The Nasa of Northern Cauca: A Photo Essay
Justin Podur, May 2004 En Camino / ZNet Colombia In February of 2004, I visited Northern Cauca in Colombia. Northern Cauca, as you will see, is the site of a remarkable social movement of indigenous people who are struggling not only against the displacement and violence directed against them by the state, but also for their own vision of autonomy and their own project for constructing their future.
Alcibiades Escue, a member of the indigenous councils of Northern Cauca, answers Colombian television questions at the trial staged by the Nasa of the Colombian military on February 19, 2004. The reporter asked Escue: "Why do you oppose Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Security policy?" Escue replied: "Because it is not democratic and it doesn't bring security..."
In April 2004 I published a version of the text for this photo essay in the Indian magazine, Frontline. This version includes my own photos, additional text that Frontline had to remove because of space considerations, and some interviews that were unpublished until now. Together I believe it is a good introduction to this remarkable struggle, one made invisible by a whole variety of forces, but one which has a lot to offer and inspire.
Northern Cauca, the Occupied Territory
A battle between the Colombian social movements and the government is being played out in local spheres all over Colombia. One of the arenas of battle is Cauca, a highly strategic corridor in southwestern Colombia through which the Pan-American highway carries the commerce of the South American continent. The northern zone of Cauca, mountainous and neglected by the state, has long been a stronghold of the FARC. In the valleys and cities, the sugar barons, drug cartels, and ranchers continue to wield their traditional money power, trying to forge alliances with multinational capital for megaprojects to exploit the vast natural resources of the region (Cauca, for example, has tremendous water resources).
Colombia in the Americas, Cauca in Colombia, and the Northern Zone in Cauca.
Northern Cauca is also home to one of the most politically sophisticated and strong grassroots movements in Latin America: that of the Nasayuwe (or Nasa) indigenous, a population of around 110,000, organized into 'cabildos' or councils, with a parallel government and a political project they call indigenous autonomy. Because of their success at building this autonomy, they have been attacked by the traditional elites, the government, the paramilitaries, and at times, the FARC, which is unable to allow space for a political project that is not its own. Their organization, the CRIC (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca), founded in 1971 under the banner of unity, land, and culture, has become the ethical and political guide of other movements in the country and a seed of the remarkable resistance there. Part of the spirit of the Nasa's movement is expressed by the mayor of Toribio, the town that is the historic heartland of this movement. Arquimedes Vitonas in a speech in Cali in February 2004, told the assembled leaders of the indigenous movement in Northern Cauca: "With this war, they can kill many of us, but they cannot kill all of us. Those of us who live will continue with our work. Those of us who die, will have died defending our process." If Vitonas's comments capture the Nasa's steadfastness in the face of the attacks on them, the view from the central square in Toribio captures the reality of occupation that the Nasa are living. On each corner of the square, the national police have set up a guard post. Such posts dot the town, and heavily armed police with their M-16s are ubiquitous.
One of Toribio's guard posts. Higher up in the mountains, in the indigenous reserve of Tacueyo, there is fighting, as the Colombian Army tries to dislodge the FARC from territory the guerrillas have held for decades. To get from Toribio to Tacueyo, one has to pass one, sometimes two, military roadblocks. At the roadblock, the military officer acts respectfully to our group, chatting with the driver and expressing his concern for the civilian population: "The important thing," the officer says, "is that the people are calm." In Tacueyo, the people are under siege. The thousand people who belong to this reserve have gathered in a 'Permanent Assembly' at El Crucero. Above El Crucero are the FARC's positions. From below, the army continues to push. The Army's behavior on the ground, meanwhile, makes a mockery of the checkpoint officer's show of concern. Here at the assembly, the people have organized sleeping quarters, sanitation, food, and the indigenous guards. The latter are a Nasa innovation: unarmed guards, who communicate with handheld radios and carry sticks as symbols of their authority, they keep watch at night and sound the alarm if there is an encroachment into their territory. They are gathered together here because when they are dispersed in their fields and homes all over the countryside they can be caught in the crossfire, or targeted themselves.
