There Can Be No Peace Without Indians at the Table: A Narrative from Armando Valbuena

In the Andean region, indigenous leaders increasingly refer to Plan Colombia as the military arm of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and U.S. economic policy in Latin America. Leaders find themselves connecting dots as their territories are invaded by armed groups, subjected to aerial chemical spraying, and leased to multinational corporations for massive resource development projects. Their responses are varied, but most often point to the importance of consultation and participation with indigenous communities.

Armando Valbuena, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), is a leading critic of Plan Colombia and the Colombia and U.S. governments' approaches to end the conflict. ONIC represents the majority of indigenous peoples in Colombia, and works in concert with groups representing and advocating for ethnically mixed peasant groups and Afro-Colombians. The organization has initiated dialogue with all the conflict's actors, including new Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.[1]

Valbuena is a leading conduit of indigenous people's most important message to the Colombia government and to the armed groups: Colombia's indigenous groups are independent, autonomous, and are not party to the armed Colombian conflict. ONIC and Valbuena continue to condemn Plan Colombia and argue that a negotiated settlement is the only viable solution. In equal manner, Valbuena criticizes the FARC for refusing to respect indigenous autonomy or to create the necessary conditions for peace. In the following narrative, chronicled from an interview during the conference in Quito, Ecuador, on the impact of Plan Colombia on indigenous peoples, Valbuena analyses the concurrence of natural resources and conflict, and the related difficulties of pressuring the Colombia government and the FARC to respect indigenous peoples' human rights and include them as key parts of the peace process.

In 1903, when the United States impelled the separation of Panama from Colombia, there was an indigenous officer in the Colombia army named Manuel Quintín Lame Chante. Quintín went to war and there he realized that there was a Panamanian officer who was also an Indian. The two met and Quintín said, "What are we doing fighting? One of us is on the side of the gringo government of Panama and the other on the side of the Colombia government, but we are fighting over land that is yours and mine. You go home, and I will go home too." It was there, in the midst of a war between ourselves and fought on behalf of others, that the current Colombian indigenous movement was born.

Old Quintín thanked the Colombian army and he quit. He began to look for all of the laws, texts, and parliamentary acts that Simón Bolívar had written in favor of indigenous peoples. There he found among them the 1889 Law 89, which created the indigenous reserves, spoke of indigenous municipal governments and governors, and, ironically, excluded the indigenous peoples from Colombian military service. Quintín spent more than 18 years of his life in prisons in various parts of the country writing letters to presidents and senators. He also promoted the occupation of the farms of the feudal landowners and thus began the recuperation of indigenous lands. Quintín died in 1968, after having left as his legacy the history of indigenous organizations of Colombia, principally in the departments of Cauca and Tolima.

Indigenous Territory and Conflict

Colombia is a country with 42 million inhabitants, of which about 2 million are indigenous peoples. Among these are 84 groups who speak 65 different languages. There are indigenous groups with more than 100,000 members, like the Pastos and the Paezes. There are mid-sized groups, like the Embera, that have around 60,000 members, and small groups like the Koreguaje, with 1,600 members, down to the Sirianos, who have fewer than 30 members. In the Colombian Amazon region, there are 62 different indigenous groups, almost all of them with fewer than 1,000 members. They are considerably vulnerable groups. Indigenous peoples live throughout most of the 1,138,000 square kilometers in Colombia. There are indigenous groups that have their territories on the borders of Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama. In Colombia, through the indigenous reserves--territories that are inalienable and inviolable--we occupy 27 percent of the territory of Colombia. In the Amazon, the reserves were created over 20 years ago, when the lands were not considered to be of much value. However, now the lands have become valuable to the Colombian government.

Nearly 80 percent of the mineral and energy resources of the country--water, minerals, oil, biodiversity--are in our territories. The department of Putumayo has been handed over to 28 different multinational oil companies. This is why it seems to us that the problem of Plan Colombia for the Colombian government and for the United States is not drug trafficking or insurgency. The real problem is the existence of the indigenous reserves, and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization [ILO] requires consultation and participation of indigenous peoples in natural resource projects located in their territories.

This is why Plan Colombia was initiated in the Putumayo and why it is active in Catatumbo, where along the border of Venezuela you can find the Bari peoples and oil. The intention of Plan Colombia, it seems, is not to eradicate coca. It is to eradicate the Indians for being "inviable," to eradicate the Indians for being "against development," to eradicate the Indians because the government is obliged to consult with them. With the requirements associated with ratification of ILO 169, we become a huge problem for those interests that want to control and take advantage of these resources.

