Colombia’s Minga Under Pressure

September 2, 2010

In 2008 Colombia’s indigenous organizations led a high-profile, six-week mobilization to confront the government of President Álvaro Uribe. Known as the minga indigena y popular, the mobilization brought together upward of 50,000 people throughout its process, beginning in the indigenous territory of La María, Piendamó, in the southwestern department of Cauca, but also including communities and representatives of the many diverse indigenous territories from every region of the country, who for weeks carried out simultaneous solidarity demonstrations. The tens of thousands of people who participated in the minga, including the many nonindigenous people with whom the mingueros locked arms along the way—poor peasant sugarcane cutters, victims of state-sponsored political violence, public university students, state workers—were mobilizing against the powerful interests of the Colombian system and the global order it was a part of, personified most visibly by Uribe, his well-oiled political machine, and his benefactors in Washington. Specifically, they were protesting the Uribe government’s economicdevelopment and military/security policies, its ongoing violations of the rights of indigenous people in Colombia, and its failure to fulfill its legal obligations to indigenous people.

The mingueros of Cauca began a march in October 2008, gaining momentum as it moved northward, first to the city of Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, and culminating in a massive rally on November 24, 2008, in front of the national palace in downtown Bogotá. The culminating event of the minga was a moment of considerable enthusiasm for the indigenous movement in Colombia, demonstrating to the country the movement’s tremendous organizational capacity. From the crowded stage in the Plaza Bolívar, indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia declared: “The minga that we have given birth to during these last several weeks has a life of its own, but it must be nurtured like an infant child. And we are all its parents, responsible for taking care to see it grow into maturity, take its first steps, and flourish for a Colombia that we all desire.”

Valencia, a member of the executive committee of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and one of the most visible leaders of the mass mobilization, charged the crowd of thousands to go back to their communities and continue the work already begun. The closing rally also saw a dramatic handshake and pledge of cooperation between Valencia and Narciso Mora, president of the Central Workers Union (CUT)—a public reaffirmation that the minga would continue to expand beyond the indigenous movement. It was an unprecedented message to the nation that the indigenous movement was no longer acting alone to defend its own interests, but part of a national struggle against the entrenched interests that control the state.

Yet continuing the grassroots, cross-sector organizing that the minga had by then committed to represents one of the biggest challenges for the indigenous movement—perhaps its greatest challenge since the movement emerged in the early 1970s. Despite the symbolic gesture of coalition building by Valencia and Mora, the role that non-indigenous sectors would play in the minga’s development was never clearly articulated, leading some in and outside of the movement to resent the indigenous leadership for its lack of clarity on this important point.1

Now, two years later, Colombia’s indigenous movement finds itself at a difficult crossroads: Will it continue on as a broad-based, multi-sectoral movement or will it redefine itself as a strictly indigenous movement? The debate within the many indigenous organizations that make up the movement over what the minga’s main agenda should be has been at times divisive. The direction it goes in will either place the movement’s leadership at the forefront of a broad-based opposition movement to the government of the new conservative president, Juan Manuel Santos, or in the midst of a debilitating splintering that just might incapacitate the movement.


One of the radical aspects of the minga, which attracted so many people to its agenda, was that the movement did not demand any one single concession from a state that it considered illegitimate. Rather, it issued a call to action to all sectors of Colombian society to begin the hard work of building the Colombia the movement envisioned. Some observers in the mainstream news media criticized the minga’s platform as too ambitious or broad; Uribe administration officials also belittled the movement’s agenda as “unrealistic.” But the minga’s five-point agenda was never meant to be a proposal to be negotiated with the government. Rather, it was meant as a declaration of principles that would serve as the starting point for a new cycle of grassroots consciousness raising and organizing.

The five-point agenda called for (1) an end to the proposed free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, and Europe; (2) an end to legislation that surrenders the country to mining, forestry, and water companies without consulting the indigenous communities whose land would be used; (3) an end to the militarization of indigenous territory and the expansion of the government’s “war on terror” under the guise of Uribe’s Democratic Security program; and (4) the fulfillment of Colombia’s legal obligations to indigenous peoples under national and international agreements, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The agenda’s fifth point consisted of an open call to all sectors of Colombia to jointly construct a “new society.”

This agenda—only one of whose points, the fourth, deals exclusively to indigenous concerns—was shaped with the understanding that non-indigenous Colombians were also affected by the policies of the Washington-backed Uribe administration, and that a broad-based response must be constructed to confront it. But some important members of the indigenous leadership felt the main objectives of the minga should have been focused on indigenous concerns first and foremost. Among them was Jesus Piñacué, a Nasa leader from Tierradentro who served several terms as a senator for the Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI). Piñacué, along with his brother, Daniel, and several other veteran leaders of the movement, were not openly calling for a broad-based struggle along common lines with other sectors, although they did not speak out publicly against such a strategy.

