‘Recover the land to recover everything’: The patient journey of the Colombian Cauca Regional Indigenous Council

At four in the morning on 21 February 2021, in the rain—sacred to ancestral peoples—a walking delegation travelled from La Agustina, in Santander de Quilichao, to the Las Mercedes reservation in the Sath Thama Kiwe territory of Colombia. There were hundreds or more—some leaders mention that there were almost a thousand people—accompanied by posters, backpacks, and red-and-green flags.

Hundreds of Indigenous people travelled to an enthusiastic celebration with cake, traditional drink, charangos, flutes, drums and guitars to the north of Cauca. Jorge Eliécer Sánchez, political coordinator of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), prefers to speak of a commemoration rather than a celebration. He mentions the trip as an opportunity to remember the elderly who died struggling to keep their memory alive: they are still loved, remembered as a lesson in strength and endurance.

This is not the first delegation to make this march. Fifty years ago, on 24 February 1971, Trino Morales, Javier Calambás and Julio Tunubalá started in the municipality of Silvia and walked towards the other end of the valley, crossing the extensive fields of the Cauca trails. This demanding walk cut through lands that before being usurped had been their ancestors’.

When Joe Sauca was a child, perhaps the first story he heard was about this journey of his predecessors, Indigenous leaders who traced a route where, at that time, there were no roads or trails. Now thirty-seven years old, he is coordinator of the CRIC. He says that that February march of so many hours led to the birth of Colombia’s largest Indigenous organisation.

There were no professors, Sauca says, no university students, no politicians—only knowledgeable people who walked the valleys and towns under the slogan of ‘walking until the sun goes down’. The meeting of the Indigenous leaders in the north of Cauca was like several furrows of water that ended in the same channel: when Trino, Javier and Julio arrived at the municipal seat of Toribío they met Francisco Jembuel, who had been walking with more than thirty community members from Jambaló. They also met Manuel Tránsito Sánchez, who travelled from Totoró, and Gustavo Ulchur, who travelled from Ambaló. Others, such as Juan Gregorio Palechor, arrived on foot from the south or from Tierradentro.

At that time, life in the Indigenous reservations, whose residents were already accustomed to persecution, was no less difficult and did not give any respite: there was nowhere to cultivate, because the land was in strange hands—that is, it was in the power of landowners who continued to extend their dominance, offering in return only mistreatment, measly pieces of meat or bottles of liquor, threats, or other indecent payments.

Members like Sauca now tell the youngest among them the written memories and stories of that February afternoon. Before the march, their predecessors had already spent several weeks of long walks and clandestine meetings at night, exhausted by dispossession and forced displacement. With the goals of recovering the lands that had been taken from them and consolidating a program for the defence of their rights, the experts of five nations and various councils—the Totoró people; the Misak people; the Kokonuko people; the Nasa people, San Francisco and Toribio—named the association that they had been preparing for months and chose Manuel Tránsito Sánchez to be its first president. They called their association the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council—CRIC.

Sauca reviews history with a fine-tooth comb. The first points of work, for example, were always clear: to strengthen the national incidence of the Indigenous councils, to expand the reservations, to fight against the regime of exploitation of Indigenous labour exemplified in the terraje system (an institution of agrarian law with deep feudalist roots according to which an Indigenous family had to work for free in order to ‘obtain’ and ‘benefit’ from a piece of land within the landowner’s farm), to demand the defence of the history, language and culture of the ancestral peoples, to stop the threats to the social movement, and to stop the physical and cultural extermination of their peoples. From that moment they dressed in red-and-green attire in homage to the fallen martyrs and to the daily beauty of the Uma Kiwe (mother earth), who accompanied them on every walk.

However, in the following days the councils of Toribío, Tacueyó and San Francisco were accused of subversion, arrested and taken to the Third Brigade of the National Army. What happened would be like a stamp of the coming years for CRIC, because even today, fifty years later, the persecutions do not stop: comrades are disappeared or murdered without a state response, Indigenous leaders are in exile, and reservations are confined by armed conflict, among other inequalities of structural racism.

Martín Vidal Trochez, a former CRIC member, a resident of northeastern Cauca and a community leader, says that four years ago he toured the area that his knowledgeable ancestors walked in the early days of the organisation. He found some incipient ways where before there was no other transportation than walking: ‘This is how the first years of the CRIC were’, he says. ‘By walking our lands we learned, as we were marching we were talking about the future. This is how this community grew’.

In the years after its founding, when the news of its community work echoed outside the north of Cauca and reached the press and radio stations, some magazines with national circulation wrote things like: ‘four centuries later, the indigenous people cry out for their ancient kingdom’.

In the name of unity

Just as their Indigenous ancestors met decades ago, the walkers arrived in the municipality of Caldono to commemorate fifty years of a historic victory. In the CRIC blog the communities would write days later about their great commemoration:

We are sons, daughters and granddaughters of whom history called terrajeros and wanted to turn into slaves, of whom after long walks they met in the darkness of the night to talk about how to start this walk. Children of the dream of freedom.

