The war over indigenous territories in southwest Colombia’s northern Cauca department continued to heat up in July, after members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched a cylinder bomb into a hospital in the town of Toribío, injuring 13. Tired of being caught in the crossfire between government forces and the FARC, the communities were forced to respond, demanding the expulsion of all armed actors from their territories. The region’s small indigenous community radio stations announced emergency meetings. In local assemblies, the Nasa indigenous people collectively decided to confront the military directly and take apart, piece by piece, the barracks that had been set up in the middle of town by the government forces, ostensibly to defend against the insurgency.
Armed with only the wooden staffs of their traditional leadership, a thousand members of the indigenous guard descended on the town square and dismantled the trenches surrounding the town’s police station. They then ordered the FARC to leave and the following day marched to the Alto Berlín military barracks and kicked out the army’s 8th Alta Montaña Battalion.1 Tensions reached a boiling point when Eduar Fabian Guetio, a 22-year-old Nasa man, was killed at a military checkpoint in Laguna Siberia, Cauca.2 According to witnesses, the soldiers ordered him to stop, and when he didn’t, they opened fire—the latest example of the ongoing intimidation and threats directed against indigenous people by armed actors, both legal and illegal.
The indigenous guard responded by capturing 30 soldiers and four FARC guerrilla commandos. The soldiers were soon released, but the guerrillas were held for several days. These latest clashes ultimately culminated in a high-profile meeting between the indigenous communities and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, in La María, Piendamó, on August 14. Despite his veiled accusations linking the indigenous communities to the guerrillas, Santos called on them to be “allies for peace in Colombia.”
Throughout this period, news updates, images, audio and video testimonies, and analyses appeared on the dynamic electronic media of the indigenous organizations—particularly the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). Members of the ACIN’s communication network, Tejido de Comunicación (Fabric of Communication), produced a video of dramatic images titled “What the Mass Media Didn’t Show.” They posted it to their website, nasaacin.org, and it was picked up by international media outlets, including ABC News.3 Disciplined and creative, the Nasa people have transformed the use of electronic media, placing it at the service of their communities.
As a result of this grassroots media activism, the Tejido home page has been repeatedly hacked by unidentified sources. Similar attacks against the website and the transmitter of one of ACIN’s community radio stations occurred during a 62-day march to Bogotá in 2008.4 The motive behind these attacks has not changed: To shut down community-based media that present feasible alternatives to the failing establishment of the Colombian government and its political and economic elite with evidence, analysis, testimonials, images, voices, and statements. Content on the Tejido’s website confronts a sophisticated and increasingly discredited regime’s mainstream media propaganda machine.
By September 2004, a network of indigenous community radio stations had been in place for a few years. Local voices could be heard from the fields to the humble homes across the Nasa’s territory. Their technical capabilities had grown. Two old computers and a “tele-center” had just begun to send and receive text messages. Occasionally, printed materials were published for local distribution at communal gatherings, but in general communiqués, statements, and reports were rare. Despite the gradual proliferation of these and other communication initiatives that made use of technologies appropriated from the dominant society, there was little cohesion between each article or document. Most efforts were intermittent and random. Indigenous authorities were cautious and did not trust the Internet beyond receiving and sending personal and institutional messages. They saw it as a way of mainstream society to penetrate their way of life.
In the meantime, communities and national indigenous leaders had been working to understand the altered national and international aggression under neoliberal and free trade policies, which reached their territory through terror and war, government and transnational mega-projects, the destruction of natural resources, and relentless propaganda. The time had come to find new forms of resistance. The Nasa decided to invite other indigenous peoples to join in their Minga for Social and Community Resistance—collective mobilizations against the government’s economic development and military policies, and the ongoing violation of indigenous peoples’ rights. The agenda was shared from community to community. Dates were set. Everyone was surprised by the massive turnout. Eighty thousand disciplined, organized indigenous peoples marched into Calí for the First Indigenous and Popular Congress on September 18, 2004. The marchers rejected the neoliberal economic model and its “free trade” strategy in Colombia, demanding a people’s agenda to replace the policies of destruction. They denounced the civil war as a means to open territories for corporate exploitation and called on the government to guarantee the rights of all indigenous peoples.
A tandem bicycle with a transmitter—the “radiocicleta”—accompanied the march sending reports, interviews, and stories to a local university station, then to the indigenous community radio stations, and onto the Internet. Two centers with a few computers and volunteer technicians were set up and used to monitor and break through the mainstream media’s biased reporting against the minga and the indigenous meeting, while creating space for the voices of the people to be heard. The silence and lies were broken. The message of the marchers was heard and felt. The Tejido was formally established only a few months later.
The Nasa people have always understood communication as an essential cultural expression-turned-action to guide community organization and life in harmony with Mama Kiwe (Mother Earth). The following lines are at the heart of their traditional “Life Plan,” or philosophy of life:
Words without action are hollow
Actions without words are blind
Words and actions, outside the spirit of the communities
Speaking and acting “in the spirit of the community” and in “harmony with Mother Earth” leads to information for reflection, decision making, and action. This is sought out and shared widely among the whole community, feeding a process that the dominant global culture fails to explain. The outcome is cultural guidance, or C’xau (renewed aspiration), of the communities. It is constantly in flux, woven to their territory, and rooted in seeking harmony and balance—buen vivir (living well) as a people. These collective mandates guide the complex big-picture political questions as well as the everyday operational activities of the autonomous government, and form the basis of the Tejido’s media work, both for their indigenous territories and abroad.
