walks of life--elderly women, teenagers, middle-aged men--become guards. These are the same people who participated in land occupations in the past and who take part in mass mobilizations today; they will never become leaders, but are the local foundations of the indigenous movement.

Unlike the rondas campesinas (peasant defense units) of Peru or CONVIVIR in Colombia, the formation of guardias indígenas in indigenous communities is not promoted by the Colombia government. Therefore, it has escaped the fate of CONVIVIR peasant defense groups established by President Andrés Pastrana in 1994, many of which transformed into paramilitary groups through their contact with the military. Because guardias indígenas are unarmed, they are also different from self-defense strategies employed in indigenous Cauca in the 1980s, including those used by the Quintín Lame Armed Movement, a guerrilla group whose membership was largely Nasa.[3] The guardias are a specifically indigenous strategy for expanding cabildo control to confront armed actors and to defend human rights in communities.

Like the cabildo, the operations of the guardia indígena must be contextualized within the spiritual sphere as well as the political. Both carry staffs of office as badges of their authority. As Marcos Yule, a Nasa linguist, explained at the National Forum of Indigenous Resistance in Popayán in March 2002: "The staff of office is the symbol of the Guardia Indígena. It is made of vegetable material (chonta wood), symbolizing the resistance of the Authorities. Its Ribbons, which are of nine different colors, represent the dependent Beings of the Maximal Authority. Because the land is the seed of life, for our people the staff is a guide, which means to be in front of the community."[4]

The staff converts a motley crew into a form of traditional authority, which, like the cabildo and the shamans, ensures indigenous autonomy. This is an intensely spiritual exercise, aimed at restoring community harmony through symbolic forms that situate the guardia within the purview of what the movement calls ancestral law. Thus, this self-defense strategy is intimately related to the shamanic rituals that I witnessed in Guayabal.

But like politically motivated shamanic ceremony, the spirituality of the guardia indígena is harnessed to a broad ideological purpose. Young guardia members attend events that they never would have otherwise, giving them an arena to explore their ethnic identity and an important position within which they can find themselves as young, modern Nasas. At the Congress of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, the guardia was described as a significant strategy as long as it "was strengthened with cultural principles." That is, it is a tactic for training indigenous activists--"a school in the process of formation," according to Luis Acosta, the coordinator of the guardia in northern Cauca, speaking at the National Forum of Indigenous Resistance. Resguardos are beginning to provide training for their guardias, including workshops on indigenous history and human rights coordinated by European facilitators. Given that recruits generally do not attend the regular regional and local workshops for movement leaders, and that there are between 50 and 100 guardias in each community, these resguardo workshops provide a broad new arena in which the ideologies of indigenous organizing can be aired.

Civil Resistance

The most compelling examples of indigenous resistance in recent years are the spontaneous gatherings of members of native communities--frequently chaperoned by parish priests and accompanied by music--that have repelled FARC attacks. The first of these took place in the Nasa community of Caldono on November 10, 2001, after guerrillas lobbed grenades at the police station. More than 4,000 unarmed community members were assembled by the governor of the resguardo, who spoke on the town’s loudspeaker using a Mercedes Sosa recording as background music. Caldono had been attacked and its public buildings destroyed on four occasions between 1997 and 1999 by the same guerrilla group.[5] Just five days later, the non-indigenous peasant inhabitants of Bolívar, a town in southern Cauca, following Caldono’s lead, resisted a FARC attack on their municipality.[6] Two hundred ELN occupiers were similarly ejected from the native community Coconuco in mid-December 2001.[7] The first indigenous casualty in this series of demonstrations also occurred in 2001: on December 31, in the resguardo of Puracé, Jimmy Guauña, a musician and university student, was gunned down by the FARC invaders. The most recent example of civil resistance occurred during the summer of 2002, when FARC guerrillas threatened Caucan municipalities with violent reprisals if their elected officials did not immediately resign their posts--an attempt at dismantling the Colombian state from its very foundations.[8] Particularly threatened were those municipalities whose mayors were native people and members of the Indigenous Social Alliance, an alternative political party attached to the indigenous movement, whose constituents demanded they not resign and vowed to defend them in the face of FARC.[9] Toribío was one such defiant municipality. Attacked on the evening of July 11 and in the early morning of July 12, the population, led by one of its priests, successfully demanded that FARC free the 14 policemen it had taken prisoner.[10]

