INTERVIEW WITH GABRIEL MUYUY JACANAMEJOY: Taking Responsibility; In Colombia, electoral politics and grassroots activism complem

An Inga Indian, Gabriel Muyuy Jacanamejoy represents Putumayo Department in Colombia's Senate. He was elected to the Senate and serves there as a representative of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia - ONIC). Leslie Wirpsa, a journalist based in Bogota, conducted the interview.

When I was in grade school, there were no strong indigenous organizations in the Amazon region. The cabildos, or indigenous governments, had been intact for years, but ONIC didn't yet exist. It was in 1982, when I was in the university studying philosophy and theology, that the first Indian congress in Colombia was held. That congress gave birth to ONIC. At that time, a handful of Indians, including myself, studying in Medellin joined in the spirit of organizing, meeting on weekends to discuss the problems facing indigenous communities. Sometimes we gave talks in schools and universities, sharing the life lived in Colombia's indigenous communities.

After that, I went to live in Pasto, where I worked as a teacher. It was then that the Indians of the Valley of Sibundoy where I was born began a program of grassroots development following the tenets of ONIC. We held leadership workshops and cultural and artistic gatherings and attempted to help people become aware of the problems facing Indians.

In 1986, ONIC held the Second National Indian Congress. By then we had founded Musurunacuna - hombres nuevos - which means "new men." We never tried to organize a structure within Musurunacuna to replace the indigenous governors. On the contrary, Musurunacuna supports the traditional grassroots authorities.

During the 1990 congress, I was elected vice-president of ONIC. At the same time, ONIC began to participate in the National Constituent Assembly. [This special assembly was convened to reform the Colombian constitution.] As an ONIC leader, I supported the successful candidacy of Francisco Rojas Birry for the assembly. In 1991, we evaluated the results of that, it was then that companions from ONIC asked me to run for the Senate. On Oct. 27, 1991, I was elected.

We had never dreamed we would participate in all this political activity. I never dreamed I would be taking on these kind of responsibilities. And perhaps because of our lack of experience, we were slow in getting started. But we have passed the stage of getting to know how things function and are beginning to get down to work.


We see three priorities for the future. Organization and development are our first two priorities. They are the only guarantee for the future. We must continue to strengthen indigenous organizations based on grassroots development. Third, we must deepen our political capacity although this doesn't mean that indigenous organizations should become a political party. Political participation must be based on grassroots organization and on development.

Many indigenous communities - and non-indigenous communities - have no knowledge of their rights, especially of the rights provided in the 1991 Constitution. We have a huge task ahead of us in making these rights respond to the cultural, geographic, and political needs of the people. Take the right to territory. We senators can't sit around and promulgate laws from Bogota. We have to consult with the people all over the country, holding workshops and seminars. This takes time and resources. It is a delicate issue, and the interests of many people with power will be affected.

We also must create economic structures. It's difficult to rally support when people don't have the resources to move around the country. We hardly have funds for campaign expenses. We don't have money, we aren't capitalists, and we can't deceive our people by buying their votes in the fashion of the politiqueros [political hacks]. What good does it do to organize if we have no resources with which to move around, if we don't have the financial base to support a candidate of the people? What good is a person who is conscious if he or she is physically hungry? No human being will volunteer to die from hunger. If someone offers his or her resources, well, things go that way. People sell out. We have seen this happen, even to leaders.

At the same time, traditional party politicians take advantage of our poverty, and many Indians, even leaders, have been duped by them. This has brought problems. Many people are used to being used by the traditional parties, and it is difficult to begin to act as Indians. They still want to participate as Liberals or Conservatives, because the politicians give them money.

In Putumayo, we do have mineral riches - petroleum. We senators are meeting with Ecopetrol, the state oil concern, to make sure indigenous communities reap some benefit from the royalties that leave the territory. Each year, five billion pesos ($8.5 million) are taken from Putumayo while the people live in physical misery. The streets and roads are in terrible condition, as are the schools and health centers. The resources aren't benefitting the people.

Everything is centralized in the cities, and the peasants and Indians receive almost no attention from the government. Take Putumayo. Only 20 percent of the oil royalties are reinvested in the region; 80 percent of the riches get stuck here in Bogota.