The Army constantly attempts to elicit the cooperation of the Nasa, in Tacueyo and elsewhere. Soldiers go to the supply stores and rooms, they offer children money to inform on the guerrillas, and try to visit and make themselves visible with the indigenous, so the guerrillas will see this and commit reprisals against the civilian population. In Toribio and Jambalo, it is not a stretch to say the police are using the population as human shields against the guerrillas. They are building a permanent, fortified station in Toribio against the will of the community who will have no such fortification against the fighting the police are trying to provoke. When combats occur, armed forces casualties are evacuated by helicopter. Civilian casualties have nothing.
This, the community reports, is a strategy to try to drive the Nasa politically towards the Army. The Nasa remain aloof: the Army then resorts to repression. They plant coca, poppy, or marijuana in the houses of indigenous peasants and claim the Nasa are narcotraffickers. Members of the community are falsely accused of being guerrillas and carted off to jail without any due process. The roadblocks themselves are a threat: if the peasants are unable to get to their fields for long enough, they will become dependent on food from outside - food which can be blocked off at the Army's will by the roadblocks, a strategy the Army and especially the paramilitaries use all over Colombia to break the resistance of communities.
Northern Cauca, the Liberated Territory
Padre Antonio Bonanomi is an Italian priest who has lived and worked at the mission in Toribio, and with the indigenous movement for over twenty years. Asked how the movement continues to build despite being militarily occupied, he replies: "The Nasa are living two processes. One is external, the violence of armies and economic models brought from outside. The other is internal. It is built on dreams. The Nasa are a people full of dreams, full of hope. Their historical experience has taught them that the rest will pass. These armies, they come and go. I asked them the same question. They tell me: 'Padre, the Spanish conquest was worse. The 'War of a Thousand Days', at the turn of the 19th century, was worse. The violence of the 1950s was worse. The armies come and go, and the dreams remain.' So, in the midst of the violence, they are creating their development plan. They go off to Malaysia to receive a United Nations award for their ecological management of the zone. They will wait out the conflict, and build in the meantime." To the Nasa, building autonomy means building on the base of the struggles of the past. The first hero of the indigenous movement here is La Gaitana, a woman who led her people to war against the Spanish conquistadores in 1536 and united the tribes to fight hand to hand, making the Spanish pay dearly for their conquest. The second, Juan Tama, who around 1670 learned to use the Spanish laws that acknowledged indigenous ownership of the land in the 'Leyes de Indios' to win the indigenous rights and title to land reserves. These gains were reversed with Colombia's independence in the 19th century, as the nationalists sought to 'develop' the new country by destroying the indigenous. Then in 1910, Manuel Quintin Lame appeared on the scene, again struggling for the land, this time using a mix of nonviolent political struggle, education, and the laws of the independent Colombian state. Quintin Lame laid the foundations for today's indigenous movement with patient underground organizing over decades, for which he was punished: by the time he died in 1968, he had been in jail 100 times.
Manuel Quintin Lame, and others
What Quintin Lame and others had won, however, was undermined by what is called in Colombia 'La Violencia', a war between Liberals and Conservatives that began in 1948 and resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions of peasants from lands that then ended up in the hands of wealthy landowners. The indigenous were disorganized and disunited. Their communities were controlled by the traditional elites and their traditional parties, and they worked as debt serfs to the owners who had stolen the land from them. In the late 1960s, the indigenous began to struggle to win their lands back. Like the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) in Brazil, the indigenous of Cauca won their land back by nonviolent occupations. They suffered tremendous violence: some 1500 were murdered in the struggle for the land. But by the end, in the 1980s, they emerged with an indigenous organization for all of Cauca, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC). Today they are organized in the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) for the northern zone as well. They also emerged with control over their ancestral land reserves, and collective title to the lands.
