Indigenous people from the Colombian countryside converged on its capital city to declare their territories closed to business and decry what they describe as a systematic campaign of assassinations by shady economic interests to mine, drill, log or produce drugs on their land.
The hundreds came from Colombia’s diverse indigenous communities last week to join an ongoing national protest movement that has put high pressure on President Ivan Duque to turn his agenda away from fostering big business to investing in social well being.
The persistence of the protests, plus with the participation of people from deep in the jungles where the knitty-gritty of extractive industries takes place, could present challenges to a national petroleum industry counting on new reserves to meet mid-term needs.
“Now they don’t ask us if they want to do a project in the indigenous territory, they just do it,” said one indigenous leader, 39-year-old Jose Albeiro Camayo, who in October was found tortured and bound with barbed wire to a post in a crime that remains unsolved. “We’re going to fight until the end to defend our territory.”
Nearly a third of Colombia is designated indigenous territory, often is the most rural depths, sometimes in places inaccessible by road.
Often, that land sits atop natural riches that have made it the envy of prospectors. Conflicts abound in Colombia between indigenous communities and extractive industries clawing for oil, gold or lumber.
This year, Colombia’s top weekly news magazine reported that 37 petroleum production contracts awarded by the country’s National Hydrocarbon Agency infringed 81 indigenous reserves, another 26 of which were violated by exploration contracts.
Some indigenous communities have sought court orders to protect territories from petroleum prospecting and extraction, as reported by Colombia’s Verdad Abierta, but to little avail.
Most of the communities currently affected by oil exploration are in the country’s south, between the Andes mountains and the Amazon Basin in the department of Putumayo, Cauca and Meta.
The mobilization of the indigenous people brought a shot of inspiration to protests in their third week. Some protesters in Bogota recalled admiringly how indigenous communities in March had maintained for 12 days a blockage of the highway linking Colombia’s primary port with the rest of the country.
One protester, 32-year-old shop attendant Federico Carrillo, said he thought the presence of indigenous leaders would help maintain the prolonged effort of the protest.
“They have three things we don’t,” said Federico Carillo, 32, a shop attendant at the protests last week, speaking of the indigenous communities. “Discipline, organization and a culture thousands of years old that keeps them united.”
One college student at the march, Dani Rivera, said the presence of the communities had drawn more Colombians out to support them in their struggle for survival that dates back to the Spanish Conquest of South America.
“They are are older siblings, our ancestors. We have to respect them, we have to defend them,” she said.
Indeed, the issues of Colombia’s indigenous communities has been a key theme of these protests since their start, with the banner of the native Andean people on prolific display.
The central qualm is the unabated killing of indigenous leaders. The National Organization of Indigenous Colombians has denounced 117 such targeted killings in the last year. Virtually none of the killings are solved, leaving the culprits a mystery. They are often assumed to be linked to drug trafficking groups and illegal mining operations. Colombia has a long history of paramilitaries raised by private interests to secure territorial control.
“They kill us but it doesn’t matter to the government, because to the government the only serious thing is money,” said Ana Quintilla, 29, who traveled by bus from the department of Cauca to join the protests. “We will show them that we are serious.”
Protests have struck a lull as the Christmas season dawns, but organizers have promised to continue the pressure through the new year.
With only 6.2 years of proven petroleum reserves and an average period of several years to get new projects online, friction between oil interests and the communities that inhabit the land will continue to be a point of tension in Colombia in the year ahead.