By Santiago Navarro F
The Nasa are a native people in the department of Cauca [translator: “departamentos” are essentially states in Colombia, translated directly as “department”], in the Andean zone of southwestern Colombia. 27 years ago, these people decided to take the offensive against the industrial production of sugar cane. Currently, the Nasa carry out actions like burning cane fields and then reclaiming the land, as part of what they call “Liberation of Mother Earth.” In January 2019, they have been traveling through Mexico and its autonomous movements, where they have learned and shared their experiences.
“We thought that we were alone in the struggle for Mother Earth, but in our first encounter we heard about the struggle of peoples in Mexico and that motivated us to get to know and learn from these struggles,” shares a spokeswoman of the Nasa women. She’s part of a brigade that began a tour through Mexico to get to know different autonomous processes, among them the Good Government Councils of the Zapatistas, the forms of government and resistance of peoples in Oaxaca and Puebla, and the Autonomous Government of Cherán, Michoacán, which has expelled the political parties from their territory.
The Nasa have taken advantage of this trip to invite people to their next congress, which will take place August 3-6 in Corinto, Cauca, Colombia, so that other movements can share their experiences. Mexico has become a landmark in Latin America, principally with the call of the Zapatista National Liberation Army [EZLN] to strengthen the autonomy of native peoples and anticapitalist struggle. “We’ve learned from the Zapatistas that it is possible to move autonomously, for the right to live. We give thanks to Zapatismo because it has shown the whole world that another world is possible. We also thank the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico for having walked the path towards autonomy, and this is a living experience for us,” says the spokeswoman.
In her travels through these parts, the spokeswoman of this brigade shares, “I realized that in Mexico they are also taking part in a struggle for life,” and “just like us, they have been run over by the state, but they continue forward. So we came to Mexico to learn, but also to share our struggles.”
For the Nasa, Uma Kiwe represents Mother Earth, and in the living memory of her inhabitants, the plunder of their territory by European colonization remains present. “Our grandparents recount that, when the Spanish arrived, most people fled towards the mountains and the flatlands remained in the hands of those men, and today, it’s full of sugarcane plantations,” says the spokeswoman, who, for safety precautions, only identified herself as a liberator of Mother Earth.
According to a document produced by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) called “The sugar cane cluster in the Cauca Valley, Colombia,” this valley and certain areas of Hawaii, Peru, and Mauritius are the only four zones in the world where sugarcane can be grown throughout the year. As such, they are considered to be high-yield areas. Sugarcane cultivation is constant in the Cauca valley, and more than 120 tons of sugar are produced per hectare per year. Most of this crop is used to make biofuels. 1.2 million liters of ethanol daily has generated more than $20 million USD monthly for investors.
The sugarcane sector spans 47 municipalities from the north of the department of Cauca, through the central band of the Cauca Valley, to the southern end of the department of Risaralda. There are 225,560 hectares of this monocrop in the region.
“I’m a liberator of Mother Earth, and we are liberating ancestral territories as well as taking back our history and that of our ancestors, like the chief Gaitana (an indigenous woman who led a rebellion against the Spanish between 1539 and 1540), who fought for 120 years, armed, against colonization. From 1971 to 1990, we reclaimed some 200,000 hectares that the colonizers had taken from us,” says an indigenous Nasa man.
For Cauca’s Chamber of Commerce, one of the constant worries of the sugarcane agroindustry in this region “are the constant occupations of properties by indigenous communities that claim these territories,” they warn.
The president of the board of directors of the Colombian Association of Sugarcane Producers and Providers (Procaña), Carlos Molina, states that “what it is that generates this conflict, and what proposals could be made for the government to take measures so that everyone can come out winning, is currently being studied.”
The Nasa people, just like the rest of the native peoples and black people of this country, were not recognized as subjects of law, and as such, their territory was not recognized either. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Constitution recognized the right of indigenous peoples in Colombia to “exercise jurisdictional functions within their territorial sphere, conforming to their own rules and procedures, as long as they are not contrary to the Constitution,” states Article 246.
At the very same time as this recognition, says this Nasa man, “they carried out a massacre on the Nilo plantation where they killed 20 comrades who were taking back their territory.”