Since the armed groups also want to take advantage of the natural resources, having 80 percent of the natural resources means that we also have 80 percent of the Colombian conflict. There is conflict in the mountains, where there is coal and hydro-power. The paramilitaries receive financing from the mining companies to guard their territories. In the same way, the guerrillas enter these territories to steal cows from the ranchers, to extort from the mining companies and from the electric companies. In the llanos, in Catatungo and in the Putumayo, where there are pipelines and oil wells, the guerillas can extort funds from the multinationals; the paramilitaries do the same. The mineral and energy resources provide funds, and the geographic conditions needed for the cultivation of poppies and coca provide funds for the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Our territories become "occupied territory" and we are the ones who are most affected.

Process of Indigenous Resistance

Colombia is a country without rule of law. It is a country where rules are imposed by violence or by organizations. The strongest indigenous organizations are strong because their organizational processes are adjusted to the reality of this country. Cultural and organizational strength is a requirement for resisting the war. The best example of this resistance is in the department of the Cauca, where the indigenous organization has adjusted to the current conditions. In the Cauca, indigenous resistance has a long history--linguistic resistance, cultural resistance, and resistance to the loss of territory. The Nasa people in Cauca have been working for 30 years to create an alphabet and reconstruct their language.

Today, almost all of the children speak the Nasa language. We say that this is a process of resistance. Now, the war has arrived in their territory, and the Nasa are resisting by using political and organizational development to preserve their culture; they are developing an internal jurisdiction to its maximum expression. With these convictions and tools, the Nasa struggle against the FARC, so that the FARC cannot continue to recruit their youth. They struggle against the state so that the state cannot legislate the lives of the Nasa people. They fight against the AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia] paramilitaries so that neither the paramilitaries should legislate the lives of the Nasa. It is the Nasa who should legislate; this is what we call indigenous resistance.

Specifically, the Nasa have created "indigenous guards." They have something that they call "systems of early warning." For example, if unknown people arrive, they shoot off a flare and ring the bells and the whole village comes out of their houses--children, women, elderly, everyone. They tell the guerillas that they must leave; with just sticks and words, they push them out. The conviction is their strength. They say that they will not allow themselves to be displaced. They don't fight for recognition or resources, but for the respect for their territory. The situation is different for campesinos. The campesinos leave, because they know that they will be killed. They have no cultural cohesion, no political cohesion, no ideological cohesion. By strengthening this cultural-ideological aspect, the Nasa have more tools.

At the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia [ONIC], we help the Nasa to inform themselves, coordinate, improve, and implement communication mechanisms with groups from the other regions of Colombia. For example, in June of 2002, a group of 30 Embera-Chami peoples visited Cauca to learn about their experiences. The Embera-Chami had been creating indigenous guards for about a year and already had about 100. They wanted to increase this number and to create training courses for their people in their own historical political-ideology. Some groups--like the Embera-Chami, and many Amazonian groups that already have a strong spiritual component--are very interested and would like to learn more. They want to go to Cauca to learn and be able to do similar things.

All indigenous groups are not the same, however. There are groups that do not resist. The groups in the western part of Colombia have traditionally been fighters, where they always have been able to confront the state, the guerillas, and the paramilitaries. But the organizations of the groups that have less than 1,000 members do not have the strength to confront the guerillas, the paramilitaries, or the Colombian state. It is for them, more than anything, that we work at ONIC. In 1987 we spoke with Manuel Marulanda, the national commander of the FARC, and with the high level commanders Jacob Guarenas and Raúl Reyes. They signed documents saying that they would respect the self-determination of indigenous peoples and the development of indigenous jurisdiction and organizational processes. In 1994, we had to speak with them again because of a problem in the community of Coreguay. Eighty-four leaders had been assassinated. We arrived at an agreement with the FARC that there would be no more assassinations, and no more confrontation.

Unfortunately, in recent years, it has not been possible to hold a dialogue with the national command of the FARC. We have had many difficulties, because they argue that those who are not with them, are against them. There have been assassinations of our best leaders by the FARC. We have received this treatment because they say that they represent us, and we say that they don't represent us. Lately there has been serious repression even in the Cauca. There are permanent confrontations. We have spent three years trying to work through this with them, but they still have not made any decisions.