We have begun to investigate this and plan to sit down with government officials to discuss solutions. We are also trying to discuss resource management, but until now Ecopetrol disregarded the Indians - there was no dialogue with indigenous communities about oil production or the social consequences it brings. We believe the communities must learn more about the destruction the oil business will inevitably bring to the environment. We must make sure the destruction stops. Strange things are happening: nature is reacting. For example, Colombia is experiencing a terrible drought, and fish are scarce in areas where people depend on fishing.

Colombia's justice system must be strengthened as well. It is in a state of decomposition. Ethics and morality are at an all-time low. The same people in charge of defending human rights are destroying them. in Putumayo, the Indians are tapped among the guerrillas, the drug traffickers, the paramilitary groups, the army, and the police. Physical and psychological violence pervade.

The militarization of the drug war has only brought more insecurity. people in Putumayo live in great anxiety, and bringing in more armed forces has just brought more insecurity. People are beginning to abandon their land, and the displacement of people toward cities in growing. In the larger towns and cities, people begin to lose their culture - everything.

There are areas where indigenous communities lived peacefully before and have had to abandon their land. When the cabildos organize and grow stronger, the leaders receive death threats. Last year, two Putumayo Indian leaders were killed. They were innocent, but they were pegged as guerrillas. They had simply been leaders of the community. The Prosecutor General and the Defense Minister are aware of this situation, but denunciations of torture, killings, and massacres are rarely investigated, and the authors of these crimes are rarely punished. Impunity reins, not just in Putumayo, but all over Colombia, and in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

We believe the problem of peace in Colombia won't be solved by negotiating with some chiefs outside the country. It is said that democracy reigns in this country because new political movements are participating in national affairs, but democracy is still managed vertically. The people in the region in charge of taking care of society, or protecting the indigenous communities, are the ones responsible.

We must create new systems of justice. According to the Constitution, justice will be carried out in indigenous territories according to the customs and traditions of the indigenous communities. We Indians must be very careful with applying justice to take into account the cultural diversity of our communities. The way an Inga Indian views crimes and punishment is very different from the Paez way of viewing things. The laws must respond to Colombia's cultural diversity. This is the beginning of a solution that may help stop the array of abuses that occur in this country.

On a larger scale, I believe economic liberalization, the readjustment of the world's economic systems, is hurting us. Increasingly, resources are tied up in the hands of one political or economic sector. Those who command economic and political power - the business sector and landowners - are controlling more and more each day.

Take a look at public utilities. Privatizing them is bringing serious problems to Colombia's poor, Indians included. These economic policies reach into all corners. An Indian can't make a telephone call anymore - it's too expensive. And Indians don't have access to health services because costs are rising with privatization.


The indigenous movement in Colombia is very broad. It has taken on various expressions as a result of cultural diversity and the process of organization. It includes all the Indians in Colombia, as well as non-indigenous people who have worked very closely with us.

We have ONIC, which represents a large part of Colombia's indigenous population through its organizing and development projects. Then there are the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO) and the Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI). Each has its own objectives, work plan, and relationship with popular organizations. For example, ASI, which is strongest in Cauca, is separate from ONIC but forms part of it on the organizational level. ONIC believes that autonomy must be respected foremost - our main slogan is Unity, Land, Culture, and Autonomy. AICO says ONIC is authoritarian and vertical and should respect traditional authorities more.

There are philosophical differences as well. ASI believes Indians, blacks, and whites must work together. ONIC believes this is erroneous and actually a capitalist vision. Capitalism wants to integrate countries, disregarding cultural differences, to make and sell products internationally, ONIC believes we can work hand in hand with other sectors of society but from within our cultural differences. Whites are whites, mestizos are mestizos, blacks are blacks, and Indians are Indians.

There are also differences because of where we come from. An Indian from Amazonas looks at the problems facing indigenous communities in a way that is very different from the world view of a Pijao Indian from Tolima. An Arahuaco Indian looks at things in a manner that is distinct from the way a Kuna from Antioquia looks at things. Many times, people have tried to impose a certain model, but you can't create acabildo in a Wayuu community in Guajira, for example, because this goes against the Wayuu structure.

