If you identify as an anti-capitalist, you likely possess some basic knowledge of the struggles that North American Indigenous peoples have long waged against colonial and neoliberal threats of capitalist development of Indigenous land.
One recent example is the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016-17. Hundreds were injured during those protests, which rank among the largest and most publicized Indigenous land struggles in recent American history. That is clearly an unacceptable toll (a single injury would be) for activists to suffer for their protection of Indigenous land and the health of its occupants and the environment, both immediate and global.
Nevertheless, a far deadlier struggle is every day being waged further south in defense of Indigenous rights and environmental justice—one that often goes unnoticed by even the most committed activists in the global north.
Colombia’s Indigenous climate warriors work one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. To understand why, we must turn to history.
For the past 50 years, Colombia has been wracked by an internal conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, a conflict in which a complex mosaic of guerrilla groups, drug cartels, and rightwing paramilitary organizations—some with connections to officials in the Colombian government and military, others quietly funded and supplied by the CIA—have battled each other and the government in an asymmetric struggle for control of land and resources. This conflict has been carried out by a veritable alphabet soup of armed groups with acronyms like FARC, ELN, AUC, EPL, ACCU, and many more. While each armed group had or has (some are now defunct, while others continue the fight) a different vision of Colombia’s future, none were able to resist the draw of the lucrative cocaine trade, which took off in the 1980s in response to growing North American demand. Much of the Colombian conflict, therefore, has centered around control of the nation’s most productive coca-growing lands (1).
For decades, Colombia has been the world’s leading cocaine exporter, and the country’s recent history of violence can be largely explained by the economic importance of this trade. Declining guerrilla activity and the demobilization of most militants with the signing of landmark peace accords in 2016 have only caused other criminal groups to fill the void they left; cocaine production has been on a steady increase since hitting a low in 2012.
The conflict and drug trade have disproportionately affected Indigenous Colombians as victims of violence—personal, ecological, economic, and political—at the hands of both armed groups and the Colombian government.
Indigenous farmers living on productive coca land are especially vulnerable, as tens of thousands across the country have been forced at gunpoint by guerrillas and paramilitaries alike to uproot their crops and plant row after row of coca. This is when they’re not simply forced to hand over their land and leave—an outcome which has displaced millions throughout the length of the conflict—or shot on the spot if suspected of collaboration with the enemies of whichever armed group is in town.
While coca can fetch market prices far higher than other crops, the vast majority of profits from the drug trade never reach the hands of farmers. Consider, too, the impossible situation that farmers find themselves in no matter who controls their territory.
While the narcos remain, farmers are forced by economic imperative or threat of violence to grow coca. If the narcos leave and the government enters, guns blazing and without regard for collateral damage to civilian lives and property, the peasants’ fields are burned and they are arrested for complicity in coca production.
Coca eradication efforts informed by American war on drugs policy have proved equally damaging. Aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate by the Colombian government and American contractors over coca fields, a mainstay of coca eradication efforts, not only destroys the coca, but also food crops and surrounding vegetation, while harming human health and rendering soils and water systems toxic. Nothing will grow in a sprayed field. Despite heavy and indiscriminate spraying, this strategy has failed to significantly reduce cocaine production—but it has continued to harm those Indigenous communities already most victimized by the cocaine trade.
It goes without saying that those Indigenous communities have not suffered silently, but have long resisted in defense of their rights and land. Yet resistance is an extremely dangerous prospect in a land where all the guns and finances are in the hands of armed groups ready to deploy terror and violence to keep productive coca land under their control.
In regions such as the southern departments of Cauca, Putumayo, Nariño, and Caquetá—all epicenters of the armed conflict and all with sizable Indigenous populations—scores of activists are killed each year.
Nonetheless, resistance has continued despite the risks. Many Indigenous communities in these areas maintain autonomous defense forces armed only with sticks and machetes whose job it is to confront and restrict access to armed groups operating in the territory.
In the Nasa (2) reservation of Tacueyó in the department of Cauca, for example, community guards called kiwe thegnas keep a vigilant watch for armed groups intruding on their land. Violent reactions to this work on the part of armed groups are not uncommon.