Although civil resistance only came into use among Cauca’s indigenous people in fall 2001, the foundation for this indigenous assertion of autonomy against guerrillas was laid years earlier. In March 1999, the cabildos of Cauca met in the village of Jambaló to delineate the multiple axes of conflict that were fragmenting their lives. Establishing their authority on the basis of their ancestral rights, the cabildos lashed out at a variety of interlopers, whom they identified as operating in indigenous territory in violation of native autonomy. Armed actors--the Colombian army, guerrilla groups, and the paramilitary--drug traffickers, religious movements, and traditional political parties were named and the dangers each presented to indigenous communities defined. Armed organizations were identified for their intrusion in indigenous territory, forced recruitment of young people, intervention in local disputes, and use of names of native cultural heroes to label their military units. The cabildos accused drug traffickers of renting lands to cultivate illicit crops and of profiting from the misery of rural dwellers. Religious groups were condemned for the confusion they sowed, their policy of tithing the faithful, and their interference in community activities. Traditional political parties were warned that indigenous communities could only be represented by cabildos that operated on the basis of community consensus and in collaboration with independent civic movements.

Significantly, the autonomy of indigenous territory and political process was framed within a more general condemnation of neoliberal policies and a desire to contribute to the creation of a truly plural Colombia.

The civil resistance of Colombian native peoples is distinguished from other responses to violence in the country by the collective nature of the indigenous response to armed interlopers, its basis in a program of indigenous autonomy, and its roots in the institution of the cabildo backed by a mature indigenous movement. It demonstrates the transcendent role that a tiny minority can play in providing concrete alternatives to a conflict that is fueled by the militaristic policy of the Colombia government.

Alternative Development

One of the foundations of Plan Colombia is massive fumigation of illicit crops in the Colombian countryside, particularly in the southern part of the country, including Cauca. Many of those affected in Cauca are indigenous agriculturalists, mainly Guambianos, Nasa, and Yanacona, who grow opium poppies and coca on the mountain slopes in an attempt to make ends meet in a continuously deteriorating agricultural economy.[11] The Colombian Massif of southern Cauca, where the Yanacona resguardos are located, as well as Guambía and various Nasa communities, have been subjected to repeated rains of poision from the skies, despite the objections of cabildo authorities and the provincial government.

The fumigation of illicit crops--and frequently, of lawful crops as well--has been met with shamanic reprisals in Nasa communities. Secular responses include the destruction of cocaine-processing laboratories and the manual eradication of poppies, led by the cabildos; the former took place in the Nasa community of Jambaló and the latter in Guambía, under the leadership of Floro Alberto Tunubalá, now the governor of Cauca. In the Colombian Massif, the cabildo mayor, who serves as an umbrella authority for 35,000 Yanacona organized in five resguardos, ordered the expulsion of 1,000 peasant renters who were cultivating poppies in indigenous territories.[12]

Once again, however, coca eradication is not the sole intention of this indigenous reaction to illicit crops. Resistance to Plan Colombia through manual eradication gets community members active in communal activities and promotes their support for the cabildo. It is an educational experience, accompanied by workshops in communities and at regional meetings in which indigenous participants have a chance to analyze government policy and U.S. intervention. Denunciations at such public for a, such as the First Public Audience of Social Sectors of the Colombian Southwest for Life and Hope, held in Popayán in July 2000, demonstrate that indigenous communities question the intentions of Plan Colombia, which they see "as a strategy of war against the region," according to a CRIC document.