Instrumental in this process was a Nasa priest who studied outside of Cauca and returned in 1975. Alvaro Ulcue helped spur the land recovery movement, the youth movement, and virtually every other aspect of the movement through the 1970s and 1980s. The landowners and the security forces assassinated him in 1984. Ulcue's assassination by the elite did not stop the movement. Nor did the assassination of Jambalo's first indigenous mayor, Mario Betancur in 1996, by one of the guerrilla groups, the Army of National Liberation (ELN). Nor did the assassination by FARC of yet another indigenous leader, Cristobal Secue, in 2001. These latter two murders were investigated by the communities themselves, who concluded that the murders were committed as attacks by the guerrillas on the project of indigenous autonomy.
In the late 1980s, with the lands under their control, the Nasa found that their indigenous organizations and their political initiatives were being stymied by the traditional elites and parties who still controlled the municipalities. They formed the 'Civic Movement' to take over the municipalities. After losing three times, the first indigenous mayors were elected in the mid-1990s. Today, Toribio and Jambalo have indigenous mayors from the movement. The reserve lands and the territorial autonomy of the indigenous were formally recognized in Colombia's Constitution of 1991.
The movements have used the spaces won in the municipalities and their constitutional rights to the reserves to develop the region using a decentralized planning methodology. An outgrowth of Paulo Freire's methods of adult education, the methods involve the training of facilitators and the use of assemblies to create development plans, establishing priorities and setting projects for the community to allocate the municipal budgets and the transfer payments to the indigenous reserves. This type of planning is done at the reserve and municipal level. In February, the municipalities held their annual assemblies where the priorities were set. For the municipality of Toribio, the assembly took place at the indigenous university of CECIDIC, a diverse university with programs in agriculture, economics, trades, and law. Toribio, with its 30,000 inhabitants, had 3,000 at the meeting. The meeting opened with the staff of the municipality placing posters with indicators collected in village-level meetings two months before. There were dozens of indicators, ranging from production, to educational outcomes, to reports of human rights abuses within the community. In the first step, the members of the community had to revise the indicators and, if necessary, correct any errors. Then the 3,000 broke up into smaller groups to work by theme (the 7 themes included education, institutional development, health, culture, human rights, family, and ecology and economy, treated together) and by reserve (the municipality consists of four reserves, Toribio, Tacueyo, San Francisco, and the urban centers). The 28 working groups set the budget priorities, decided on projects, and submitted their decisions to the assembly.
This decentralized planning has proved to be a highly effective method for management. Toribio's 'Proyecto Nasa', the overall plan, of which the development plan is a part, was one of the winners of The UNDP's Equatorial Initiative for Sustainable Development prize on February 19, 2004 in Malaysia for the best development project. The prize, given to 6 projects out of 600 entrants, was given for development plans that reduce poverty by conserving and restoring ecology. The ecological successes of the process can be seen by anyone traveling in the region: the land, after decades of abuse by sugar barons, ranchers, and absentee landlords, is being reforested, restored to productive use, and brought back to life.
Moves and Countermoves
Underscoring the paradoxical situation lived by the Nasa, the annual development planning assembly was an occasion to speak for the families of 8 people from Toribio who were summarily arrested and jailed with a complete lack of due process. A woman from the Tacueyo reserve explained how on January 29, 2004, her husband was pointed out by someone wearing a ski mask and taken to Popayan by a group of heavily armed police and military personnel. Hugo Prado Orozco, a marble mine worker, well known to the entire community as someone with no links to the guerrillas, was then put on national television along with 7 others from the community and weapons none of them had ever seen before, while the Army claimed to have won a major victory against the guerrillas, capturing high-level commanders. According to Colombia's anti-terrorist laws, these people, now in jail in Popayan, the capital of Cauca, have no rights to face their accuser; no rights to see the evidence against them; no rights to a jury trial. Instead, their fate will be decided by the state prosecutor's office, in private. The families collected 3,000 signatures in the community of people who swore that these eight individuals had nothing to do with the insurgency. Against this, the prosecutor general has the testimony of someone in a ski mask - and the eight continue to sit in jail, in dreadful conditions, in Popayan.