Throughout the minga, the movement presented a unified front, despite intense debates within the leadership about tactics and strategies. The issue of the return of indigenous lands to specific communities in Antióquia, Cauca, Chocó, and Nariño was extremely urgent for many of their constituents, especially since the government had repeatedly back-pedaled on previous agreements vis-à-vis these lands. Naturally, negotiating with the government on this practical concern was not considered unreasonable, and for some seemed to be battles that could be won.

Piñacué had already lost a certain degree of legitimacy within the indigenous base, nationally and in his native Cauca, in 2006, after the ASI endorsed former Bogotá mayor Atanas Mockus for the presidency, with Piñacué on the ticket as his vice president. Mockus, who lost his second bid for the presidency in the June elections of this year, was seen as a total outsider to the communities, a politician who supported the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Perhaps it was ironic that Piñacué, who was building alliances with non-indigenous sectors within the political establishment in 2006, was now less enthusiastic about embracing the radical agenda of the minga because it was too broad in its scope.

Nevertheless, as the march moved on, this narrow indigenist perspective was eventually drowned out by the larger five-point agenda, which was built on the ongoing consultation with the base communities along the march, and the communication work the movement was carrying out through its elaborate network of media channels, including community radio stations and the websites of the various organizations. The controversial decision to march all the way to Bogotá after almost four weeks of arduous mobilizing was the most visible example of this consensus that emerged from the ground up.2

This decision occurred at the conclusion of a nationally televised debate between the indigenous leadership and Uribe and his cabinet, at the same site where weeks earlier government forces opened fire on indigenous protesters. The government had hoped to put an end to the minga after the debate, only to find the crowds even more indignant after the six-hour spectacle. When Aída Quilcué, the chief counsel of CRIC, asked the crowds if the minga should continue, the response was overwhelming: “Let’s march to Bogotá.” The frustration on the faces of some of the leaders who felt the best strategy was to negotiate directly with the Uribe government on specific issues relating to indigenous land rights was visible from 100 yards away.

Weeks later, after the culminating Bogotá rally, some of the earliest post-minga pronouncements by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and CRIC seemed to indicate that the five-point agenda had become watered down and edited considerably. Instead of focusing on the transformative aspects of the minga’s declarations, suddenly the movement appeared to be more conciliatory. For example, CRIC described its first point on the agenda as a demand for “respect for human rights and the ‘good name’ of the indigenous movement”—as if the organization was gently requesting that the government protect its reputation. In the same declaration, CRIC described the minga’s goal as “the construction of a country where differences are understood and included within the national territory, and a state that responds to the dreams of the popular majority.” Critics felt that with this ambiguous language, the national leadership was unilaterally negating the movement’s original popular movement-building approach.3

As a result, with these lukewarm declarations emanating from the leading organizations of the movement just weeks after the closing rally in Bogotá, people were beginning to get confused. It also led to the accusation that some of the top leadership was evolving into an “official” opposition group, sanctioned by the Uribe administration as long as they “behaved” and did not ask for too much. The mixed signals immediately slowed the movement’s momentum.


Ironically, part of the difficulty is a result of indigenous organizations’ success during the last 20 years in creating a new cadre of ambitious leaders. When CRIC first began its consciousness-raising efforts in Cauca almost 40 years ago, one of its primary objectives was to develop new and capable leaders in order to enlarge the group’s organizing capacity. When the new Constitution opened the way for indigenous representation on the national level in 1991, it was seen as a great victory. Many of the movement’s new leaders have gone on to insert the movement into the national political dialogue—sometimes in ways that do not reflect the will of the base—largely through the movement’s engagement with electoral politics.

However, this leadership building and its electoral offspring have been a mixed blessing. What we have today, a little less than 20 years after the first indigenous leaders started getting elected to the national Congress and other political bodies is a very diverse cadre of leaders who don’t necessarily see eye to eye as to how to proceed in the interest of the entire movement. Furthermore, precisely because of the attraction of public office and all the rewards it eventually brings, many of these new leaders come into the spotlight with a more limited understanding of the nature of the indigenous organizational process, el proceso, which has taken years to build through consultation, reflection and consensus.

“The candidates and elected officials have often disconnected themselves from the organizational process and have self-proclaimed their representation of the indigenous movement in the same way the traditional parties have done,” wrote the former secretary-general of ONIC, Lisardo Domicó, in a 2007 essay about indigenous politics.4 In turn, some of these new leaders take credit for the symbols of resistance, such as the minga, grabbing the media spotlight and becoming national spokespersons, despite not having the authority to do so. And while they welcome the opportunity to put their face to the public displays of opposition, they are unwilling to embrace a broader struggle that openly confronts the entrenched systems in place that are threatening not only indigenous communities but other sectors as well. As one observer cogently pointed out, “Resistance does not imply alternatives.”5

