Colombia: “We Are not Subversives, and We Demand Respect”


Interview with indigenous leader DANIEL PIÑACUÉ

VILLA RICA, Colombia, Oct 24 (IPS) – Colombian President Álvaro Uribe admitted that the security forces opened fire on indigenous protesters in the southwestern province of Cauca, but denies that they were responsible for the deaths of three demonstrators, said Daniel Piñacué, a leader of the Nasa community.

Piñacué, head of the governing council of Calderas, an indigenous reservation in the mountains of Cauca, and a prominent member of the powerful Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), was interviewed by IPS in the small town of Villa Rica.

The CRIC organised the "minga" (a traditional indigenous meeting for the collective good), the name given to the march that set out from the La María Indian reservation, declared a "territory of peace and co-existence" in the midst of Colombia’s civil war.

The 35,000 indigenous marchers, who belong to a number of different ethnic groups and come from 20 of Colombia’s 32 provinces (known as departments), expect to reach the city of Cali, the capital of the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca, on Saturday.

Piñacué, one of the leading spokespersons for the indigenous protest, told the media that the security forces had used live ammunition against the demonstrators, before the U.S. cable news network CNN broadcast a video this week taped by participants in the march that showed a uniformed man wearing a mask shooting in the direction of the protesters.

On Wednesday, Uribe acknowledged that the police had fired at the demonstrators.

But previously, the rightwing president had publicly called for Piñacué’s arrest.

On Thursday, Uribe gave in to the indigenous demonstrators’ demands for talks, and personally called Piñacué’s cell-phone to announce that he would meet with the leaders of the march on Sunday in Cali.

The protesters are demanding fulfillment of agreements signed with various governments since 1971. "We want the president to set deadlines and timeframes for compliance with these commitments, and we want national and international observers to be present," Piñacué told IPS late Thursday in Villa Rica, a small town along the Pan-American highway on the way from the La María reservation to Cali.

IPS: Uribe admitted that firearms were used against the protest. What is the indigenous movement’s view?

DANIEL PIÑACUÉ: The president finally recognised — because of a video, not because he believed it when we publicly told him — that the security forces have used violence against the peaceful indigenous march.

What he should also acknowledge is that three Indians were killed and more than 100 injured in the clashes with the army in La María. The wounded are being treated in hospitals in the towns of Popayán and Santander.

IPS: Uribe also agreed to talks. What will you demand in the dialogue?

DP: In first place, since we have been accused of being criminals and of inciting violence, we want our names cleared. We also don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens, and we want respect for our languages and our ancestral customs.

In addition, we are asking for an expansion of our reservations, legal title to our lands, and enough land to keep our cultures alive, work them, and obtain the products needed for the survival of our communities, in order to keep indigenous people from having to move to the cities, which is leading to the gradual loss of our cultural identity.

We are asking not to be violently pushed off our lands — a phenomenon that is facilitated by the Colombian government so that transnational companies can exploit our land, leaving us without water, and without minerals like iron, nickel and gold.

Furthermore, we are seeking the repeal of a number of laws that were passed without consulting us (as required by the constitution) by the illegitimate Congress elected by the narco-paramilitaries, and which hurt our communities: the laws on forestry, water and land. (The far-right paramilitaries, many of whose leaders have been extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, have publicly claimed that they control at least 35 percent of the members of Congress.)

IPS: Have the guerrillas infiltrated the indigenous march?

DP: Whenever a protest or march is held, the political leaders in this country always tell the media that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas are behind it, and that the subversives are manipulating and using the Indians or peasant farmers who are demonstrating for a just cause.

For us that’s an old story. But we have to make it clear to public opinion that we, who are standing up to demand respect for our rights and for the dignity and physical, cultural and political integrity of every one of our indigenous brothers and sisters, as well as the fulfillment of a number of agreements that have been ignored, are the only ‘subversives’ here.

Claiming the guerrillas have infiltrated the demonstration is false, and irresponsibly puts our lives at risk.

IPS: What should the international community know about what Colombia’s indigenous movement is asking for?

DP: They should know what things are really like. That we live in a battleground created by the armed sectors that for years have displaced us from the best lands, and forced us farther and farther up into the mountains.

They should know we are peaceful, hard-working people who are justly demanding our right to our land and the freedom and the right to demand humane, decent conditions to live in peace. (END/2008)