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Violence against Indigenous, local groups deplored amid Colombia protests

Sapzurro Bay, in the Chocó Department of the Darién region in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

  • Colombians have taken to the streets in cities across the country over the past 24 days in protest against proposed tax reform, corruption, rising poverty, growing inequality, and unemployment.
  • Various NGOs have recorded some 2,000 cases of violence against protesters since the movement began April 28, with more than 1,000 arbitrary arrests, at least 40 deaths, and dozens of disappearances and attacks.
  • Social and environmental organizations working in the country, like Amazon Watch, The Nature Conservancy, and Amazon Conservation Team, have expressed concerns about human rights violations and violence against Indigenous peoples.

Environmental organizations working with Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in Colombia have spoken out about the popular movements currently manifesting in the country through a national strike and massive protests in different cities since April 28.

The protests had their origin in a tax reform presented by the national government, which was firmly rejected by broad sectors of society. It would have meant higher taxes for the basic food basket and public services, among other impacts.

Criticism of the policy escalated after Alberto Carrasquilla, the finance minister, said in a live TV interview that a dozen eggs could cost around 1,800 pesos, the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents — considerably far from the reality in Colombia, where a dozen eggs costs between $2 and $4.

The interview unleashed anger and resentment over the minister’s ignorance of the prices of essential consumer items. The tax reform was revoked and Carrasquilla resigned, replaced by the minister of commerce, José Manuel Restrepo.

But Colombians continue to protest, motivated by substantial social unrest triggered by high unemployment (which hit 21.4% in May 2020, in one of the worst crises prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic); rampant corruption; enormous economic inequality; and a rising poverty rate. The ranks of the country’s poor grew by 6.8% in 2020, placing 42.5% of all Colombians below the poverty line, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics.

It’s against this backdrop that ordinary Colombians have marched “at great risk to their lives due to the violent state repression and armed ‘non-governmental’ actors and the third wave of COVID-19,” according to a press release from Amazon Watch.

The NGO expressed its concern about the violent repression by the state security forces, the riot police (ESMAD), and the national army.

“We are deeply concerned by the reports of more than 2,300 cases of violence, more than 1,000 arbitrary arrests, at least 40 deaths, and dozens of disappearances and attacks,” it said, citing figures current as of May 18 according to the NGOs Indepaz and Temblores.

Clearing forest to create pasture is a common practice in Colombia’s Amazon. Photo by Dimitri Selibas.

Constant threats to social and Indigenous leaders

For Amazon Watch, threats to civil society aren’t new in Colombia. According to the organization, even after the 2016 peace deal that ended the long-running civil war, assassins operating on behalf of entrenched political and economic actors continue to kill Colombian human rights defenders and social leaders almost daily.

“Of the 331 murders of human rights defenders [globally] in 2020 documented by Frontline Defenders, 177 took place in Colombia. Globally, nearly seven in 10 murders were of Indigenous land, environment, and rights defenders,” Amazon Watch said.

“We understand that widespread frustration and fear have been building up over the years. Indigenous peoples have protested locally and nationally repeatedly due to hundreds of unfulfilled commitments by the Colombian authorities. At the beginning of the current mobilization, the organizations of Indigenous peoples in Colombia, including the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), mobilized and denounced human rights violations by part of the government,” Amazon Watch said.

It added that, in the Colombian Amazon, Indigenous territories are under increasing pressure from extractive, legal and illegal industries.

One example of this is the oil company GeoPark, which is seeking to expand its presence in Putumayo department against the wishes of various Indigenous and peasant communities.

“The desperate situation escalates, with local leaders courageously defending their collective rights, knowing they could be killed at any moment,” the NGO said.

“We extend our solidarity to all social movements that fearlessly exercise their rights to protest against social, economic, and police violence. The people of Colombia should not have to risk their lives to defend their rights! We join them in saying, Enough is enough! No more!”

Leila Salazar-López, Amazon Watch executive director, said the group joins calls by international human rights organizations and the United Nations to condemn the violent repression of civil society and the widespread violation of human rights by the Colombian government.

“We call on the United States policymakers to take action immediately to denounce and investigate this brutal state violence. It’s time for the United States to end financial support for the Colombian armed forces while they continue to engage in violence against civilians,” she said.

Red passion vine flower in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Clashes between armed civilians and Indigenous peoples

One of the most violent events related to the recent protests occurred in the city of Cali, in the department of Valle del Cauca in southwestern Colombia.

During the weekend of May 9-10, armed civilians attacked members of different Indigenous communities from Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments who were represented in the protest known as the Minga Indígena. The clashes left several people injured.

Salazar-López told Mongabay that Indigenous peoples in southwestern Colombia, like the Nasa, have been well organized for years and have also been targets of violent police responses and selective killings by armed groups.

“Armed civilians operating alongside Colombia’s military and police have been a feature of the civil conflict for decades. By and large paramilitary structures continue to operate with the acquiescence of state forces. So we’re not surprised to see that same modality as a means of repressing the current protests and the Minga Indígena. We are deeply concerned and express our solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of Cauca, the Amazon, and across Colombia who are defending their lives, rights, and territories,” she said.

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) also expressed concern over the stigmatization and radicalization of the discourse and narrative of some parties, including some public officials, against Indigenous peoples during social mobilizations, “which worsens the critical human rights situation these communities are experiencing in their territories.”

“We join the call of many to de-escalate the narratives and promote spaces for dialogue and solutions, which from the civil society we can accompany,” Carolina Gil, the ACT director for the northwest Amazon region, told Mongabay in an email.

“We highlight the importance of respecting the life and integrity of all people who participate in social mobilizations, including ethnic communities. We draw attention to respect for humanitarian work and medical missions. It is necessary to de-escalate violent actions as a step for dialogue, at different levels, starting from the recognition of differences, in a multiethnic and multicultural country,” Gil added.

Last week, Ombudsman Carlos Camargo Assis visited Cali to seek humanitarian solutions to the serious public order situation in this city and other municipalities of Valle del Cauca during the protests. Camargo also visited the city of Buga. The Ombudsman’s Office is also part of a unified human rights commission that Camargo Assis said was created to prevent acts of violence, consolidate complaints about abuses by public security forces, and open more humanitarian corridors to allow the entry of food, medicine and gasoline.

Camargo Assis also met with representatives of the Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, peasant, and protest movement in Cali. Subsequent talks are expected to open up space for dialogue and social mediation, especially regarding the list of demands from the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC).

“We ratify our offer to comply with the institutional mission of the Ombudsman’s Office and build bridges of social dialogue for the promotion and protection of human rights,” Camargo Assis said. “The objective of this [forum] is to receive the information from the Minga and build a truthful information system between the Minga and the Ombudsman.”

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has also weighed in, saying that, as a global organization that recognizes and supports the fundamental role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation, it rejects all types of violence, and hopes that Colombia will soon find a peaceful solution to the current crisis.

“We are convinced that our mission to protect nature while improving the well-being of people is more urgent than ever,” TNC said in an email.

“Nature-based solutions have a lot of power to drive economic and social benefits to solve some of the impacts of this exacerbated social crisis. For example, promoting nature-based solutions to curb deforestation can be, at the same time, a source of job creation, water, and food security, and sustainable rural development. Nature is our best ally when navigating these complex days.”