This has opened the way for deep internal divisions. The most dramatic examples can be seen in Cauca, ground zero for the indigenous movement. On the one hand, in 2006 an indigenous group emerged calling itself El Movimiento Sin Tierra Nietos de Quintín Lame—the Landless Movement of the Grandchildren of Quintín Lame, the 20th-century Nasa leader who struggled for decades against the landowners in Cauca and Tolima—or Los Nietos for short. The organization openly defies the traditional leadership in Cauca, both from CRIC and the local cabildos (councils), calling for a more confrontational approach to the government and the large landholding aristocracy in the department. Adopting a more militant discourse reminiscent of the 1970s, the Nietos are demanding an immediate solution to the lack of arable land in the north, the economic exclusion they face, the privatization of health and educa¬tion, and ongoing impunity in the communities. They argue that without the use of force, the government will never succumb to the community’s demands over land or any other issue.6

On the other end of the spectrum, some indigenous organizations have been propped up with the support of the government and religious groups, particularly Christian evangelicals, looking to delegitimize the cabildo structure in Cauca by funneling resources into some of the most marginalized communities. In March 2009, the Organization of Multicultural Indigenous People of Colombia (OPIC, formerly known as ASONASA) was legally constituted by Nasa comuneros (community members) with the support of the government. Leaders of OPIC say they are needed to respond to the “aban¬donment, backwardness and imposition of beliefs” on the part of the cabildos, and are working toward putting an end to the “monopolization of health, education and other resources” by the traditional authorities.7

So from those indigenous activists demanding a more direct confrontation with the state, including with arms, to those collaborating directly with the state to derail the community organizing structures that have existed for years, and form the basis of the indigenous process, various factions are fomenting confusion and division within the base communities. Combine this with a national government under Uribe that for the last eight years has taken direct steps to challenge the authority of the indigenous cabildos, both in terms of security-military issues within indigenous territory, and economic development and the exploitation of resources therein, and you have an urgent situation unlike anything the indigenous movement has been confronted with in the past. The time for clarity from the top has never been more necessary.


Indigenous communities in Colombia, like other traditionally marginalized sectors of the country, face external threats from many different sides. From left-wing guerrillas, to right-wing paramilitaries, from multinational and domestic extractive industries to government forces themselves, the violence carried out on their territories and directed at indigenous leaders, as well as grassroots activists, is chronically profound. Uribe’s so-called democratic security strategy has not made things easier, despite ongoing government claims to the contrary. Indeed, the dangers are so acute that ONIC, along with a number of other human rights organizations, have launched a campaign to draw attention to the more than 32 different indigenous communities that are on the verge of extinction because of violence and other factors.8

These issues of economic exploitation, territorial displacement and military confrontation are at the heart of the struggle of the indigenous movement in the 21st century, not only in Colombia, but throughout the hemisphere. It is not an exaggeration to say we are returning to the intensity of the 1970s, when the dirty war tactics of the state confronted head on indigenous claims of autonomy and self-determination. The dismantling of the regards, a longtime objective of Colombia’s economic and political elite, is closer to becoming a reality today than ever before, albeit by other, supposedly more civil means such as new legislation and counter-reforms to the Constitution pushed forward by a Congress whose majority is made up of some of the most corrupt, reactionary, and violent sectors of the Colombian right wing. Almost 20 years after the Constitution was altered to include the rights of the country’s indigenous people, these rights are becoming ever more fragile.

But the challenge of the indigenous movement today is to recognize that it is not alone. The five-point agenda of the 2008 minga recognized this, which is why there was so much widespread support for its principles in the popular movement and political left. It may be too late to redirect the focus of the minga. The election season is over, and the left was unable to pick up from the mo¬mentum of the minga to make a dent on the powerful and still popular Uribe-Santos project. If it does have any chance of reigniting under the new administration, it is imperative that the indigenous movement listen closely once again to the closing words of Feliciano Valencia from November 2008:

“Either we confront the established order, expose it for what it is, and resist it, or we act within that order, and thereby help consolidate it. . . . This minga of the people is meant to fundamentally change that order.”9

1. See Michael Ó Tuathail and Manuel Rosenthal, “ ‘Authorized’ Minga in Colombia? The Challenges of Popular Movements,”, November 9, 2010.

2. See ACIN, “With Humility and a Conscience, This Is Our Decision,” communiqué, November 3, 2008, available at

3. Ó Tuathail and Rosenthal, “ ‘Authorized’ Minga in Colombia?”

4. Lisardo Domicó, “La alternative en el campo indigene as lo communitarian, lo propel,” Etnas y Política 5 (Bogotá: CECOIN, December 2007): 71–75.

5. Juan Houghton, “A propósito del congreso de la Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia,” Etnas y Política 5 (Bogotá: CECOIN, December 2007): 77–87.

6. For a detailed analysis of the Nietos de Quintín and threats to the indigenous movement in Cauca, see ACIN, “Estrategias para dividir al movimiento indígena,” statement, April 29, 2010, available at

7. Ibid.

8. See ONIC, “Campaña Internacional para la Pervivencia de los Pueblos Indígenas en Riesgo de Extinción en Colombia,” March 12, 2010,

9. “The Walk of Our Word: Colombia Will Walk the Minga! Translation of the Final Working Document From the Social and Community Minga in Colombia,” November 21, 2008, available at

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of communication and chair of the Department of Radio, Television, Film of Hofstra University. He is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories Press, 2004). He blogs at


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