He’s referring to the massacre committed December 16, 1991, by paramilitaries trying to drive out the indigenous people who were occupying these lands. Jorge Valencia, then proprietor of the Nilo Hacienda, “was an accomplice to the formation of the paramilitary group,” denounced Orlando Villa Zapata, alias “Ruben,” an ex-paramilitary who participated in the massacre. Once they had murdered the indigenous people and caused their displacement, the group scattered. However, the next day, 5,000 indigenous people occupied the Nilo Hacienda and stayed there permanently.
After this massacre, the government promised to return the plantations to the native peoples, but it was all talk, states the Nasa man. “So the people opted to retake direct struggle, entering the plantations. In 2015 we entered a plantation called La Emperatriz, with the firm purpose of no longer sitting down to negotiate with the government, but to take back our territory and strengthen our autonomy,” says this member of the Nasa people.
These people, despite having suffered murders, injuries, persecution, repression, military attacks, judicial attacks, media attacks and threats, appeal to their history, and they affirm that there are no documents that hold that this territory does not belong to them. “We have taken this struggle back up because they’ve been growing cane for many years and they’ve cause us a lot of harm. Waiting for things from the government has not helped at all. We are natives of this land and even if they have a document that says it has an owner, that owner just showed up; this territory was stolen and they don’t take care of it. They only represent death for our Mother Earth and for ourselves,” states the spokeswoman.
The Nasa people have to reconstruct their autonomy. “We’re seeing that neoliberalism is the same across all of Latin America, because they are not building life. They’re building death. What’s more, peace is nowhere to be found in Colombia. Murders of social leaders have increased. In our pueblo alone there have been eight deaths, as well as persecution and harassment,” says the brigade.
One of the brigade’s objectives is to establish links with other indigenous peoples, but also with students, workers, and other segments of the urban population, to look at autonomous processes and strengthen them. “That’s why we’re going to keep taking back land. That’s why we’re going to liberate it, to live together in it and defend life. For that reason, the struggle for land is not a solely indigenous problem or duty, but rather an ancestral mandate of all peoples, all men and women who defend life,” they state on the Liberation of Mother Earth website.
This is the first time the Nasa spokeswoman has left her country. She misses her family, community, and food, but understands the importance of these links with other peoples who struggle in the rest of Latin America. That said, she maintains that the main job is with young people and children, because the future depends on them. It is here that the Nasa women have played a decisive role in the recovery of their territory. “We teach our children the necessity of taking back our territory and decontaminating the land, because that is what hurts us as women, as mothers. Because the Earth is a woman and a mother. We go about sowing food crops to the extent that we have cleaned up the land, because this is where life is. It’s a big job, because everything is polluted, even the water. So it’s taking back our territory, but also taking back life,” says the Nasa woman.
“We have to work with the children on remembrance. So that they know why our territory is polluted. So they know that life is in the land. That a salary doesn’t make a life. Without water, without land, we won’t have life for the future. Our lands have been seized and they are destroying them,” she states.
The brigade mentions excitedly that the most radical actions carried out have been to go to the city, where the poorest neighborhoods are, to freely give what they have produced: food. They call this action the March for Life: “This is to demonstrate that the recovery of our territory is for life, not for death. That the land is not there to generate profits,” they say. A second March for Life will take place in March 2019.
The fruits of Uma Kiwe that they have decided to offer in this second march are also an offering for the brothers they have lost in the last four years, although to them, they are not dead. They are Guillermo Paví, Javier Oteca, Daniel Felipe, Héctor Latín, Ramón Ascue, and Fredy Yulián. “They’re alive, and here they are, tracing out the second march of food for the liberation of Uma Kiwe. They light the way for us,” states the movement.
“We have received a lot of abuse and been battered by the government and the rich, for whom our struggle is inconvenient, but as we go about cleaning up this territory, we go about liberating it, and liberating ourselves as well. Because liberation give us autonomy, including in our forms of thought. We are liberating ourselves from capitalism, and that’s our struggle,” adds the spokeswoman.
Photos by Liberation of Mother Earth