The 'guardia indigena' stands watch in Tacueyo Another paradox: the very day that 'Proyecto Nasa' was winning the UNDP's sustainable development award, February 19, the Nasa held a massive assembly of 6,000 people in Caloto. This time, the assembly was a kind of 'trial': according to the 1991 Constitution, the indigenous have the right to exercise justice according to their traditions for crimes committed within indigenous lands. The Nasa used this to raise the issue of the conduct of the Colombian Army itself. On December 31, a member of the community, Olmedo Ul, was shot dead while riding past a military post on a motorcycle. No one has been punished for the crime. To the community, the issue is clear: that murder, along with many other abuses by the Colombian military, could not have occurred if the Army was not in their lands in the first place. Indeed, this random killing of a young man in Nasa territory is understood by the political organization to be a kind of punishment for the Nasa's refusal to allow their project of autonomy - from the government and the insurgency - to be used as part of Uribe's counterinsurgency strategy. The killing took place two weeks after the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca published a communique differentiating indigenous autonomy from the government's position. The 'trial', like the UNDP prize, became national news in Colombia, with the commander of the Army going on television to state that the indigenous had no jurisdiction to try the Colombian military. Publicity more generally helps provide protection for the Nasa, as it does for movements everywhere.
At the February 19, 2004, 'trial' of the Army commander at Caloto It is for this reason that communication with other movements in Colombia and throughout the world has become so important for the Nasa, as it has for all Colombian social organizations. The strategy for destroying them has been to divide and isolate, something the establishment learned to do ruthlessly well in this country of regions, of diverse indigenous, afro-colombian, and mestizo ethnicities, and of urban/rural and class divisions. Being just 110,000 of Colombia's 44 million, the Nasa cannot defeat Uribe's agenda alone, as much as they might have to teach other movements about how to build and organize a remarkable project in terribly adverse conditions. They are not alone, however -- and by weaving their autonomy and resistance with others, they are opening up possibilities in Colombia and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.
Appendix 1: An Interview with Manuel Santos
The Nasa Movement Justin Podur interviews Manuel Santos Conducted February 20, 2004 in Cauca, Colombia Manuel Santos is a part of the indigenous movement of Northern Cauca. As the movement began taking over the local machinery of government, he became a councillor, first in the municipality Toribio, and then a member of the departmental government of Cauca under its first indigenous governor, Floro Tunubala. He was interviewed on his personal history in the movement, and the history of the movement itself.
JP: Talk about your personal history.
MS: I was born in Caloto, in the plain of Northern Cauca. There were missions, established there, in order to prevent children like us from growing up as Nasa-speaking 'brutes'. They took us away from our mountain, and raised us in the houses. My father was actually involved in organizing the communities. But at the same time he didn't want us to speak Nasa. He was confused. He was a communist: he took us out of the mountain, he organized in the councils, the secret meetings at night that led to the founding of CRIC. But to him, to speak Nasa was bad.
JP: Was that rare at the time?
MS: My mother spoke Nasa and so we learned some. We studied in Caloto but we eventually went back to our mountains. My father needed our help to work the land. But all indigenous had these problems. At the time there was a rule from the government, that children wouldn't be allowed to speak indigenous languages. And in fact the first real recognition of the indigenous was with the Constitution of 1991.
JP: What about your history in the process.
MS: I have been involved in this process for 23 years. I was very young when The Regional Council of the Indigenous of Cauca , CRIC was formed. I was born in 1964. CRIC was founded on February 24, 1971. As a child, in the late 1970s, I was involved in the struggle for the recovery of land. When I was 12 years old, my father, Filomino Poto, educated me and my brothers and sisters by sending us to work with those recovering the land. We were kids, but we had our own work. When we were recovering El Berlin, a ranch owned by a major landowner, the job of the children was to watch the roads for police and army. The older children worked - cleaning the land, and so on. Our job was to watch the roads. There were 20-30 of us. We would yell our warnings, but we would make it seem like we were playing. And we would run away. The army would see us, and do nothing: we were just kids. I remember those days, one of the leaders, an adult, Miguel Huejia, he was one of the first indigenous leaders killed in Cauca in this process. He was actually shot by the landowner at a meeting. The first major indigenous congress after the founding of the CRIC, was in 1980 in Toribio. I went to those meetings. That was where a lot of the infrastructure you see here was laid. We had 'indigenous guards' at the meeting. We had commissions organizing food, transport, music, for 5000 people. It was tense: the landowners in Toribio were very close, their police were very close, armed; they would come on horses, we had only sticks. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I saw other kinds of indigenous people: people from Putumayo, the Guambiano from southern Cauca, people from Pasto and Peru.