The ELN [National Liberation Army], on the other hand, has been meeting with the Colombian civil society. They agreed, in Germany in 2000, that they would respect the self-determination of indigenous peoples. And then in September 2001, at the peace meeting in Costa Rica with the Colombian government and the civil society, they reaffirmed their respect for the autonomy and self-determination of indigenous peoples. When the national peace council met with the ELN in Cuba in January of 2002, they reaffirmed again their respect for the self-determination of indigenous peoples. So they too, in some way or another, have come to respect our criteria: unity, territory, culture, and autonomy.

Reform of Colombian State

The men who make up the Colombian military are campesinos; the men who make up the Colombian police are campesinos; the men who make up the paramilitaries are campesinos; the men who make up the FARC are campesinos. The truth is that 90 percent of these four groups are there because they are paid. They are not there because of an ideological or political process. Without deep agrarian reform and protection for the campesinos, the conflict will only get worse, stronger, more violent, and more confrontational.

Some solutions are very clear. For example, Colombia has around 5 million hectares of land held by the government that has been confiscated from drug traffickers. These lands are sitting there without juridical definition. Thousands of campesinos could work this land. This would be an agrarian solution, where the government and the FARC could adapt these lands. If the FARC simply and without the consent of the government would say to all of the Colombians, "We demand the resolution of the problem of lands for the food security of Colombia," the issue of the campesinos would be solved. This is not a matter of decrees or even laws, but simply administrative action. If the FARC would do this, then the government would have to implement the resources necessary for this process. But neither the FARC nor the government will take this initiative. There are the lands; there are the solutions. Is the problem that the FARC doesn't want this to happen?

Another part to this solution is protective tariff measures. A peasant farmer in Colombia can plant a maximum of six hectares of corn. However, the corn imported into Colombia from the United States is cheaper than the corn that can be produced in Colombia. To whom can the campesinos sell their corn if the U.S. corn is cheaper? Here the issue is that there are no measures protecting the small farmer. The campesinos cannot grow corn profitably, because there is no one to sell it to. At the same time, to import meat into Colombia, companies must pay tariffs higher than 70 percent--a measure protecting Colombian cattle ranchers, who are of the oligarchy. What would happen if the tariffs for beef were cut in half and the tariffs on corn were raised? The campesinos would be able to sell their corn, and the ranchers would have to lower the price of beef, which would lower the price of the land. With this, there would no longer be a reason for the paramilitaries to exist.

With the economic globalization process and the presence of multinational corporations, all of the rights that we have won and all of these possibilities for peace are taken away from us in the practice. With the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, we cannot protect our peasant farmers from the imports from the United States. With these trade pacts, the investments of multinational corporations will have more protection than we do, and the international investment laws will be stronger than the national laws for which we have fought so hard.

If Plan Colombia destroys the FARC, and dislocates the indigenous peoples, the processes of expansion of the mineral and oil exploration will continue. There are 28 oil companies in the Putumayo; the privatization of water and the industrialization of biodiversity are imminent. All of this will benefit the largest businessmen, at the cost of everyone else. The indigenous peoples will be evicted, as they were in the time of the rubber boom. The soils will be destroyed and the land will become valuable only for the colonizers, and the state itself. In Colombia, many small businesses have already been bankrupted. Of the survivors, some may survive in the future. However, if things continue the way they have been, whether the FARC exists or not, globalization will end us all. Our resistance thus becomes a resistance against everyone, because everyone covets our territory.

Political Will

In Colombia, the war is a problem of corruption and of political will. The right-wing organizations proceed with the approval of the government. For the organizations on the left, the government has never had the will for peace. Our position is that peace is only possible with the participation of all social organizations. The historical fact is that the peace processes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were carried out between the government and the armed groups. Civil society, the social organizations, never participated. Today, there are more deaths than there were in the middle of the civil wars. Today there is no governance. The problem of the food security of the indigenous peoples, campesinos, and poor of Central America has not been solved. They negotiated peace, but today the situation is worse.

In Colombia, if the negotiations proceed in this manner--without the participation of the social organizations to express to all parties that the real problem is one of territory, natural resources, and energy--then there will be no peace. This is a question of political will, of the will to fight against corruption, because there is no sense of "nation" among those who govern us. What could U.N. peacekeepers do here? Maybe they could attend to the refugees and the displaced peoples--but no more. What can U.S. troops do here? They certainly will not solve the underlying problems. Only national laws and political will can solve the problem of land.

