More Indigenous Activists Killed In Colombia

On October 24th , a prominent Colombian Indigenous activist, Aulio Isamara Forastero, was assassinated near the Catru Dubaza Ancoso shelter. An official statement by the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) describes how five men dressed in the uniform of the Colombian guerrilla group, ELN, took Forasterio from his home under the premise that he must speak to ELN leaders before several shots were heard. Forastero’s murder follows only four days after that of Indigenous social leader Alirio Zabala, and his son, adding to the 150 activists killed in Colombia since the start of 2017. The subsequent deaths of these community leaders undercuts a bilateral ceasefire agreed to by ELN on the 1st of October. ONIC and the Colombian government in Quito have requested that the UN investigate the murder to determine whether it constitutes a violation of the agreement.

ONIC has linked the murder to the broader ‘extermination’ of the native people, while the UNHCR in Colombia condemned the murder and mentioned plans to closely follow the death with a formal investigation. As Forastero’s death represents the most recent challenge to hopes of a lasting and effective ceasefire, Erika Guevera Ross, Americas director at Amnesty International, stated that the murder of community leaders inevitably leaves “an indelible stain on any resulting peace accord.” According to Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, the murder of Colombian Indigenous activists has increased by 6.25% compared to October 2016. In response to the recent murder at Catru Dubaza Ancoso, Santos has appointed the National Commission on Security Guarantees to undertake an investigation.

Having received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Colombian Civil War, Santos’s presidency was ostensibly a favourable shift for Colombia’s Indigenous population. However, peace in Colombia is still fragile and negotiating tractable reform has proved difficult. One version of the peace accords negotiated by Santos in October 2016 was rejected by the Colombian people by less than half of a percentage point. Article one of the Peace accords states that land taken during the conflict would be returned to its rightful owners, although authorities have not widely or consistently enforced this measure. Rather, the government has increasingly granted concessions to extractive industries for mining and water usage. USAID found that 97% of the mining and oil contracts granted in Colombia overlapped with established communities. In alignment with Colombia’s constitution, more consistent recognition of the property rights of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian residents is necessary to forge lasting peace in the future and to begin compensation of many years of forced displacement. Much of the continued conflict pivots around the competing colonial hierarchies: coca and sugar cane harvesting. Indeed, data from the Rights and Resources Initiative found that two-thirds of global cases of civil conflict and war are driven by contested land claims.

In addition, it is imperative that the twelve reigning paramilitary groups in Colombia be demobilized. While one third of national Colombian territory is defined as Indigenous reserves, this area is populated with armed guerrilla groups of various agendas. In an attempt to anchor the peace accord to economic incentives, the government established a crop-replacement scheme, promising compensation to farmers who transitioned from growing marijuana and coca to coffee or citrus. This scheme attracted many farmers but was disrupted by narcotics gangs who murdered advocates of crop substitution, charging up to 2 million pesos per killing. Meanwhile, the Colombian army has often been characterized as colluding with guerrilla groups and once hired US consultants to improve its public image and media treatment. The civilian population continues to be skeptical about the intentions of suburban and national police, impeding greater rule of law in demarcated Indigenous territory.

The atrocities of war and violence continue to figure within the collective imaginings of the three quarters of the population who lived through the fifty years of Civil War. At the foreground, the Indigenous population continues to suffer disproportionately in attempts to recognize and preserve their ancestral land. While the Colombian Constitution of 1991 confers greater rights upon Indigenous people than any other Latin American country, it continues to see the second highest level of violence towards the traditional landowners after Brazil. To secure greater autonomy for the Indigenous population and more stability for the region, the government must uphold a scalable plan for peace – one that speaks to both guerrilla groups and the forces of globalization with greater resolution.