Update 2011 - Colombia

Colombia has approximately 1,400,000 indigenous individuals (3.1% of the country’s population), belonging to 87 different peoples. These peoples live in such contrasting ecosystems as the Andes, the Amazon, the Pacific, the Eastern Plains and the desert peninsula of Guajira.

Some ten or so peoples live in the Andes and inter-Andean valleys and these account for approximately 80% of the country’s indigenous population. The Amazon and Orinoco regions have a much lower population density, with highly dispersed settlements but they are home to the greatest number of peoples (70), some of these comprising 500 individuals or less and thus on the verge of extinction.

Sixty-five Amerindian languages are spoken within the country, along with two Creole languages spoken by the Afro-Colombians. Five Amerindian languages now have too few speakers to be revived: Pisamira (22 speakers), Carijona (27), Totoró (4), Nonuya (3) and Tinigua (1). Another 19 languages are in “serious danger” of disappearing.

Almost a third of the national territory is titled as “Indigenous Reserves”, owned collectively by the indigenous communities.

The 1991 Political Constitution recognised the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. ILO Convention 169 was ratified that same year and is now law (Law 21 of 1991). Under Álvaro Uribe Vélez’ leadership, Colombia initially abstained from approving the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but, at the end of his second term in office, he was compelled to support the Declaration under pressure from the Constitutional Court, which three months earlier had ordered the government to take urgent measures to protect the most vulnerable indigenous groups (Ruling 004 of 26 January 2009).


2011, the first year of Juan Manuel Santos’ government, was full of contrasts and uncertainty. On the one hand, the economy grew by more than 5% but, on the the third most unequal country in Latin America, after Honduras and Guatemala. Poverty and inequality continue to be Colombia’s two great failings and, until they are resolved, it will not be possible to forge the country’s democratic reorganisation.

In 2011, Colombia also signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the United States of America, Canada and Switzerland, thus opening the door to imported foodstuffs, discouraging the reconstruction of the agricultural sector and increasing poverty in rural Colombia, which already stands at around 64%.

The neoliberal doctrine that has guided the economic policy of recent governments maintains that the solution to poverty and inequality must be put on hold because “growth comes before redistribution”. This neoliberal aphorism is a contradiction not only because of the commitment made by Santos to the Colombian population1 of “democratic prosperity for all” but also because inequality diminishes the effectiveness economic growth can have on reducing poverty.2 And also because these two failings – inequality and poverty – are an incentive to the now unbearable internal war that the country continues to suffer.3

The rewards being reaped from foreign investment continue to be meagre as foreign companies persist in repatriating their profits without paying taxes. The privileges Uribe granted foreign capital in the context of his policy of “investor confidence”, aimed at attracting foreign capital into the country, have thus far not been repealed.4 The royalties the state receives from multinational companies are somewhat disheartening, and well below the international average. As an economist, Santos should know that, under these conditions, it is a demagogic sham to suggest that they will provide the necessary resources with which to consolidate “democratic security”, rebuild a country devastated by the winter, restore road infrastructure and continue to pay the victims compensation, all of which are, along with the restitution of land to those displaced by the violence and agricultural modernisation, central government policies without which it will be impossible to consolidate democracy or establish a peace process and human rights guarantees.

The government no longer talks of land distribution5 but of returning that which was taken from four million peasant farmers. And although the passing of the “Law on reparation for victims of the armed conflict”6 in May marked an historic milestone, it remains unclear as to how the government proposes taking whole territories out of the hands of the paramilitary armies; these are the very paramilitary armies that, according to the Attorney General’s Office, in taking these lands caused the deaths of no less than 173,183 Colombians and the disappearances of 34,467 more, between 2006 and 2010 alone. To this difficulty must be added the fact that the peasant farmers have their reasons for not returning to the lands that were taken. According to the Human Rights and Displacements Consultancy Service (CODHES), 39 leaders of displaced communities that were claiming their lands have now been murdered and, in 2011, 300 death threats were made against people demanding the return of their farms.

To give some idea of the power these paramilitary groups hold, at the time of writing this article, an “armed strike” was taking place in whole regions of the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, Chocó, Magdalena and Sucre. This strike was called by the “Los Urabeños” paramilitary group in response to the death of its leader, Juan de Dios Úsuga, alias “Geovanny”, at the hands of the police. Suffice to say, these regions of the country were at a complete standstill for 48 hours. And the issue becomes more complicated still if one considers that this paramilitary armed strike was supported by the north-western block of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), given that Luis Carlos Úsuga Restrepo, alias “Isaías Trujillo”, a legendary FARC guerrilla and current head of the FARC’s north-western block, is the first cousin of the dead paramilitary chief and of the other members of the Úsuga family who head up the “Los Urabeños” paramilitary group.7