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization requires the very consultation and participation of indigenous peoples that is necessary for a truly successful peace process. ILO 169 was approved in Colombia on February 20, 1991, and the new constitution that is multi-ethnic and pluricultural dates to June 5, 1991. The 1991 constitution contains important clauses that officially recognized the religions, cultures, and languages of indigenous peoples. Many decisions of the constitutional court, around 140 to date, recognized the existence, autonomy, self-determination, right to participation, and the right to consultation of indigenous peoples.

There have been positive steps in the decisions of the courts, but we have fallen backwards too much in the practice. In Colombia, there are 102 senators--two of whom are Indians. But two senators can do nothing, because the Colombian Senate is made up almost entirely of those with economic interests. For example, in the fifth committee of the senate, to present a bill half of the committee has to approve. There are 17 members of the fifth committee, so you need nine votes. But this committee is made up of large landowners, coal executives, and gold mining tycoons. So, what can one Indian do in the fifth committee? All of the senate committees are the same. I imagine that it is the same throughout Latin America.

What can one trivial Indian do within this economic structure of the state and this disrespect for the constitution? In 1996, in an act of civil disobedience, we took over the headquarters of the Colombian Episcopal conference and--after 40 days of occupation--negotiated two new decrees. These decrees, 1396 and 1397, create regulations for ILO 169 and for the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Colombia government. The decrees established the existence of three new spaces for consultation with indigenous peoples: the National Board of Reconciliation; the National Board of Indigenous Territories; and the National Board of Indigenous People's Human Rights. This meant that when laws or parliamentary acts--such as the peace process--might affect indigenous peoples, that the government must sit down with us to come to an agreement on how ILO 169, and consultation in particular, should be implemented.

Unfortunately, in the National Board of Indigenous People's Human Rights, and in all of the other boards, there was a great lack of political will--resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives. On various occasions, we told the government that there was a solution to avoiding the massacres of specific indigenous communities. Peace in many territories means that the peasant colonizers stop planting poppies. If the state had just bought these lands and returned them to the indigenous reserves, the colonizers would have left, and conflict averted. The best mechanism would have been to take 3 billion pesos from the national budget and to buy the lands where there are conflicts and return them to indigenous reserves. But the ministers told us that they didn't have the money for this.

Basically, the discussion arrived at the question of what is the level of funding that the national government can allocate these areas. How much do they have? How much can they designate? During the administration of Ernesto Samper [Colombian president preceding Pastrana], the national development plan allocated two percent of the entire state budget for indigenous peoples. They didn't give us all of it, but it was government policy. If one spoke of education, there was some money; for health, there was some money; for land, there was some money. Andrés Pastrana eliminated Indians from the budget. Now, from the national budget, we get 0.000014 percent. This is how bad things have become.

[If we had been allocated money], once we recognized the means toward a solution [of any problem], and if the minister had then told us that he had, say, a thousand pesos, then we would have had a thousand pesos now. We could have gone to look for other funds from the European Union, the World Bank, or the state governor, until we found enough for the solution. At the Mesa Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, the solutions could not be found in speeches, legislative measures, or decrees; they were in money and political will.

Unfortunately, there was no political will [to use government money to solve the land conflicts that lead to drug cultivation and violence], and the result was a number of massacres that we had predicted and that could have been prevented. At that point we broke off discussions with the government, because they clearly couldn't or wouldn't stop the massacres.

It was in this National Board of Human Rights where the necessary consultation of the indigenous peoples about Plan Colombia and the social conflict could and should have functioned. In the resulting void, we have had to create unilaterally a National Board of Indigenous Peoples for Peace. The idea is to be able to sit down with the armed groups, with human rights NGOs, with international governments, the ILO, and the United Nations. To be successful, the board of peace of the Colombian indigenous peoples must become a board of peace that embraces all of the Americas and all of the governments with an interest in indigenous peoples and human rights in the Americas. We are now beginning the process, in various national and international spaces such as this one [the International Forum in Quito], to inform other indigenous people about the issues, speak with other governments, and explain what is happening.

1. ONIC press release, August 27, 2002.

David Edeli ( is a researcher and consultant for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon and a program associate of the Program on Non-Violent Sanctions and Cultural Survival at Harvard University. Zachary Hurwitz is an independent journalist and activist living in Quito, Ecuador.

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