Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Cauca valley is the home of 200,000 Paéz (also known as Nasa) and Guambiano. The Paéz language is spoken by 40,000 people and is related to Chibcha. The majority of Paéz speakers are located predominantly in Cauca, and to a lesser extent in Tolima and Putumayo. The Guambiano are located in the central mountain range of Cauca and are a young population. The Guambiano language is part of the greater Chibcha linguistic family and is also known as Wampi-Misamera-wam. A traditional healer in the Guambiano culture is known as the ‘Mirbik’, who is chosen based on their ability to interpret visions. Collective work and mutual respect are key aspects of the Guambiano culture.
Guambianos have been active in the reclamation of their lands since at least 1980 when they joined with Paéz and Cumbales from the department of Nariño to form the Indigenous Authorities of the South West movement. They aimed to create an autonomous nation within the Colombian state, with the right to make their claims to Colombian authorities directly rather than through the traditional intermediaries. Although resguardo legislation theoretically protected their lands from usurpation, in the past this legal framework has been ignored or bypassed through the falsification of titles and the declaration of resguardos as public land. The Colombian indigenous movement is pledged to recuperación, reclaiming land through repossession.
Paéz and Guambiano lands have been extensively usurped for coffee plantations. While indigenous communities have always been active in reclaiming lands through judicial channels, land occupation enables them to reverse the process of land loss on a much larger scale. Retaliation against this method has been violent. In December 1991, 20 Paéz, including four children, were killed and as many wounded. A gang working for local landowners or drug dealers are suspected of the crime. Paéz land is wanted for growing the opium poppy which is replacing cocaine in the Cauca area.
In 1994 the NASA KIWE Corporation was established to support the Paéz communities impacted by an earthquake. This public corporation has documented the cultural and linguistic traditions of the Paéz.
The Paéz and Guambiano, like most indigenous peoples in the country, face significant pressures because of on-going violence in their region. Since the end of the civil conflict, the territory has also come under pressure from development schemes such as plantations. At the same time, armed groups and death squads have remained active in some areas. However, Paéz community members have been vocal in demanding their rights and participating in occupations of their territory, including monoculture clearance, in defense of their land rights and also in the name of environmental protection. A number of activists have been killed in recent years, including at the hands of police.
A particularly serious incident occurred at the end of October 2019 and caused widespread outrage. Indigenous leader Ne’h Wesx Cristina Taquinas Bautista and four members of the Nasa Tacueyó indigenous reserve were killed and a further five community members were injured, when they were attacked by armed men belonging to the FARC dissident ‘Dagoberto Ramos’ group. The attackers had broken through a barricade that the community had set up in order to try to protect their territory. In response, President Iván Duque ordered 2,500 soldiers to Cauca, despite the express wish of the community that all armed groups should be removed, including the military.
Cauca remains one of the deadliest regions for Colombia’s indigenous leaders. By the end of 2019, according to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), there had been at least seven massacres, 127 targeted killings, 32 assassination attempts and hundreds of cases of serious threats against indigenous activists in Cauca alone. Nevertheless, the region is a centre of a remarkable non-violent indigenous resistance movement, the Indigenous Guards, numbering 13,000 active members in Cauca and 60,000 across the country. Tactics include calling upon hundreds of community members of all ages to swarm around armed groups and seizing their weapons.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in