There are, nonetheless, some reasons for hope. At the end of the year, the first Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRC) of Montes de María (south of Bolívar) was approved. Uribe had discredited this legal concept, leading to the suspension of the ZRCs.8 The fight for the ZRCs marks an important milestone in the peasant struggle for land. With this, peasant farmers are not simply seeking a “land distribution” in the context of an agrarian reform of a reformist ilk (given that it does not question the logic of capital and the land can return into the hands of the large landowners). With the ZRCs, they are instead seeking “recognition of peasant territories” which, as collective property, would remain outside of the land market, thus contributing to building an inter-ethnic view through which to develop their own forms of spatial domination: a kind of “interethnic geopolitics” aimed at raising the political level of the territorial rights of indigenous, black and peasant groups and shielding their territories from cattle ranchers, plantation owners and extraction activities. It is perhaps in this direction that the World Bank’s reasoning goes when it states on its website that “Ethnicity can be a powerful tool in the creation of human and social capital but if, politicized, ethnicity can destroy capital…Ethnic diversity is dysfunctional when it generates conflict.”

There were, however, other events that also offer a glimmer of hope as they demonstrate the essential changes that are taking place among the Colombian people. The first was the great mobilisations of people in Santander which forced the state to reconsider its decision to exploit the gold deposits in the Santurbán uplands, a rich aquiferous region in the Eastern Mountains that supplies water to various towns in the area, including the administrative capitals of Bucaramanga and Cúcuta. This defeat, inflicted on transnational mining by the social, environmental and academic organisations, along with the citizens of 22 municipalities, was an encouragement to the indigenous and black communities of Marmato (Caldos) and the peasant communities of Cajamarca (Tolima) who have been affected by extraction activities.
The second was an appreciable turnaround in the rule of law, which was manifested in a number of ways:


a. Senior civil servants in the Uribe government are now being prosecuted for the illegal phone tapping of politicians and senior court officials, and also for the corruption scandal relating to the illegal granting of substantial agricultural subsidies; civil servants and politicians close to former president Álvaro Uribe have been linked to the investigations being conducted by the General Attorney’s Office and the Supreme Court of Justice in this regard.9

b. Praiseworthy actions have been taken by investigation and control bodies, such as the Comptroller General which indicted the Colombian government because its economic model was not sustainable and was in violation of the constitution, and because there was no appropriate institutional structure in Colombia to support the powerhouse of mining. There was also the action of the new comptroller, Sandra Morelli, who uncovered the mess that the national mining authority (INGEOMINAS) was in, revealing that it had granted more than 9,000 mining titles, favouring pro-government individuals, companies and politicians.10 She also blamed the government for the winter tragedy that had paralysed the country because, rather than a mere natural disaster, it reflected a failure in public environmental policies, in particular the inadequate management of the


country’s wetlands which, in 2001, were estimated at 20 million hectares but which today are reduced to 3 million.

c.  The Attorney-General’s Office has been uncovering a whole web of complicity between the Armed Forces, members of parliament, government representatives and private armies incorporating landowners and other private interests; these investigations have made it possible for the Supreme Court of Justice to indict more than one half of the Uribe administration’s Congressmen and women for their links to the paramilitary forces.

The third was the fact that, from 30 September to 3 October, indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian people converged on Cali to attend the “Congress of the Peoples”. Almost 7,000 members attended, and were supported by a similar number of students and indigenous and peasant social movement sympathisers. This meeting set itself the task of legislating on land, territory and sovereignty in Colombia, as the central logo of the event was, “Because this land is ours. We peoples will build the territory”. The National Lands, Territories and Sovereignty Congress was an important moment of encounter and agreement on the part of the social, political and popular movements, who need to remain on their territories for their physical and cultural survival. This is why it is essential to legislate, or as the Congress put it “to mandate” with regard to nature’s common assets in order to protect the territories from the mining “locomotive” and the use of the land from the driving force behind plantation agriculture in response to the demand for “biofuels”.11 It was undoubtedly a call to the Santos government, stating that the collective territories of the indigenous, black and peasant communities are sacred and intangible, “not for sale”, and so, in contrast, they had to remain safe from transnational interests.

Contrasts and uncertainty for indigenous and afro-Colombian peoples

By means of Ruling No. 004 of 26 January 2009, the Constitutional Court ordered the national government to design and implement a Programme to Guarantee the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Affected by Displacement, for which it was essential to produce, with the effective participation of the indigenous peoples’ legitimate authorities, ethnic Safeguard Plans with which to face up to the armed conflict and forced displacement of 34 indigenous peoples. By the end of 2011, and despite many studies and local and regional assessments undertaken by indigenous organisations and many meetings of the Permanent Consultative Committee of indigenous peoples and the government, the truth remains, however, that 117 indigenous people were assassinated in 2011, as denounced by the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC). Most of these were leaders involved in land restitution work in Cauca, Antioquia and Tolima.12

