The Campaign of the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia’s Caquetá Region to Preserve their Culture

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Woman of the Nasa people in Florencia, Caquetá. Photo: Camila Tovar

After more than 30 years of war, the quality of life and human rights situation of the indigenous population of Caquetá remains worrying. Forced displacement, precarious health service, little respect for indigenous traditions, and limits on the indigenous communities’ ability to develop their own educational models have compelled the Colombian Constitutional Court to declare the indigenous peoples of the department in danger of physical and cultural extinction. More than 10,000 Coreguajes, Uitotos, Embera-Katíos, Andokes, Ingas, Nasas and Carijonas comprise barely 1% of the total population of Caquetá.  In contrast, the settler population—from Tolima, Huila, Nariño, Caldas, and Colombia’s eastern plains region—represents 80% of Caquetá’s population. This disparity has affected the control that indigenous groups can exert over their territories and traditions. The rubber boom in the mid-nineteenth century wiped out several ethnic groups and created an opening for the onset of the colonization of a dense forest forgotten by the government for years. Since the 1980s, the presence of guerrillas and drug trafficking has transformed Caquetá’s indigenous population into a victim of violence.

District 7, an urban settlement of displaced indigenous people, in Florencia, Caquetá. Photo: Camila Tovar

"Our communities do their best to keep our culture alive in the middle of cities, but it cannot be denied that these ways of living affect the administrative organization of the population and the preservation of traditions. Many are ashamed of what they have become and forget that we must build a unified voice to maintain ourselves as a people," said Dixón Andoque, an indigenous Uitoto representing the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC). About 4,000 indigenous persons live in urban areas of Caquetá without guarantee of the right to territory.   The problem has caused the displacement of more than 30% of the population, who seek refuge in the cities or are displaced within the country. Houses with tin roofs and cobbled streets full of garbage have replaced their malocas, their centers for spiritual growth and protection of traditions. "The situation is worrying, because we have been ignored when we have claimed an opportunity to advocate for our rights. We had not been acknowledged legally or administratively," says Luis Carlos Ulcué, an indigenous Nasa and current coordinator of the Caquetá Departmental Indigenous Council (CODIC).

Necessary actions

Indigenous people of Caquetá. Photo: Camila Tovar

Since 2012, the government of Caquetá has developed a variety of strategies to integrate its indigenous population in decision-making processes in order to improve their quality of life. Per the current governmental secretary, Hugo Alejandro Rincón, the main challenge has been to bring together all communities to establish a dialogue. "When the indigenous people gained a voice before the state, they decided to strengthen the organizational unity of all peoples in the department. In this way, they sought to make their situation more visible in order to elicit more effective solutions," says Rincón. These meetings also have enabled the indigenous communities to contribute to the development of the departmental development plan. Alongside the Amazon Conservation Team Colombia (ACT), in 2013, indigenous leaders of the department and the government initiated a project to strengthen and coordinate the communities. One of the forums that was created was the Caquetá Departmental Indigenous Council (CODIC), which enabled seven indigenous representatives, representing each community, to discuss and propose solutions from their own experiences. “This initiative enabled us to provide ourselves with training in agriculture, health, and administrative processes, among other subjects, and to exercise leadership at the department-level so that we may unite as one people," says Manuel Jesús Tombé, indigenous governor of El Danubio, a village near Florencia, and CODIC representative.  

A voice and vote for the indigenous people

Meeting of indigenous peoples in Caquetá to reach consensus on a comprehensive indigenous public policy. Photo: La Nación

After two years of work, the indigenous peoples of Caquetá created a forum to ensure that community rights would be made effective through the adoption of an Indigenous Public Policy—a new platform to discuss their needs and the work that must be undertaken to meet those needs. The policy was signed in late November, with the technical support of ACT, the departmental Ombudsman's Office, and the Colombian Interior Ministry. Per Carolina Gil, director of ACT, the project consists of three focal areas: self-administered surveys and studies of the communities, leadership schools, and greater insights into the experience of each population. Since 2012, the Center for Amazonian Research at Caquetá’s University of the Amazon (Universidad de la Amazonía), together with ACT, has presented a certificate program in agricultural production and cultural awareness-building to 14 indigenous representatives who participated in the self-administered surveys and studies.

Carolina Gil, director of ACT Colombia, at the graduation of the 14 indigenous representatives who have completed the university certificate program

The course concluded on 27 November. "With this certification, we will be able to teach the younger generation how to care for nature and respect our culture," said Arnold Medina, an indigenous Coreguaje of the municipality of Solano and certificate program graduate. Additionally, the leadership schools and the insight-building exercises seek to create the guidelines to define the policy—that is, they lead to agreement on discussion topics and priorities, says Ninfa Herrera, a Uitoto community member. Human rights, land and environment, healthcare and traditional medicine, education, and food sovereignty will be the key points in the policy. 

A road to peace

Indigenous representatives of Caquetá during the certificate program graduation from the University of the Amazon and ACT Colombia. Photo: Camila Tovar

"A Comprehensive Indigenous Public Policy will unite us more because it is a right that we have earned as a people, and it will enable the government to understand how they should assist us, based on our specific attributes and differences," says Flora Macas, of the Inga people and the Yurayaco indigenous reserve, who is part of the education coordination council of the indigenous peoples of Caquetá. The next departmental administration is also committed to realizing this opportunity for discussion and solution building." The implementation of this policy will benefit more than 10,000 residents in 49 indigenous reserves and more than 90 settlements. More than 140 legislative guidelines and 18 articles with solid arguments exist to make it a reality," says Gil, who has advised the indigenous communities. Given the challenges that this initiative in Caquetá has engendered, which contributes to peace and reconciliation, many questions are emerging about how the other indigenous communities in the country can press for the development of departmental public policies. Per Ulcué, the CODIC coordinator, "For us, it is a big challenge, because we have transitioned from the local to the national level. To the extent we are able, we will go forward and fulfill every task we have set for ourselves. The public policy is the opportunity that we have needed to make us feel and say that we too wish to do our part in building a better country." 

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