Image courtesy of Christian Science Monitor

Colombia has been at war with itself for the past 50 years, with the national Armed Forces and guerrillas, lead by the FARC, at odds. The bloody conflict has put many indigenous groups in danger. For example, Toribio, the home of the Nasa (whom are pictured above), has been attacked at least 500 times, leaving many of their people dead and injured. The violence pushed the Nasa to form the Indigenous Guard, a volunteer force armed only with wooden sticks and based on tenets of non-violence and self-defense, to protect their people and their territory. Over 70% of Colombia’s ethnic groups have formed similar defense groups.

Peaceful Warriors

In the past, the Nasa’s Indigenous Guard joined forces with the Quintin Lame, which, much to their dismay, became a violent, gun-bearing guerrilla group. Quintin Lame dismantled in 1991 in exchange for a role in the Constitutional Assembly, which offered the Nasa and other indigenous nations some autonomy. The Indigenous Guard returned to their peaceful ways and won the National Peace Prize, awarded by the government and backed by the United Nations.

Three weeks ago, 200 Nasa people, led by the Indigenous Guard, drove out a group of soldiers from the military base located on their land, using only their infamous wooden sticks. Yet within several days the soldiers took their base back. Despite the rather peaceful methods of the Nasa, they have been vilified by the Colombian media as dangerous hooligans attacking soldiers, so only 23% of Colombians support them. The 1991 agreement allows the Nasa to constitutionally protect their land and their people, but the government should do more to help protect them from continually getting caught in the crossfire.

Protecting Indigenous Rights

Last Thursday Colombia’s Constitutional Court demanded that the national Armed Forces leave the Jiw and Nukak peoples’ land in the Guaviare province. The court said that the indigenous peoples’ rights were being violated because they were caught in the middle of the fight between the Armed Forces and the rebel groups (primarily FARC). The court stated that the Jiw and the Nukak peoples are “in grave danger of extinction due to lack of protection from the conflict.” Yet General Alejandro Navas says that the government will fight the ruling because it may open up a pathway for the FARC. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon agrees, having said that while they have to follow the ruling, they will try to have it overturned.

The ruling does not apply to any other indigenous group, including the Nasa, but it could set a precedent for them to argue upon. Yet the Defense Minister disagrees that it does not set a precedent and a representative from the Indigenous Organization of Colombia referred to it as a “special case.”  Finally, President Juan Manuel Santos said that military withdrawal from Toribio is not an option, due to active FARC and other criminal activity there. Until the rights of the Nasa and the other affected indigenous people are protected by the government, they will have to continue to defend themselves against men with guns.