JP: What continuities and what changes have you seen, since those days?
MS: There are many changes. When I studied, the children had no shoes. Back then, only a few leaders would speak at meetings. Today, the community has grown and many people speak. Today the women and the youth have a voice in meetings. When I was a child, the women were the bedrock of the movement. All the men were taken off to jail, but the women kept recovering land. When the men were imprisoned in Toribio, one time, the women opened the gates of the prison. And in spite of that strength, they didn't have the chance to speak in meetings. Today they do. Back then there was no cooperation with the Afro-Colombians. Today there is.
JP: What about changes in terms of the actors? Today the whole area is occupied by the military and police. The guerrillas are here in force, and no one respects the autonomy of the Nasa. What was it like back then?
MS: The guerrillas were in the cordillera in the 1980s: in Toribio, in Jambalo. They worked together, very closely, with the Communist Party. There was a break between the two when the Communists took the electoral route, forming the Union Patriotica and contesting elections. In Toribio, the FARC guerrillas and communists tried to oblige us to join the party. That is when the violence against us began. In the San Francisco reserve, they obliged us to vote. Every family had to pay 10 pesos a month in membership fees. When people resisted, there was violence. The worst was in San Francisco, between 1980-81, there were 80 people killed. The communists were our own indigenous people. Some of them were very important to the movement. Abelino Ul, he was an important figure in the 1980s, teaching and guiding people, a really exemplary person. He was a communist. But he was killed by the landowners. There were others who just used force, and it got so bad that there were 3-4 killings a day. The indigenous guerrilla movement, Quintin Lame, began this way. The indigenous were trying to defend themselves. The landowners were killing us, and so were the FARC and the communists! Quintin Lame was really an organization of armed self-defense. And other guerrilla organizations actually came to the territory to help Quintin. Quintin needed the help. M-19 was one of the groups that helped train and arm Quintin. The FARC front in this territory was "Ricardo Franco". There was a lot of confusion. In 1983, the indigenous voted the communists out, and the liberals came to power. The indigenous who joined the liberals took their money and demobilized. It was a very difficult time. In 1984, Alvaro Ulcue, the Nasa priest who had been instrumental in the movement here, was assassinated. There was violence in 1984-5 in Toribio. We were involved in meetings with liberals, M-19, Ricardo Franco, the communists, Quintin.
JP: What were the landowners and paramilitaries doing?
MS: They were always there. They were the ones who killed Alvaro Ulcue. The army accused us of subversion. Quintin became involved in theft, armed robbery. I fled the region in 1985 for six months. My post in the local government was filled by another member of the community, and rumors flew that I was informing the army. After I came back, the army took two members of the community to the mountains - one from M-19, one from Ricardo Franco, tortured them, and killed them. They left a note saying "by order of the indigenous council." This was a tactic of the army, but I was blamed. I fled the country for three years. I went to Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala. But I wanted to return, and in 1990, I was able to return and participate in the process leading to the 1991 Constitution.
JP: What is your assessment of that Constitution?
