Culture, Identity and Territory. A view from Colombia's indigenous peoples

From 19-30 April this year, the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum in Indigenous Issues will be held in New York. This year one of the special topics will be the development of indigenous peoples and issues of culture and identity, based on Articles 3 and 23 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I would like to share some thoughts on these issues (culture and identity) based on experiences here in Colombia.

by Beatriz Garcìa del Campo

The right to cultural identity is linked to the history of peoples, with their knowledge, habits and customs and with the way the indigenous relate to land, territory and nature. It is the right of indigenous peoples to assert this cultural identity and reproduce forms, practices and values to exercise control over their people and their autonomy.

The indigenous peoples of Colombia, represented by the ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) 'claim the Respect and Promotion of cultural and collective identities, which are based on territorial rights and resources that are inherent to them.' Identity, culture and territory go hand in hand. Indigenous peoples have become watchdogs and protectors of the natural resources and biodiversity that abound in their territories.

As evidence of the right to self-determination, as currently set forth in Article 3 of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, an indigenous Embera community in Choco, Alto Guayabal, in the Jiguamiand Urada reserve, filed an Action to the Constitutional Court of Colombia upon the arrival of the Muriel Mining Corporation in its territory last year. The company intended to explore the area of the Katuma Jai Hill, which abounds in gold, molybdenum and copper. This area is sacred to the indigenous; it is here that the natives perform their sacred and spiritual rituals and the environmental reserve is immense. The Coordillera where this mountain is located has been protected by ancestral indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and is a witness of their culture, their community and organizational processes. This sacred mountain is an essential element of their sense of identity, and is the basis for their survival as a people.

Thanks to this lawsuit filed by the indigenous leaders together with the NGO Justice and Peace, the ONIC, the Ombudsman and the Universidad de los Andes, the Court has ruled in favour of indigenous and black communities, ordering the suspension of the Mandé Norte project, and of exploration and mining in the territory. The reasons for the suspension are varied: the mining project would alter the ecological balance and biodiversity of the area; it has not complied with the requirement of prior, free and informed consultation of all the affected communities; the arrival of the company was accompanied by the police and according to the Court's decision 'the exploitation of natural resources in territories traditionally inhabited by indigenous communities must be consistent with the protection that the state should afford to their social, cultural and economic integrity'. In this respect, the community does not perceive the police forces in their territory as a guarantee of safety. Prior consultation, which should be a process of democratic participation, with adequate, open and free communication, without unwarranted interference, did not occur in this case. An inappropriate process of 'consultation' was conducted, and was rigged so that some leaders and organizations signed their agreement to the mining concession. Furthermore, this was done without the support of the actual community, while perks were given in exchange for the documents but were subsequently cancelled.

The community carried out an internal Peoples Consultation, in order to design a basic process according to the customs of indigenous peoples, with national and international verification, to determine the fate of their territories that are owned by the indigenous and black communities that live there. When the Muriel Mining Corporation came to the area known as La Rica in the Embera reserve, Embera women with their children in hand were those who stood up to face the arrival of the company's machinery, which came escorted by the army. They were there to safeguard the territory their sons and daughters will inherit. They affirmed that they were not consulted about any kind of exploration and appropriation of property and natural resources of their land.

This process is emblematic of the moment Colombia is going through. The ILO has also published a report with recommendations to the government that this case should be taken into account. It gives several suggestions about developing the appropriate consultation process with the organizations and tribal and indigenous communities affected, in order to meet the requirements of the Convention. It also suggests that the militarization of the communities where companies want to implement projects is not appropriate and that they undertake the essential requirements of genuine consultation.

These actions on the ground and vindication of rights are yet another example of the fight for territory being carried out by indigenous peoples. That is why we believe that the struggle for survival of indigenous peoples in their territory is the basis for life and development of their ancestral cultures. Our duty is therefore to protect the territory, and preserve the identity of indigenous peoples and the environment. 

This article is also available in Spanish.

Related articles: (1) Mapuches poeple fighting against plunder and marginalization. Interview with Gustavo Quilaqueo; (2) Communication, culture and identity of indigenous peoples. 


Beatriz GarcÌa del Campo is Programme Officer, Christian Aid, Colombia.


Photo: Anthony Letmon/flickr