Manual eradication of illicit crops provides a forum for airing an objective of peace. With the election of Guambiano leader Tunubalá to the provincial governorship, the experiences of Guambía and other indigenous communities are now shaping public policy. Indigenous strategies for alternative development--expressed in life plans that envision development as a long-term process that encompasses more than economic transformation [13]--have become the motor behind a provincial development plan that is sensitive to the need to provide alternatives to illicit cultivation. As part of these strategies, Tunubalá has begun to work in coalition with the governors of neighboring provinces in opposition to the fumigation policies of Plan Colombia.[14

Spaces for Dialogue

The projection of the indigenous agenda within the regional and national space takes place in La María, a Guambiano resguardo located on the Panamerican Highway not far from Popayán, which in the 1990s was the site of mass mobilizations by indigenous organizations and cabildos demanding that the Colombia government provide them with an array of basic social services. Twelve thousand indigenous demonstrators blocked the highway at La María for 10 days in June 1999, constituting the site as a communal meeting place on a regional level. On October 12, 1999, La María was designated by the movement as a space for intercultural communication, dialogue, and negotiation. The following November, it was once again a site for popular mobilization, this time organized by CIMA, a peasant organization based in the Colombian Massif, which garnered the support of labor unions, the peasant movement in general, popular urban sectors, and indigenous organizations, blocking the highway for a full month and demonstrating the intercultural intent of its founders.

Many educational and political activities have taken place at La María, including workshops about Plan Colombia and fumigations. La María has also been considered a site for regional peace negotiations involving indigenous peoples, proposed by Governor Tunubalá as an alternative to the aborted talks between the Pastrana government and FARC, which were closed to civil society. As a CRIC manuscript describing La María states: "The La María proposal implies that civil society, and particularly indigenous communities, should be an actor in the process of negotiation concerning social and armed conflict, together with the insurgents and the Colombian state. That is to say, negotiations must no longer be bilateral, but must become trilateral."

Today, in the ever more explosive context created by the policy of militarization espoused by current President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the message of La María has become even more urgent. Such an alternative would permit the indigenous movement to share its experience of resistance to armed conflict and its vision for peace with all Colombians.

1. Although indigenous agriculturalists have traditionally been described as peasants by social scientists, peasant or campesino is also a political category in Colombia, distinguished from indigenous or indígena, and organized into its own social movement, the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC), an organization that gave birth to CRIC in the 1970s.

2. A May 28, 2001, communiqué to public opinion issued by the International Commission of FARC, said "it is not possible to divorce the struggle of indigenous people, Blacks and women from the national struggle and the class struggle, which continues to be the motor of history."

3. See Espinosa (1996) and Peñaranda (1993) on the history of this indigenous guerrilla movement, which never aspired to take power, but developed as a strategy for community defense against landowners and FARC. The Quintin Lame Armed Movement was demobilized in 1991 after negotiations with the Colombia government.

4. This and other quotations from speeches at regional meetings are taken from typescript summaries and conclusions provided by Jorge Caballero of CRIC.

5. El Tiempo, 14 November 2001, 19 November 2001; Semana 19 November 2001

6. El Tiempo, 25 November 2001, 3 December 2001; Semana, 25 November 2001

7. El Tiempo, 20 December 2001

8. El Tiempo, Bogotá, 15 July 2002

9. El Liberal, Popayán, 4 July 2002; El Tiempo, 11 July 2002

10. Such actions were not taken against paramilitary groups, which continued to kidnap and murder indigenous leaders, such as occurred in Corinto in mid-November 2001 (El Tiempo, 20 November 2001). Although no one explained to me why there should be such a difference between reactions to the guerrillas and to the paramilitary, I suspect that it owes to the fact that most paramilitary killings in northern Cauca have been more secretive and thus less susceptible to open rebellion—with the exception, of course, of the brutal massacre that took place in April 2001, in the Naya coastal region, when some 500 paramilitary murdered approximately 35 people and 6,000 Afrocolombians and Nasa settlers were temporarily displaced.