MS: It really changed the whole landscape. Before 1991, the indigenous were in a state of rebellion against the government. It wasn't a state of perpetual shooting war, but it was a state of rebellion. When we became a part of the system in 1991, we accepted the system, in exchange for its recognition of us, and we weren't in rebellion any more. One of the effects of this was that we stopped building for ourselves. Look at our documents today. We make our arguments in terms of the constitution, not in terms of our intrinsic rights as indigenous people. But it gets worse. There have been 'reforms' of the constitution and they are planning more 'reforms'. Essentially the spirit of 1991, in which our rights were recognized, is already dead. People speak of the "ex-constitution of 1991". The mining rights and mineral rights are already gone, for example. Only the concessions made to the multinationals remain. It is a major retrogression, and I believe that we have to recognize that we have won far more through struggle, through facts, than through laws. Rebellion was better. How did we win agrarian reform? Not by law. The government shows a nice constitution to the world, but the facts no longer match it.
JP: What of the electoral landscape today? The regional elections brought left governments to power all over the country - except Cauca, which was ahead of the country when it elected Floro Tunubala, the first indigenous governor, but now has elected Juan Jose Chaus, a major friend of Uribe's. What can be learned from the Cauca experience with Floro for the local governments in the country now?
MS: Floro was part of a different movement. The visions of the Nasa of Northern Cauca and the Guambiano, the nation Floro is from, are different. The Guambiano demand social justice from the government. The Nasa see themselves as a nation, we have our own project. So we are in rebellion in a different way. That is one difference. Floro didn't have the power to make fundamental changes. He didn't mobilize and work with the social sectors. He tried, instead, to manage conflicts between the elite and the social sectors. During various campaigns of the social movements, he didn't take a position. He didn't attack the traditional sectors or elites. He tried to make small changes.
JP: Do you fear the same will happen in Bogota, and elsewhere, where the left has come to power since October 2003?
MS: It is not only the fault of the political class. The social sectors have not articulated an alternative project. And you have to recognize that Floro prevented a major militarization of Cauca. He prevented fumigation. The paramilitaries were much weaker under Floro than they will be under Chaus. Floro was opposed to Uribe's 'Democratic Security'. All over Latin America, these things are happening. What can these governments do? In Colombia, they are trying a hard-line approach with Uribe. If it fails, they will go with a liberal type. But there is this division in the elite. The problem is that there is no one with the strength to stop them. Their actions during the Pastrana era and since have discredited the FARC nationally and internationally, and they haven't been willing to do what they need to do to clean up. No political group or project like ours is big enough or strong enough alone to change the national situation. We wouldn't want to impose our will or our values on the rest of the country in any case. Others have rights too! But we have to fight nationally and internationally for the space to build our project here.
Appendix 2: An Interview with Antonio Bonanomi
A Living Process
Justin Podur interviews Padre Antonio Bonanomi
Conducted February 24, 2004 in Toribio, Cauca
Padre Antonio Bonanomi has been part of the movement in Northern Cauca since the 1980s. The role of the mission in Toribio was crucial since Alvaro Ulcue's arrival and strengthening of CRIC even earlier. As an outsider, from Italy, who has been in the community for decades and shared its problems, Bonanomi brings a unique perspective to the movement.
The mission in Toribio (painting of Alvaro Ulcue)
JP: How and when did you get here?
AB: I came officially at the beginning of 1988, but I had passed through before. I got here and saw a process already underway. It started in 1980 and was already 8 years old. Alvaro Ulcue had already been dead for 4 years. At the time, they were evaluating Proyecto Nasa. Some of the advisors who had been here from the start came to do a long evaluation. I was able to attend this, and through this, I was able to understand a lot about where the process was and where it was going. I came here with a lot of ideas. It is one thing to see and hear about it from Bogota, but it is another to see it here, its life and voice. At the time, the group here at the mission still played a central role. One of the sisters was the secretary, another the treasurer. After the evaluation, I saw the need for some new lines of work. First, we needed to build capacity in the community to lead the process. Second, we needed to revive some of the nearly-dead programs: the youth, the women's program, they had suffered after Alvaro Ulcue's death and were necessary to revive the community. Third, we needed to take the project beyond Toribio. Since 1990, the growth of the project to other spaces really began. In 1987, Jambalo began its 'Proyecto Global'. In 1990, there were two more: 'Proyecto Unidad Paez' in Miranda, and 'Proyecto Integral' in Caloto. In 1991, two more projects in different parts of the zone grew up. These projects continue the experience of Proyecto Nasa here, and have the same objectives, methods, and spirit. Structurally, there were three elements. The Assemblies, the School of Community Animators, and the various Programs that took place under the overall project.