The Nasa people have multiple traditional forms of communication—communal gatherings, local assemblies, and spiritual dialogues with the ancestors conducted in rituals through the the walas, or spiritual leaders. These are all now reinforced by printed materials, a network of community radio stations, video and documentary production, community exhibitions and screenings, and other electronic information and communication technologies, including the website and the editorials and bulletins now reaching more than 80,000 e-mail addresses across the world.
The Tejido weaves communication to and from the communities and with other peoples and non-indigenous sectors, under collective mandates of action reached through participatory deliberation. The minga was just one of these. As a living process, the Tejido, through its website and radio programs, invites debate and critical questions, offers different perspectives, challenges decisions and policies, and makes use of ancestral practices and new technologies to weave words and action in the spirit of the communities. The network has expanded even further through the use of social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where countless members of the community have shared links and information about the conflict with their newly constituted virtual communities. These tools have helped to multiply the Nasa’s capacity for solidarity and mobilization.
The visibility and recognition of the Tejido are of extreme importance. The Nasa’s survival and indigenous way of life—always under attack from the dominant modern capitalist “civilization,” which decides for itself what is relevant and useful—depends on it. The rest is discarded, rejected, or destroyed. The modern society renders invisible what is threatening or irrelevant to its interests, and co-opts or distorts “the other” in an attempt to influence public opinion. In the name of the “common good,” this dangerous culture must be disposed of. Under these conditions, the visibility of the Nasa is both essential for survival and risky. The indigenous communities must appropriate means to communicate and become visible on their own terms within this system that denies, rejects, or seeks to co-opt them. They face an ever present, widespread, sophisticated, and pervasive system of social control. Communicating demands wisdom. The collective must take advantage of all means necessary, while recognizing contradictions and learning from mistakes.
There are no “normal” times in territories under constant aggression. Resistance depends on the consciousness and coherent effort of informed communities. Extractive industries with government support attempt to privatize common goods, from water to land to ancestral knowledge. The U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement is being imposed as a supranational constitution to dispossess peoples. The extractive industries and corporate powers penetrate territories and minds. Informing to reflect, decide, and act against the policies, propaganda, and terror help people recognize and resist an overt global aggression. Solidarity becomes strategic action.
For its activities, the Tejido is under threat. None of its members receive wages, only some financial aid whenever available through their own efforts. At times, they have earned nothing for months while the community video forums, the website, and the radio stations continued to function. One member suffered an assassination attempt and had to leave. One of the founders and coordinators of the Tejido was publicly accused of being a terrorist, a member of the armed insurgency, a CIA agent, and was forced into exile. The daughter of another member was murdered. These are just a few examples of the attacks suffered. Nevertheless, the success of the Tejido has led to national and international awards. It was recognized as the Best Community Media in Colombia by Semana magazine in 2007, and two years later won the Casa de las Américas Bartolomé de las Casas award as the best cultural initiative on the continent.5
Under Plan Colombia and today through the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the occupation of the country is now at a stage of consolidation, with Colombian military personnel, funded and trained by the United States, firmly entrenched in indigenous territory. Trenches are placed around civilian households. Abusive behavior by soldiers is commonplace, including the killing of innocent civilians, as was the case of Fabian Guetio. FARC forces and militias alike constantly commit abuses and crimes against the indigenous population. Both sides accuse civilians of being collaborators.
In the end local communities are to be displaced and subdued across Colombia. Tired of this and of a coinciding institutionalization process through which their millenary culture is being taken over by outsiders for their interests, the communities stood up and ordered the war out of the territory, demanding all armed actors to leave northern Cauca. The Tejido has helped open communication for life with dignity, and despite the threats it not give in.
“We convene everyone to resist; to expel those who deny us from these lands,” wrote the Tejido collective on July 8 in an article on their website.6 “As long as we have a voice left, we will continue to struggle against the colonizer and for our full autonomy.”
Emmanuel Rozental and Vilma Almendra are founding members of the Tejido de Comunicación. They now coordinate the international grassroots communication effort Pueblos en Camino.
1. Susan Abad, “Colombia: Indigenous People In Middle Of Someone Else’s War,” Latinamerica Press, August 12, 2012.
2. For dramatic on-site images, see Tejido de Comunicación, “Ni un tiro más,” YouTube channel uncaucanito, July 20, 2012.
3. Tejido de Comunicación, “Lo que no mostraron los medios masivos de comunicación,” YouTube channel Nasaacin, July 18, 2012; Sequera Vivian, “Indian Upheaval Bares Colombia’s Nagging Conflict,” ABC News, July 21, 2012.
4. For coverage of the minga and related events, see Tejido de Comunicación, “Minga social y comunitaria,” nasaacin.org.
5. Tejido de Comunicación, “Tejido de comunicación acin, ganador del Bartolomé,” nasaacin.org, September 11, 2010.
6. Tejido de Comunicación, “Está claro: Nos quieren acabar,” nasaacin.org, July 18, 2012.
Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."