The march was called by the Nasa people to protest the human rights abuses and violence of the four-decade civil war, a proposed constitutional reform that would basically impose the re-election of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, and free trade agreements currently under negotiation with the United States
A tandem bicycle with a loudspeaker moves back and forth from one end of the massive indigenous protest march to the other, as the 50,000 demonstrators make their way along the Pan-American highway to the city of Cali in southwestern Colombia.
The protesters — Nasa (better known as PÃ¡ez) Indians and members of other indigenous groups as well as black communities, peasant farmers and trade unionists — are to reach Cali on Thursday, after walking or riding in trucks for a total of 100 kms since they set out on Tuesday.
The job of the “radiocicleta” or radio-bicycle is to report on what is happening during the march through a broadcast signal linked to Radio Payumat, a small indigenous radio station that broadcasts in both the Nasa language and Spanish from Santander de Quilichao, in the southwestern department (province) of Cauca.
In each town they pass through, the marchers stop to hold a session of their “mobile congress”.
Since leaving the town of Santander de Quilichao Tuesday, the march has become the biggest in the history of the department of Cauca, which stretches from the Andes mountains in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and is the ancestral home of the Nasa people.
The Nasa, who the Spanish conquistadors dubbed “PÃ¡ez” — which means “louse” in the Nasa language — today number around 140,000, which makes them the second-largest indigenous group in Colombia, whose 90 native ethnic groups account for around two percent of the country’s population of 43 million.
The theme of the “mobile congress” is “Minga for life, justice, happiness, freedom and autonomy”.
“Minga” is an indigenous word for an ancestral practice of communities joining efforts or “meeting for the achievement of a common goal,” journalist Mauricio BeltrÃ¡n, communications adviser to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) and the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), told IPS.
“Among indigenous people, two of us come together for a ‘tull’ (traditional planting), 10 of us come together for the harvest, 1,000 when we need to fix a road, 18,000 if we have to make decisions for the future, and all of us if we have to come out to defend justice, happiness, freedom and autonomy,” says a communique issued by the Nasa Indians prior to the march.
The statement is signed by ONIC, ACIN and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), a legendary organisation in the history of struggles over land in Colombia.
The demonstrators will be received Thursday in Cali — the capital of the department of Valle del Cauca, which borders Cauca to the north — by students and members of Women in Black, an international peace network.
Anti-government protests are also scheduled in other cities for Thursday.
Violence has not been completely absent in the peaceful mobilisation. A bodyguard of Governor Angelino GarzÃ³n, who belongs to the leftist Polo DemocrÃ¡tico party and has supported the march, was killed at noon on Tuesday in Cali.
“It’s a sign for me,” GarzÃ³n told the press, while the indigenous groups that organised the march pointed out that the murder was also a message for the public at large.
The organisers say the “minga” or “mobile congress” is being held in defence of the right to life — not only of human beings, but of plants, animals, lakes and rivers as well.
They also say the meetings along the way are aimed at coming up with strategies to defend the rights and freedoms that were gained when the constitution was rewritten in 1991, which the activists say are threatened by the constitutional reforms proposed by the Uribe administration.
In addition, they hope to draft proposals for blocking a free trade treaty that Colombia is negotiating with the U.S. government, “because the talks are taking place behind the people’s backs, and because nature and the future and the welfare of the people are endangered by the logic of turning things that cannot be sold and that must be protected into merchandise and business” opportunities.
The fourth round of negotiations of the proposed free trade deal between Washington and Peru, Ecuador and Colombia is taking place this week in Puerto Rico. In previous rounds, Washington proposed mechanisms aimed at exerting patent rights over Colombia’s biodiversity, among the richest in the world.
President Uribe opposed the march on security grounds. He also accused the indigenous organisers of expressing political positions.
“I see no link between the problems that are being brought up and the march,” said the president. “I see that the march has a political objective and it should be clearly presented as such, instead of putting forth lies.
“Tell the truth, say you have a political party, and that you want to march and protest, but don’t invent stories to tell the country,” Uribe said last Friday.
The demonstrators responded that they are not speaking for the government but on behalf of “the people”.
On the first day, the march reached the town of Villarrica, in Cauca, where the demonstrators spent the night in tents and shelters set up with plastic sheeting and tarps.
By the time the march reached Villarrica, the original 25,000 people who left Santander at 8:00 AM Tuesday had swelled to around 50,000, said BeltrÃ¡n.
The organisers had set a target of 40,000 people. But they now believe that “70,000 people could march into” Cali, one of Colombia’s biggest cities, on Thursday, BeltrÃ¡n commented to IPS.
He also said that many residents of Cali are supporting the protesters by participating in food collection drives to help out with “the touchiest aspect, because the group is growing continually and food will become an increasingly difficult issue.”
Media coverage of the march is carried out by the Communication System for Peace (SIPAZ), which groups 138 community radio stations in 17 regions of Colombia, including 30 indigenous stations.
“Some of the indigenous stations have already begun to re-broadcast, others will begin to do so in the next few days, and the idea is to have total coverage by Saturday. This is the first time that such a broad network of alternative media outlets has operated in Colombia,” said BeltrÃ¡n.
The local CMI TV programme, filming the march, showed a police presence, but with the officers posted far away from the protesters, who are accompanied by their own indigenous guard, which was set up to assert the autonomy and neutrality of the Nasa people in the midst of the armed conflict that has had Colombia in its grip for four decades.
Uribe has suggested incorporating the indigenous guard, which is armed only with staffs that symbolically assert authority in the community, into the state security services that fight the guerrillas. But he has met with a resounding rejection.
Early this month, five indigenous leaders, including ArquÃmedes VitonÃ¡s, mayor of the town of ToribÃo in Cauca, where CRIC was founded, were kidnapped by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But they were freed within days, after the indigenous guard staged an (unarmed) rescue mission.
The Nasa people, who have a long, successful experience in participatory municipal government and development planning, won the National Peace Prize in 2000.
And in February VitonÃ¡s received, in the name of his people, the Equator Prize from the United Nations (news – web sites) Development Programme (UNDP). The Nasa Project was one of seven “outstanding community initiatives” selected from a total of 400 from around the world.
VitonÃ¡s and another Nasa leader, Gilberto MuÃ±oz, have also been recognised as ‘Masters of Wisdom’ by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO (news – web sites)).
After VitonÃ¡s was kidnapped, the UNDP issued a strongly-worded statement on his behalf.
One of the indigenous guard leaders who led the rescue of VitonÃ¡s and the other kidnapping victims “was today (Tuesday) cooking stew for 100 people at 3:00 after walking all day long, while a ‘chirimÃa’ (five-member Nasa musical group) played traditional songs on flutes, drums and a seed instrument,” said BeltrÃ¡n.
“These communities have built a civil resistance movement like few others in the country, and today they can show with pride that the war is not a core feature of the structures of their lives,” columnist Fabio VelÃ¡squez wrote Tuesday in the Cali newspaper El PaÃs, criticising Uribe’s opposition to the march.
Author: Constanza Vieira
News Service: Inter Press Service (IPS)