JP: Watching the assemblies work as very efficient decision-making bodies with huge numbers of people is amazing. Where does this come from?
AB: Part of it is tradition. But the methodology is newer. It comes from liberation theology of the 1960s and 1970s. The method is called 'see, judge, and act'. It was actually grown here in Colombia. The three parts, to see, gather, analyze the situation in commissions; to judge to see if it corresponds to the overall plan; and act, to translate it into a part of the work plan. These sorts of methods are used in the consciousness-raising of Paulo Freire: creating consciousness for liberation. That's the methodology. The tradition is that people like to meet: there have always been assemblies. But before Alvaro Ulcue brought this methodology, the assemblies were ones where one person would talk and the rest would listen. Alvaro taught that each and every person had to learn to think, to give an opinion, to decide, and act. The assemblies are a huge part of life here. There are four major assemblies each year, at each level. That is 24 assemblies a year, each 3 days long… I used to go to them all, so I would spend 80 days of the year in assemblies!
JP: What about the school of animators?
AB: Each project needed facilitators to help people lead the process. So the facilitators were trained at this school. Many of the current indigenous governors and council members are from this process.
JP: And the programs? What are the traditions behind the 'Planes de Vida' (life plans)?
AB: This society, like every society, has to deal with this problem: how do you combine tradition with modernity. I don't mean 'modernization', roads, and all that. I mean the positive things about modernity: changes in gender relations, ideas of individual liberty. A living society has to be able to take these things in without losing its identity. And this process has done so. This is a process, a culture, that is alive. It is flexible. So long as my body is alive, I can ingest something, assimilate it, and make it a part of me. The Nasa are the same. This is no museum! And so, it is partly tradition and partly from outside. The people always had a 'Plan de Vida'. That is how the movement started: a declaration for territory, authority, law, spirituality, all intrinsic. The development planning process is just a part of this. It is a small part of the overall 'Plan de Vida'. Education is an important program. In 1996, we started to look at how we could have university education here: perhaps a campus of another university. In 1997, an institute at the University of Medellin, began a program in social science emphasizing language and anthropology. We had our first graduating class last year. This year is the second. Many of the leaders of the process come from that program. In 2000, we began a program of ethno-education. In 2001, we had a program in economy and agro-industry.
JP: I heard some preoccupation in the assemblies over this: elders were worried that the young people would be educated here and then leave.
AB: Opportunities are limited, and we try to give them to those who are already working for the community. At Juan Tama, one project produces 30 tonnes of trout every 3 months. This is a source of protein for the community, and it's a source of revenue. The project was done by people trained here, and committed to creating something here. JP: Part of the project is taking over the municipal governments to use them for the development plan. The insurgency views this as 'collaboration', and would say that if they are not in armed rebellion, they aren't in rebellion at all. AB: It is a different logic. The logic here is a search for a new way of doing politics. To transform power. The armed struggle is a search for power. The indigenous don't want to be ordered around by anyone. Here is an example. When the FARC ordered all municipal politicians to step down or die, many of them quit. Many of them were killed. Here in Toribio, the mayor was from the movement, Gabriel Pavi. There was an assembly, of 6000 people. He asked the community if he should quit. They said: we chose you, we oblige you to stay. Gabriel hid in Cali for a week, but after the assembly he came back. The community decides. The mayor does not exist to serve the government, but to serve the people. Another illustration of the difference in world-view. There is a letter that the FARC published on May 28, 2001. It explicitly denounces the CRIC. We analyzed the letter very carefully. It is most expressive. For many years, the FARC loved the indigenous. Until the 1980s, before the indigenous recovered the land, it was good. Before 1980, the FARC used to want to recover the land, so they could struggle together. But after 1980, the indigenous had the land and the FARC began to act in a very authoritarian way. That is when the problem started. Before that, it was a common land struggle. When FARC took a more hierarchical line and power structure, things changed. Quintin Lame organized itself, calling M-19 for help, and were actually fighting FARC. Those years of love ended. There is an ideological and political difference. There is a recognition by both that the state is the main enemy. The problem is that the FARC is essentially a state-in-waiting. The Nasa are not against the FARC: it is a struggle for the land, it is a struggle for autonomy, that is shared. But the logic of power, and an ideology that neglects culture or seeks to replace one state with another, isolates the indigenous. They are treated like servants, pack mules - and the saying goes that a mule is a mule whether it is carrying shit or gold. Put simply, if you are against the state, the indigenous are with you. If you want to make a new one, they are not.
