Sunlight filters through the trees and whiffs of vegetable beef stew float through the air as dozens of women, men and youths of the Nasa indigenous people congregate together in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca once a month for a “minga.” During the minga – a type of communal work found throughout the Andes – approximately one thousand people clear hundreds of hectares of sugarcane with machetes and controlled fires.
Replacing the “green desert” of monoculture sugarcane with their own crops is part of the “Liberation of Mother Earth” movement initiated in 2005 by the Nasa. Cauca is one of the most militarized provinces in the country, and indigenous communities have been heavily affected by violence from armed groups including state security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas. After suffering displacement and the exploitation of their lands by multinational corporations, the Nasa are reclaiming their ancestral territory, sowing subsistence crops including corn, beans, plantains and yucca.
“The Liberation of Mother Earth is a strategy for the defense of life; it’s the protection of life. It’s for our community well-being and so, convinced by this ancient struggle, we are here today,” said one representative attending the July minga from the indigenous reservation of Jambaló.*
The newest phase of the Liberation movement began last December when over 3000 Nasa began peacefully occupying seven sugarcane farms in three different municipalities (Corinto, Caloto and Santander de Quilichao) in northern Cauca. On these farms, they discovered various indigenous artifacts buried in the land, relics from previous generations of Nasa who had been displaced over the last century by armed groups and corporate interests. Statistics from the United Nations indicate that 3.1 million internally displaced persons in Colombia have abandoned an estimated 4 million hectares since 1985.
Under a 2000 ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), certain lands currently occupied by sugarcane farms are legally owed to the Nasa people after the 1991 El Nilo massacre, when 20 indigenous people were assassinated by members of the national police and other unknown armed actors.
The Colombian state agreed to title 15,663 hectares to the Nasa people as part of a collective reparations deal negotiated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). After a delay of more than ten years, the government turned over most of the land, but more than half of it is either infertile or located in protected forest reserves. The government argues that as the price of fertile land in the region has tripled in the intervening ten years, the national budget cannot cover purchasing land currently dedicated to sugarcane for reparations owed the Nasa.
When the government failed to fulfill the reparations agreement and guarantee their security – after El Nilo, three similar massacres occurred in 2001 nearby in the River Naya, Gualanday and San Pedro – the Nasa decided to take back their lands independently. They demand at least 20,000 hectares of land for their survival, adequate agrarian policy reform and special economic and social development programs tailored for indigenous peoples, as called for by Colombian government Decree 982 issued in 1999.
“We’re here because it is our right, but also because of necessity,” a representative from the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) said. “We don’t have anywhere to sow. . .We’re not going to wait for the government to say, ‘here, have this,’ so bit by bit we’re going to go about achieving our own goals and liberating Mother Earth, liberating her from all monoculture crops.”
According to the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), 56 percent of children in the region suffer from hunger or malnutrition and 6,000 of 25,000 local families have inadequate land for survival. Meanwhile, less than one percent of Colombia’s population owns 62 percent of all land, and eight sugar company giants possess over 330,000 hectares (about 1274 square miles) of local land which is planted horizon to horizon with sugarcane, used principally to produce foodstuffs, ethanol and molasses for both domestic consumption and export.
The Nasa have concentrated their occupation on the fields owned by INCAUCA, the multinational sugar company owned by Colombian billionaire Carlos Ardila Lülle. They contend his company represents a “transnational model of plunder and agribusiness.” The Nasa criticize this as an unsustainable model of development that depends upon the cultivation of monoculture crops (sugar, bananas, palm oil and flowers) for export.
“The story of capital and of those who accumulate capital is a project of death that ends up destroying all nature, including the lives of human beings. For us, the land is our mother and they are committing a crime against her,” wrote the ACIN in a 2010 statement.
Artisanal sugarcane production arrived in Cauca in 1538 after the Spanish invasion, and by the beginning of the 19th century, the first modern sugar mill was installed by the company Manuelita. Later railway expansion and mechanization led to a production boom in the 1930s and 1940s – a boom that corresponds with the first waves of indigenous displacement.
Although the Nasa’s recent land occupation is peaceful, since last December at least 143 indigenous people have been injured, 37 seriously, by firearms, tear gas, rubber bullets and confrontations with state security forces. On April 10, 19-year old indigenous guard Guillermo Pavi was killed after he was reportedly shot by the Colombian riot police (ESMAD) and the army. With the road blocked, his injuries proved fatal because his companions could not get him to a hospital.
On May 28, riot police attempted to evict people with tanks, tractors and tear gas, announcing over a megaphone that “this one will be worse than El Nilo.” State security forces have also repeatedly burned and destroyed newly planted crops, recently decimating 580 hectares of corn, beans, yucca and plantains in mid-June and returning for a second round of destruction in July.
The Nasa have received threatening letters, phone calls and text messages from neo-paramilitary groups such as the Aguilas Negras that falsely accuse them of being affiliated with guerrilla groups, which still have a strong presence in the region.
“The Aguilas Negras intelligence has a hundred names of people who are doing harm on the farms . . . who support the narco-terrorists [the FARC . . .] It won’t be a surprise when dismembered bodies appear among those Indian sons-of-bitches,” read one written threat.
Despite the attacks, the Nasa remain committed. Maintaining a constant presence and planting crops, they reclaim their territory day by day, hectare by hectare, advocating against the imposition of monoculture agriculture and extractive economic models, arguing that these do not lead to real development but rather the exploitation of the earth and people that can only be ended with the Liberation of Mother Earth.
“The truth is that today nature ought to be quite content because she has begun to feel our presence again,” said a CRIC representative. “Hopefully as soon as possible, we won’t see all of this sugarcane but rather we’ll see fruit, shade, water . . . This is the challenge each one of us has. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible.”
*Interviewees are unnamed at their request to emphasize the movement’s collective nature and because of concerns for their safety.
Lisa Taylor works for Witness for Peace in Colombia.