For centuries, other leaders had paved the way of work and resistance of the Indigenous movement in Colombia, long before the ancestors toured Cauca in 1971 and before their children retraced their steps to remember them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some leaders, such as Cacica Gaitana and Cacique Juan Tama, began this path of recognition. They had as a pillar of their political agenda the recovery of their ancestral territory. Today Indigenous authorities such as Aida Quilcué maintain that this legacy opened the discourse of Indigenous rights that led to the founding of the CRIC.

Another crucial aspect of the consolidation of the organisation was the movement led by Manuel Quintín Lame, a legendary Nasa leader and an icon of the Colombian Indigenous movement. After the failure of the recognition and formalisation of Indigenous territories by the state, which would give rise to the Indigenous struggle for land in the twentieth century, the peoples of Cauca strategically interpreted Law 89 of 1890, which claimed that in a period of fifty years the Indigenous reservations of colonial origin should become private property. However, the Indigenous people read it as a protective law, later opposing the laws that promoted its repeal to promote the sale of these collective territories. Such was the case of Law 55 of 1905 and Law 104 of 1919.

In 1962 the Guambiano leader Trino Morales founded the Union of the East Caucano, with whom a program was promoted to recover Indigenous territories, appealing to the urgent need for agrarian reform. In this decade, as secretary of the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC), Morales promoted the separation of the Indigenous movement from this structure, reaffirming the need to empower self-government institutions such as councils. This fact was also decisive for the creation of the CRIC in 1971.

In a national context in which the exaltation of racist policies or behaviours prevails, the organisation has been an example for local and global social movements. Its political platform has been promoting new pedagogical projects to improve the social situation of millions of peasants, Indigenous people and Afro-descendants still affected by territorial dispossession, political caudillismo (strongman leadership), corruption and violence, among other problems that are still unfinished issues.

Fifty years later, Joe Sauca notes that the CRIC has gone from having only five councils to having 127. Today there are eleven associations, ten zones and ten towns in eighty-four legally constituted Indigenous reservations in the Department of Cauca. Its organisational legacy is summed up in the motto ‘recover the land to recover everything’. The land is not only a physical space in which to live with dignity but also it is the source of Indigenous laws: indeed, mainstream representations of Indigenous territories, taking into consideration the topographic and biologic dimensions of the earth’s surface, have forgotten the pluriverse of organic and inorganic beings that make and negotiate their social living together with Indigenous peoples’ ecological and spiritual relations. The slogan went from community uprisings and counter-hegemonic interpretations of law based on Indigenous cosmologies, promoted by caciques such as Tama and Lame, to the mobilisation of the Social and Community Minga of our days.

The march is always to come

Not everything is flowers, nor profit, Sauca says, after stopping for a moment to think about Indigenous communities and their list of red balances. He adds that the threats continue, the pattern of dispossession continues, even if the names and people change. The pandemic intensifies both the threats they face and their examination.

In some areas of Cauca there are no roads or highways to get to health centres quickly, nor a profitable way to get produce to market, since it is damaged on the way. Work in the fields remains unprotected and residents urgently need to continue to gain autonomy through territorial control with Indigenous guards.

During the commemoration, Aida Quilcué gave a speech in which she emphasised that they are still being killed for the land, a fight that they have maintained since the beginning of the CRIC:

As defenders that we are, I begin by remembering some colleagues who have offered their lives along the way of this process: Benjamín Dindicue, Anatolio Quira, Cristóbal Secue, Rosa Elena Toconas, Cristina Bautista… What to do to stop the deaths? What to do so that they do not continue to displace us?

For Sauca, some of the CRIC’s most urgent challenges have to do with reviewing the internal situation in areas with illicit crops as well as some economic policy issues: on the one hand, in the name of the war on drugs the presence of regular and irregular armed forces is affecting the daily life of Indigenous communities. On the other, the unequal distribution of land requires a radical public policy based on comprehensive agrarian reform. Sauca says, ‘This is fundamental in the midst of a post-conflict in which organised armed groups insist on harming the collective and community exercise of CRIC’.

Jorge Eliécer Sánchez insists, for his part, that they will be focused on the next Congress, at the end of June. This first half of the year will consist of months of discussion focused on ‘guiding its next fifty years and framing the next path of our organization’. From another shore, Alberto Yace has been self-critical and has called for the unity of the Indigenous and social movements. For him it is urgent to evaluate in the historical perspective the disengagement of the Misak people from the structures of the CRIC, only five years after its foundation, as well as the recent departure of the CRIC from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).

Amid so much pressure, Indigenous leaders are concerned that some of the youngest people are beginning to emigrate to the cities, despairing that the violence will not give them any respite. That is why Sauca longs for a future with new opportunities, one in which the generational handover continues. He considers that it will be useless if the movement wins many battles, but the communities and the lands through which they have walked for fifty years wind up empty.

Note: A Spanish version of this article originally appeared as ‘La paciente travesía del Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca’ on Dejustica.

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About the authors

Paulo Ilich Bacca

Paulo Ilich Bacca is a legal ethnographer and storyteller who has been exploring the idea of interpreting international law through Indigenous cosmologies. He works at Dejustica as the Director of the Ethnic and Racial Justice Area.

More articles by Paulo Ilich Bacca

Daniela Jiménez González

Daniela Jiménez González is a journalist who has written for community and regional media on projects related to peace, human rights and rural communities in Colombia. She works at Dejustica in the Communications area.

More articles by Daniela Jiménez González

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