Indigenous communities from all over Latin America express identity in unprecedented soccer tournament

Source: Al Jazeera

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Few of the 20 young men from the Yucuma tribe had ever left their community in Colombia’s Amazon Forest when they boarded a boat on the Apaporis River last November. An exhausting two-day journey that included two plane flights finally brought them to Bogotá to represent their community at the Campeonato Nacional Más Allá del Balón, a soccer competition for indigenous people.

Organized by the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), a political grouping of representatives from Colombia’s 102 indigenous communities, the tournament, whose name translates as “Beyond the Ball National Tournament,” aimed to do more than simply measure soccer prowess. According to ONIC’s Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, its purpose was to highlight issues affecting indigenous people — and to help build a buffer against their youth being forcibly recruited by illegal armed groups.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court had found in 2009 that the country’s armed conflict disproportionately imperiled indigenous people through violence, displacement, forced recruiting and abandonment by the state, leaving at least 30 indigenous groups close to disappearing, either “physically or culturally.”

The suffering of indigenous people in Colombia has deep roots in the colonial period, but continued long after. Until 1991, they were deemed legal minors, living in small tracts of what remained of their ancestral lands, but isolated from the rest of country. The state made little, if any, effort to provide for the basic needs of these communities, which were left largely inaccessible — except to foreign companies, landowners and illegal armed groups.

The 1991 constitution recognized and obliged the state to protect “the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian nation,” and a number of provisions codified the rights of indigenous minorities. These included protecting their communal land ownership, granting them representation in the legislature and requiring that they be consulted before projects, which affect their communities, receive government approval. Still, as the 2009 Court ruling found, much remains to be done.

ONIC conceived the soccer tournament after a research survey found that 70 percent of Colombia’s 2 million indigenous people (about 4 percent of the total population) are aged 25 or younger, and that about half of those were “frustrated athletes.” The organization’s Secretary General, Juvenal Arrieta, who is from the Kankuamo indigenous community, told the organizing committee he would have loved to have played soccer professionally, but never had the opportunity — many isolated indigenous communities lack resources or infrastructure.

Still, the love of the game remains ubiquitous, particularly in communities located near modern towns and cities, where the sport is king. As was the case with other European imports such as the Spanish language and Catholicism, indigenous people living close to urban centers assimilated soccer as part of their culture. And from there, via trade routes, it reached more isolated communities.

The lack of infrastructure obliged the indigenous game to adapt to its surroundings. In the Amazon region, for example, games are typically played barefoot, usually with a ball made from rolled up plastic bags or even leaves in whatever open space can be found. Those matches, which tend to last three hours, are a weekend staple that plays an important communal integration role.

Juan Fernando Ávila Saavedra, representing his northern Colombian Yukpa community at the tournament, says that since there is not enough space in his remote resguardo (communally owned indigenous land), he and his teammates are only able to play “microfútbol,” a five-on-five variant of the game.

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