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Colombia’s National Army, Ministry of Defense Safeguards Indigenous Communities from Illegal Armed Groups

Colombia’s National Army, Ministry of Defense Safeguards Indigenous Communities from Illegal Armed Groups

By Dialogo
November 16, 2015

No more dead people It’s high time civilization came to those lands. God help them ayudé.arizaga40@gmail

As of early November, Colombia’s National Army and the Ministry of Defense’s Advisory Group to the Commander (GAC, for its Spanish acronym) have constructed three protected communities for indigenous groups under the National Land Consolidation and Reconstruction Policy, which seeks to generate social and economic actions in 11 areas of the country that have been historically affected by the presence of illegal armed groups and illegal crops, in addition to a weak institutional presence.

The government strategy is defined as a “coordinated, progressive, and irreversible process by which to sustainably secure state efforts to guarantee a safe and peaceful environment that will allow strengthened democratic institutions in which citizens can freely exercise their rights and human development," according to the government's Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation.

“This project is aimed at ensuring that people belonging to indigenous communities can live lives of dignity,” said Colonel Eduardo Pico, the GAC’s Consolidation Advisor. “It also rewards communities that have demonstrated a deep commitment to overcoming violence that has plagued places like Urabá and Bajo Cauca in the department of Antioquia and certain zones of the department of Córdoba.”

The program's beneficiaries thus far -- the Zenú community in the department of Córdoba and Antioquia, and the Arcua and Arenera communities of Turbo in Antioquia -- all received protected land this year. The latter two were built in April, and the Zenú community received theirs in August and November.

Meanwhile, the Army is also building protected land for three Embera communities, four Zenú communities, and a Kuna community as part of the 70 billion peso (US$25 million) initiative. The government has already invested 30 billion pesos (US$10.5 million) into that fund. This month, the GAC is also planning to inaugurate a protected territory for the Kuna communities of Caimán Nuevo and Caimán Medio in Necoclí in Antioquia.

Indigenous communities suffer at the hands of illegal groups

Illegal armed groups groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have killed and issued death threats to indigenous populations in Antioquia and Córdoba, violently recruited locals, and driven them from their homes.

From 2006-2008, the Urabá people suffered 31,723 individual displacements, while the Kuna community had 2,258 group displacements, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and from 2003-2008, illegal armed groups committed more than 780 homicides, primarily in the departments of Risaralda and Caldas, claiming the lives of many indigenous people. During the same time period, 35,772 members of the Zenú community, 45 percent of whom had been living in Córdoba, were displaced.

Meanwhile, the Kuna community itself expelled 3,067 of its own indigenous members because of their suspected links with illegal violent groups.

Unarmed missions strengthen ties with the community

Providing facilities and services to indigenous communities impacted by the FARC and the ELN is part of the Ministry of Defense’s broad strategy to win the support of these groups, which is crucial in neutralizing illegal organizations and improving public safety. These operations build on Sword of Honor, which is a Defense Ministry initiative launched in 2012 to confront illegal armed groups and their support networks, as the FARC and ELN work with narco-trafficking groups.

“Our mission to guarantee the safety of civilians has not changed, and, since 2012, we have been strengthening our position with the population with infrastructure projects that enhance their quality of life,” said Lieutenant General Ricardo Jiménez, the Army Chief of Operations. “Today, 50 percent of the Army’s forces is armed, while the other 50 percent is dedicated to unarmed missions.”

“The majority of the armed portions of the terrorist groups have been dismantled, but they have started to meddle in community politics. So, a prudent way to combat the conflict is to regain the favor and confidence of the most peripheral and vulnerable populations. Consolidation policies have this goal in mind and have brought it to fruition with these infrastructure projects.”

Coordinating with indigenous and institutional partners

The GAC had teams of sociologists, anthropologists, and engineers meet with representatives of the indigenous communities, who each have different customs, to determine their specific architectural requirements.

“Each protected territory has an education center, a health center, a government center, and a home for each family,” Col. Pico said. “However, each community has distinct specifications. Houses at 50 centimeters off the ground; roofs made with cement fiber or natural fiber; houses facing the east; and toilets outside the house have been a few of the requirements. They have changed each time. The construction of each community has really been a learning process in architectural terms.”

Officials on each project contracted local indigenous builders to work with Military engineers, turning the building of each protected territory into a community project.

“As I saw the village coming together and becoming more and more beautiful, I offered to work on the project, too,” said Wilson Álvaro Domikué Chiruda, who from 2013-2014 led the Dokerazabi Arenera tribe of the Ember people in Turbo. “The engineers trained me and taught me how to use the tools they were using. I was really happy because I was able to contribute to the project and set a good example for the children. While putting the screws in, I regained hope and began thinking that I will see my children and grandchildren prevail.”

Meanwhile, the Army's Seventh Division, which is assigned to the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, and Chocó, is coordinating the projects with several organizations, including the governments of Antioquia and Córdoba, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Agricultural Bank, the Public Enterprises of Medellín (EPM), the Autonomous Regional Corporations (CAR), and other agencies.

“Consolidating land, creating better living conditions, and improving the quality of life for the community are priorities for the government and the Army,” Col. Pico said. “They are part of an Armed Forces’ strategy to overcome the violence present in Colombia – a goal that is accomplished with the help of all the parties present in a region.”

Indigenous communities primarily in rural areas

The Ministry of Defense and the National Army are building most of these projects in rural areas on protected land, where most indigenous communities are found; locations of indigenous communities are a vestige of the New Kingdom of Granada.

Colombia's Law No. 89 of 1890 stipulated that indigenous communities on protected land shall not be governed by the general laws of the country but will be governed autonomously by a council appointed by the local indigenous people according to their customs. A hundred years later, the Constitution of 1991, in which Colombia is recognized as a multiethnic and pluricultural country, set a precedent for relations between the indigenous population and the Colombian government. The Constitution grants political, economic, social, and cultural rights to the country’s diverse ethnic minorities and decrees that protected lands are inalienable.

Overall, an estimated 1,378,884 indigenous people live in Colombia, including 933,800 settled on 710 existing protected communities, according to the 2005 census.