JP: How has the process survived such a complicated situation?
AB: We are trying to open dialogues, within and outside the country. I realized in the 1990s that the situation was getting more complicated. Until around 1998, even, you could move around freely. But the guerrillas were growing, and then the paramilitaries appeared. This is a key corridor. The guerrilla chief has always said that they will be here as long as they exist. Alone, we are very weak. In 1997-8, we began to work with the Afro-Colombians. This is difficult. There was a lot of mutual disrespect. It was shameful because each community believed the stereotypes about the other. It was actually easier to work with intellectuals and campesinos in the interior of the country: but this was more important. We were able to open spaces in Italy: we go each year to exchange with this 'civil society encuentro'. All these lines are the fruit of the assemblies. The indigenous have won some space. Baltazar Garzon, the spanish supreme court judge, was here. Proyecto Nasa won the UNDP sustainable development award. These sorts of things provide some protection. The worst part is that each side thinks we're firmly with the other. I always say I don't know who it is that's going to kill me.
JP: It is a strange experience to witness all this, because on the one hand there is this amazing process. On the other there are heavily armed military police and soldiers, bombs going off. It is a liberated territory and an occupied one.
AB: The Nasa are living two processes. One is internal, built on dreams. The Nasa are always dreaming. They have workshops, projects. They believe all this will pass. Their historical experience tells them the rest will pass. We won't pass. They say, it's tough, but La Violencia was worse, the war of 1000 days was worse, the spanish conquest was worse. Their resistance, their patience, is in this context. I hear a bomb going off and I get stressed - they are not. Instead, they are planning: they are occupied, but they are having their development planning assemblies. For them, the conflict will pass. For me, I say - how can we have autonomy when we are occupied. They say - we act as if we are free. We are occupied. But the occupiers will eventually leave, and we will continue to plan and dream.
JP: The indigenous position is a hard one to try to explain to outsiders, in some ways especially those who are against neoliberalism, US intervention, and paramilitarism: they think FARC is simply the only answer.
AB: It is difficult for outsiders to understand. I spoke on the situation in Italy recently, and the communists were there. They couldn't understand why the FARC were not on our side.
JP: Seeing all this in motion and comparing it to the situation in Canada, I wonder what we can learn; I wonder whether the situation is so different that there are no lessons that can be learned. You are able to compare with Italy. What do you think?
AB: There are some universals. First, if a process is not of the grassroots, it has no future. The world is full of pyramids. But pyramids are for museums. You know the ones. Egypt, Guatemala, these are museums. Well all pyramids belong in museums. A process has a future if it is of the grassroots. Second, a process should be holistic. Not only material, not only spiritual, not only the individual, not only the community, not only tradition, or innovation. It has to be holistic, and address the needs of a whole person and a whole community. These two are fundamental, and can serve any process. The idea of trying to construct on a culture is very limited. Cultures are always moving, renovating, changing. 16 years ago we had one culture here. Today we have another. It isn't that the people have lost their identity. You were different when you were five years old than you are now. But you were still you. The same is true here. The most beautiful part of a living process is that it goes on. I know personally. I used to be so important in this process: people used to ask me: 'Padre, what do we do?' Today they don't ask. They say: 'Padre, here's what we're doing.'