11. See Gómez and Ruíz (1997) on opium poppy cultivation in Tierradentro.

12. El Tiempo, 15 October 2001

13. Cabildo, Taitas y Comisión de Trabajo del Pueblo Guambiano 1994; cf. Gow 1997

14. El Tiempo, 21 September 2001

Joanne Rappaport has studied the indigenous movement in Cauca since 1995, working particularly with the Nasa people--formerly known as the Páez. Her research was supported by the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología in 1995; Colciencias (the Colombian equivalent of the National Science Foundation, through a grant awarded to the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología) in 1996 and 1997; the Graduate School of Georgetown University in 1998 and 1999; and an International Collaborative Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research from 1999 to 2002.


Rappaport thanks the collaborative research team with which she has engaged in dialogue and analysis--Myriam Amparo Espinosa, David D. Gow, Adonías Perdomo Dizú, Susana Piñacué Achicué, and Tulio Rojas Curieux--as well as the Bilingual Education Program of the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca--particularly Graciela Bolaños, Abelardo Ramos, and Inocencio Ramos. She also acknowledges Jorge Caballero, Diego Jaramillo, Libia Tattay, and Pablo Tattay for the documents they have shared and for their support, conversation, and hospitality over the years; the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the intellectual space in which this article was written; and David Gow for his comments on a previous draft.

References and further reading

Avirama, J. & Márquez, R. (1995). The Indigenous Movement in Colombia. In Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. Van Cott, D. Ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Pp 83-105.

Cabildo, T. & Comisión de Trabajo del Pueblo Guambiano. (1994). Diagnóstico y plan de vida del Pueblo Guambiano. Territorio Guambiano-Silvia: Cabildo de Guambía/CENCOA/ Corporación Autónoma Regional del Cauca/Visión Mundial Internacional.

Cauca, Departamento del (Consejo del Gobierno Departamental). (2001). ‘En minga por el Cauca’: Plan de desarrollo departamental 2001-2003. Popayán: ms.

Degregori, C. (1996). Las rondas campesinas y la derrota de Sendero Luminoso. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Espinosa, M. (1996). Surgimiento y andar territorial del Quintín Lame. Quito: Editorial Abya-Yala.

Findji, M. (1992). From Resistance to Social Movement: The Indigenous Authorities Movement in Colombia. In The Making of Social Movements in Latin America: Identity, Strategy, and Democracy. Escobar, A. & Alvarez, S., Eds. Boulder: Westview Press. Pp 112-133.

Gómez, H. & Ruiz, C. (1997). Los paeces: gente territorio: metáfora que perdura. Popayán: FUNCOP/Universidad del Cauca.

Gow, D. (1997). Can the Subaltern Plan? Ethnicity and Development in Cauca, Colombia. Urban Anthropology 26:3-4, pp 243-292.

Gros, C. (2000). Políticas de la etnicidad: identidad, Estado y modernidad. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia.

Peñaranda, R. (1993). Los orígenes del Movimiento Armado Quintín Lame. Memorias del Octavo Congreso Nacional de Historia. Bucaramanga. Pp 405-418.

Puerto Chávez, F. (1995). Censo de población en el area del desastre de Tierradentro, Cauca, CRIC-Nasa Kiwe: análisis descriptivo de los principales indicadores de morbilidad y mortalidad en los municipios de Páez e Inzá por el desastre del 6 de junio. Popayán: Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca/Corporación Nasa Kiwe.

Rappaport, J. & Gow, D. (1997). Cambio dirigido, movimiento indígena y estereotipos del indio: el Estado colombiano y la reubicación de los nasa. In Antropología en la modernidad. Uribe, M. & Restrepo, E., Eds. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología. Pp 361-399.

Starn, O. (1999). Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes. Durham: Duke University Press.

Van Cott, D. (2000). The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Zamosc, L. (1986). The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia: Struggles of the National Peasant Association, 1967-1981. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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