Santos showed his talent for scheming in this regard. On the one hand, he undertook to comply with the Court ruling but, on the other, he paralysed the process from within the Consultative Committee by setting the indigenous representatives the task of producing strategic proposals and policy outlines for the National Programme to Guarantee the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for the Ethnic Safeguard Plans and for the Prior Consultation Process. These proposals must, according to the Constitutional Court, be the result of a process of consultation with the indigenous authorities at local, then regional and, finally, national level. The state provided the resources with which to carry out this work. A number of peoples are now “bogged down” in producing their safeguard plans and, as the resources begin to run out, the process is slowing down while new resources are sought. If the process is postponed or the results are not satisfactory and the state objects to them in the Consultative Committee, then the indigenous leaders and organisations that are heading the process will be considered responsible. The government is therefore “complying with” the Constitutional Court ruling but delaying the process in order to “postpone” its fulfilment. It prefers, given that it is cheaper, to continue to provide resources for the organisations’ leaders and advisors to plough on, researching and deepening the studies in the communities. Meanwhile, the situation in the regions is becoming increasingly dire, as can be seen from ONIC’s complaint above.13

Similarly, the Constitutional Court also indicated in its Ruling 005 of January 2009 that the displacement of Afro-Colombian communities was having a disproportionate but neglected impact. It therefore ordered the national government to include the implementation of a general plan for the care and protection of the Afro-Colombian population. Three years on, just as is the case with the indigenous peoples, this Constitutional Court ruling has not been complied with.

The Constitutional Court explicitly stated that one of the rights of the Afro-Colombian communities was the right to participation and to prior and informed consultation aimed at reaching a consensus, which meant that the implementation of Ruling 005 had to be undertaken in cooperation with the communities affected. The government’s strategy for avoiding prior consultation was to resort to the High Level Consultative Meeting, which is a mixed structure under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior which includes representatives of the Afro-Colombian communities elected by the Community Councils, and the role of which is to ensure that the policies developed by the Colombian state are put out for consultation and the peoples’ rights guaranteed. As various Afro-Colombian organisations have stated, however, their representatives to this High Level Meeting were co-opted by the government. Consequently, three years on, the design of mechanisms with which to implement Ruling 005 has not yet commenced, making it ineffectual and perpetuating the Afro-Colombian communities’ status as “victims”, which was precisely what the Court wanted to avoid. Worse still, according to the Afro-Colombian organisations, some community councils of the Afro-Colombian communities’ collective territories have been used to legalise the plundering of natural assets – timber, gold, oil – in exchange for derisory payments. Some consultation processes are “bought” by the extraction companies, with the approval of the state entities responsible for protecting the natural assets of the collective territories. It is thus not rare to see the mining “locomotive” steaming full speed ahead in these regions.

Locomotives and poverty

Economic stagnation is a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with the expansion of the plantation (palm oil, banana, coca) and resource extraction (timber, gold and oil) economy, a result of a return to the production of primary commodities, exploiting such resources in response to international demand.14 This impoverishment is more widely and increasingly felt in the indigenous and Afro-Colombian regions15 as it is there that the consequences of natural resource extraction have a devastating effect: first because it destroys natural living systems and second because it concentrates land ownership in the hands of a few. Both these factors lead to an impoverishment of nature and create a process of productive alienation, increasing the exclusion of the indigenous, black and peasant population. According to official figures for 2011, 40.5% of Colombians live in poverty and 14.4% in extreme poverty; this figure is greater in rural areas, however: “To our shame,” says President Santos, “64% and 29.1% of indigenous peasant farmers live in poverty and extreme poverty respectively.”

Yet again, however there are “reasons for hope”. The “ethno-territorial” peoples are now more aware that the greatest obstacle to their inclusion, to the wellbeing of their communities and to less inequality, is the exploitation of natural resources and a change in land use for commercial purposes. One reason for this awareness is that the United Nations Development Programme’s National Human Development Report 2011, “Reasons for Hope”, has opened their eyes to this: we now know that one in every three Colombians is a peasant, black or indigenous person that depends on the land. In other words, these almost 15 million poor, miserable peasant, black and indigenous farmers not only call the National Planning figures into question but are the bearers of a warning: that there will be no modernization if the country continues to turn its back on the countryside and the government continues to sign Free Trade Agreements. The report indicates that 52% of rural property is in the hands of just 1.15% of the population and that there are some 6.6 million hectares of plundered lands.

Presented by the Minister of Agriculture and President Santos, the report proposes democratising land ownership, breaking up landholdings and returning the plundered land to the peasants.16 Will Santos be able to fulfil these goals and go peacefully to his grave having kept his promise to the Colombian people? Will the rural people, along with the environmentalists, manage to put a cog in the wheel of the mining and agrofuel locomotives, as happened in the protests to defend the Santurbán uplands and in the student protests in defence of education?

The indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian peoples are now more aware that the production activities that put down territorial roots are those related to food production. Plantation agriculture and mining are completely unable to satisfy the needs of the native population; they do however, dehumanise the territories and spur on a process of cultural breakdown. Worse still, this pillaging of natural resources is a cause of violence as the ensuing incomes attract armed players who, while they may differ in their political or ideological outlook, share the same economic interests and thus compete for the income from illicit economies, for mastery of the territories and control of the population, inflicting a barbaric conflict on the regions.

The peoples have also understood that their ills are a result of the economic, political and social conditions that perpetuate poverty, inequality and exclusion, and not a result of terrorism, as Uribe claimed. Above all, they are clear that the conflict will not end with the elimination or demobilisation of the illegal armed groups, as the war made those behind it rich, changed the land ownership system by displacing four million peasants and encouraged a political environment in which their mentors were able to seize control of regional governments through fraudulent elections.

2011 was thus a year full of contrasts and uncertainty but it was also a year in which a glimmer of hope appeared to the effect that, from such misfortune, “angry” communities may emerge to take control of their lives and continue to mobilise for democracy.  


Notes and references

1    Juan Manuel Santos said on the day he took office that he wanted to be remembered for having achieved prosperity not for a few but for all Colombians.

2    Gabriel Gonzalo Gómez, lecturer at the EAFIT University in Medellín, maintains that poverty in Colombia is due more to the unequal distribution of wealth than to an incapacity to produce such wealth (quoted by Cristina de la Torre: “Prosperidad, ¿para pocos?” El Espectador.com, 23 January 2012).

3    Over the last decade, as a product of the dirty war between the different armed groups, more people have been killed each year than in all 17 years of the military dictatorship in Chile put together.

4    During eight years of the Uribe government, “foreign investors expatriated funds of the same capital value as they had invested in Colombia” (De la Torre, Ibidem).

5    In Colombia, 4.9 million hectares are put to agricultural use when the land suitable for such use totals 21.5 million hectares. Meanwhile, 38.6 million hectares are used for livestock farming when scarcely 20 million hectares is suitable for this activity.

6    This law is important as it is the first in the country that was enacted for the victims. Until then there had only been laws favouring the demobilisation of the killers (2005 Law on Justice and Peace).

7    “Alianza ‘Urabeños’ y Farc no es más que un negocio de familia”, El Tiempo.com, Sunday 29 January 2012.

8 The ZRCs were created by means of Law 160 of 1994, and brought in in El Pato (Huila), Cabrera (Cundinamarca), Calamar (Guaviare), Valle del Cimitarra (Antioquia) and Morales (Bolívar). Many other peasant regions in Boyacá, Santanderes region, Cesar, Nariño and Tolima also called for their implementation.

9    Actions on the part of Uribe himself are also being investigated as, with the support of Codechocó, he gave his backing to the Canadian company, REM Forest Productions, to log more than 44,596 hectares in a collective territory in the Chocó.

10  Those recently granted will have their title frozen, those already issued will be reviewed and more than 20 civil servants remain under investigation for selling confidential information and peddling political favour, among other unlawful activities.

11  The term “bio” has a strange connotation as it conceals the fact that, to produce these plant-based fuels, natural forests are being torn up, destroying the livelihood systems of the ancestral populations of the Pacific. It would be more appropriate, as proposed in a committee, to call them “death fuels”.

12 According to the President of ONIC, “all these brothers participated in the consultation process for the law on victims”.

13  The statement by the indigenous authorities of the Caño Mochuelo indigenous territory, where nine indigenous peoples live, the survivors of the massacres that took place during the colonisation of the Eastern Plains, also says much the same thing: “We call on the Colombian state to ensure consistency in its policies towards the indigenous peoples of Caño Mochuelo. We do not understand how, on the one hand, the vulnerability of our peoples can be recognised – Ruling 004 – and yet, on the other, the solution to our fundamental territorial problems can be postponed while at the same time promoting oil projects on our territory as if nothing would happen in Caño Mochuelo; we therefore do not understand where the Colombian state’s priorities lie.”

14  See: Jaramillo, Efraín, 2011: La maldición de los recursos naturalesin: “Los indígenas colombianos y el Estado…”, Copenhagen: IWGIA.

15  In the case of the Pacific, never before had there been such great uprooting as that which took place with the appearance of mining, coca and palm oil cultivation. The inter-ethnic school proposed signing a declaration to the effect that, given their environmental devastation, the destruction of exceptional living systems and the violence they create in the region, these economic activities had to be considered not only as illegal activities but also as crimes against humanity.

16  To date, the state has returned 800,000 hectares. The goal, says Santos, is 3 million during his term in office.



Efraín Jaramillo is an anthropologists and member of the Jenzera Work Group (Grupo de Trabajo Jenzerá)