We also have to be honest. Those communities that are really organized represent only a fraction of the whole. Even in regions where organization is supposedly high, communities are confronting terrible isolation.

Recently, though, we have all concluded that it doesn't matter if different organizations or expressions of the indigenous movement exist. We believe we must defend the rights of all the people, especially the peasants and the poor of the cities. We must make sure that the laws enacted in Congress do not work against the pueblo, the poor.

The problem is we Indians are a minority. What is important is that we coordinate these distinct expressions and that we respect one another. This is the only way we can promote the development of a strong indigenous movement.


Non-governmental organizations like Cultural Survival and others of its kind can contribute to indigenous efforts in two basic ways. One, human solidarity is needed - denouncing and spreading news about our problems, letting others know about the difficult situation of indigenous communities.

Second, economic support is necessary. Organizations like Cultural Survival have connections and can help us obtain resources. But these organizations must always keep in mind the ever-evolving principles and criteria of our indigenous organizations and communities. We must maintain a constant dialogue and work together.

We face many other difficulties with which academics and scientists could help. People from outside could help indigenous organizations and communities obtain radio telephones, river transportation, etc. Most indigenous communities in Colombia are marginalized and isolated because we lack efficient transportation. People are far away from one another and can only travel by air or river. If one wants to attend a meeting, lets say, in Vichada, you can only get there by plane, but air transport is very expensive. Mail service is terrible - messages take forever to arrive.

We also need to improve people's ability to transport and commercialize what they produce. In Amazonas, many indigenous people live off fishing and agriculture, but who reaps the profits? The owners of the boats and airplanes who negotiate directly in Bogota. The Indians, the primary owners of these resources, receive nothing.

Academics, intellectuals, and scientists could make the true reality of indigenous communities known to the world. Colombia's president, César Gaviria Trujillo, writes up fancy documents with his advisors and takes them to international forums, presenting a favorable picture of our situation. The government acts as if we have no problems, but we lack basic health and education services. The world must know the truth about indigenous communities. Academics and researchers should conduct studies about culture, about the values we hold in relation to natural resources and the environment, about how different communities interpret reality. And these projects must be carried out in coordination with indigenous peoples and organizations, not imposed in a way that might disrupt the values and culture of the communities.

Our communities are losing a lot of their knowledge; it is important to help preserve and strengthen this knowledge. For example, the Ingas have widespread knowledge about the curative values of plants in the Amazon. The imposition of Western medicine, has stripped value from traditional medicine, but today, more than ever, our people need an alternative: poor people have no right to get sick because illness practically becomes a death sentence. Drugs and medical attention are expensive, and many people don't have access to them. Our people possess the wisdom, but it must be developed, systematized, and promoted.

Traditional medicine could even provide income for some communities. Many Inga know how to make medicine from plants. These cures strengthen the body and cure illnesses at the same time. Society doesn't know about this, or it refuses to value such methods. Perhaps people are used to the easy way out - pills and injections.

Projects for the Future

Country: Colombia

Project: Regional Indian Council of Cauca Reforestation Project

The Regional Indian Council of Cauca (CRIC) aims to secure land, resource, and cultural rights for indigenous communities.

In 1971, over 2,000 indigenous people gathered for their first general assembly in Colombia. The meeting defined the objectives of CRIC as recovering traditional territories (resguardos), expanding the resguardos, empowering indigenous leaders, promoting indigenous laws, defending indigenous history, customs, and language, and training indigenous-language teachers.

In recent years, CRIC has focused on resource management and in 1988 began working in a production program intended as an integral part of this. Researching natural resources, CRIC has investigated the existence and possible exploitation of mines and is also investigating fruit crops as a means of improving people's diet. At the same time, CRIC is looking into and implementing appropriate agricultural and forestry technologies.

CRIC believes that resource-management projects are more effective when combined with efforts to provide for other community needs, such as health and education. For example, indigenous leaders have led training seminars on indigenous legislation and the use of natural resources. Other workshops have focused on administrative skills and traditional medicine.

Address: Consejo Regional Cauca, Calle la. No. 4-50, Pasaje "Vasquez Cobo," Apartado Aereo 516, Popa n, Cauca, Colombia

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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