Between Rights and War: Colombia's Indigenous Issue in Cauca

As the Colombian government’s historical conflict with its own indigenous population wages on, the nation finds itself trapped by past international agreements it has signed as well as it’s own constitutional charter, something that has given its indigenous people sovereignty and protected rights. 

In the department of Cauca, an area in southwest Colombia known as a hotbed for the armed conflict between the military and the left-wing FARC rebel group, indigenous communities have protested the presence of both state troops and guerillas, saying that it puts the residents’ lives at risk.

Allegations by the Colombian government that the FARC have infiltrated some indigenous groups led to beefed up monitoring of indigenous lands, which are located in the middle of a vital route the rebels use to transport cocaine via the Pacific Coast. The patrols however have not gone well, as indigenous groups have stood their ground, engaging in protests to show solidarity and kicking out both government and guerilla forces.  

One of the main obstacles that the state faces is the 1991 Colombian Constitution, a document that guarantees indigenous people the right to live under their own legal system.  But supporters of the state still say that all citizens are subject to the country’s general laws, regardless of what the constitution says.  

It’s necessary to remember that the republic of Colombia is a unitary territory, which means that it belongs to all of us.

- Olid Larrarte, a prominent attorney in Cauca

“It’s necessary to remember that the republic of Colombia is a unitary territory, which means that it belongs to all of us,” explained Olid Larrarte, a prominent attorney in Cauca who has dealt with this issue for several decades.  “The country gave them the benefits of enjoying these lands. Though it doesn’t mean that the army can’t be present in these territories.”   

But contrary to that opinion, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an agreement signed with Colombia’s government in 2007, says that no military activity can occur on indigenous territory without the full agreement of the affected communities.  

“It’s very difficult because the state just can’t pass over international laws that they themselves already signed,” said Samuel Tumbo, a mayor of a local indigenous community in the region. “There are many agreements that they have signed reassuring our rights.  But they don’t know what to do.  So they’re sending in more troops.”

Tumbo added that having the FARC in the area makes things very complicated for his people.  While he sees no validity in many of the government’s allegations, he does believe that a few indigenous leaders have in fact been infiltrated by guerillas.

However complicated this outbreak of violence may be, it has given a huge headache to President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration, forcing them into a political “checkmate” no matter how they decide to continue in Cauca.  

The president recently said that he will not demilitarize “even one centimeter” of that particular area, but Santos has also expressed that he wants to be known as “the peace president” by finding the proper path to ending the nation’s decades long conflict and eventually looking for possibilities to sign peace agreements with armed groups.  

Keeping troops in the area without indigenous permission could reflect poorly on those peace efforts, some say. Some in the local Cauca communities are worried that multinational companies will exploit their land if the government gets control.

On the flip side, if Santos decides to pull away soldiers in such a volatile area, citizens could criticize him for further deteriorating the security situation. Critics have already blasted the president for a soft-line approach to security, resulting in more violence in Colombia’s rural areas. The nation already knows the severity of trafficking in that place, as a lot of drugs pass through there in route to Ecuador.  There was so much concern that Colombia promised to increase the presence of police and military authorities on the Ecuadoran border to counter the activity of rebel and drug-trafficking groups in the region.

One thing that concerns both sides of this fight is the future.  How will they find an end?  If the government stays in the area, it’s breaking international agreements and violating sovereignty.  If it pulls back, there will be no way it can keep its eye on guerrilla activity. 

That’s why some believe that congress is already drafting legislation that could take some rights away from the indigenous community and give the state more legal access to their land.

“I consider that at any moment we will have to amend the privileges that the constitution of 1991 has given to the indigenous territories,” Larrarte said.  “They have to come back to the fact that they are Colombians and are responsible under our laws.”  

David Noto is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.


Follow us on
Like us at