On October 29, 2019, five kiwes of Tacueyó were shot dead in their car just outside town. Despite such losses, a spirit of defiance still presides in Indigenous communities like Tacueyó.
The roadside signboard commemorating the murdered kiwes proclaimed:
¡Seguimos en resistencia! We’ll keep resisting!
The same attitude of bravery and resistance in the face of danger that this response illustrates is echoed in Indigenous communities across the country. While drugs are a large part of the story, other economic processes, both illegal and state sponsored, have also contributed to anti-Indigenous land theft and violence across the country. Illegal logging, gold mining, and oil extraction—all of which contribute to deforestation, soil depletion, carbon emissions, and pollution of vital waterways—have long elicited Indigenous resistance.
Illegal business interests have responded by assassinating Indigenous leaders standing in the way of their plans. Due to their connections to government and foreign actors, perpetrators (from high-level illicit investors to hired assassins) frequently go unpunished by a lackadaisical and corrupt criminal justice system.
Indigenous resistance has also responded to development initiatives of the Colombian government and multinational corporations such as Occidental Petroleum and Shell to open mines and pipelines on Indigenous land. In the Valley of Sibundoy, Putumayo Department, where my research is focused, Inga and Kamëntsá (3) activists are organizing marches to protest a planned road expansion and leases to industrial mining, using traditional motifs to claim ecosovereignty over their ancestral lands.
Indigenous groups have also marched in cities around the country, most notably Cali, during the ongoing national protests that began on April 28, 2021. Many of these activists situate their struggles with respect to the long history of institutional racism and classism in Colombia, a history that the perilous situation of Indigenous activists today casts in sharp relief (4).
Despite efforts from the Colombian government to portray itself as a champion of environmental rights—rightwing president Iván Duque spoke to this effect at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last fall—Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. According to Global Witness, 227 environmental activists were murdered globally in 2020, up from 212 in 2019. 65 of those murders in 2020, and 64 in the previous year, occurred in Colombia. A third of the 2020 figure in Colombia were Indigenous and Afro-descendent people, while half were small-scale farmers. Note that according to the 2018 Colombian census, only about 4.4% of the Colombian population is Indigenous, while 10% is Afro-descendent.
These figures indicate the disparity of violence targeting Indigenous and Black Colombians standing up for environmental justice. For Indigenous people in Colombia, speaking out in defense of their peoples’ rights and the protection of the environment remains extremely dangerous.
And yet the struggle continues, with new voices of resistance each day picking up where others have fallen silent.
All are coming together to say: ¡Seguimos en resistencia!
If you wish to honor those who have given their lives to protect Indigenous rights and the environment in Colombia, and express your solidarity with those who continue the fight, consider donating to one of the following organizations that work with
Indigenous groups on the ground:
- National Indigenous Organization of Colombia: https:// www.onic.org.co/en/
- Amazon Conservation Team: https://www.amazonteam.org/
- Amazon Frontlines: https://www.amazonfrontlines.org/
- Amazon Watch: https://amazonwatch.org/
- Cultural Survival: https://www.culturalsurvival.org/
- International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs: https://www.iwgia.org/en/
- Survival International: https://www.survivalinternational.org/
Photo credits: CNN and Global
1 Coca is the leaf that, after heavy processing, results in cocaine. The problem isn’t coca itself. Coca leaves have been consumed for medicinal, ritual, and recreational purposes by Indigenous South Americans for millennia; policies aimed at the eradication of the plant itself are anti-Indigenous. The problem is cocaine. The difference is analogous to that between coffee beans and pure caffeine powder.
2 The Nasa people, also known as the Páez, are the second most populous Indigenous group in Colombia and primarily live on ancestral lands in the departments of Huila and Cauca.
3 The Inga and Kamëntsá are the two Indigenous groups that ancestrally inhabit the Sibundoy Valley. The Inga also live throughout the departments of Putumayo, Caquetá, and Nariño.
4 It must be noted that Afro-Colombians, who comprise 10% of the national population, have also carried on environmentalist struggles of their own, and that Black activists have likewise been targeted by similar kinds of violence as Indigenous activists. No account of activism and social movements in Colombia can be complete without taking stock of the contributions of Afro-Colombians.