Indigenous organizing groups partnered with student activists and other populist social movements Tuesday for a national mobilization to mark the start of indefinite protests.
According to Richar Leguizamo, Director of Communications at the National Organization of Indigenous Colombians (ONIC), roughly 120,000 indigenous protesters alone have taken to the streets since late Monday afternoon, with major demonstrations taking place in 17 states throughout the country.
He told Colombia Reports that protestors have assembled from across Colombia’s various indigenous territories to “demand that the Colombian government treat [their] existence as a priority and not a burden, that the government honor its commitment and responsibility to Colombia’s original people.”
According to Leguizamo, the so-called “MINGA Social, Indigenous, Popular” Movement declared the start of indefinite protests after President Juan Manuel Santos failed to arrange a dialogue session he had previously scheduled with organizers for this past Saturday.
Now the ONIC, comprised of 44 local and regional member organizations, is calling for a national negotiation table, similar to the one established in late September between the national agricultural organizing body (MIA) and the government.
During coordinated national strikes that lasted for much of August and September, Colombia’s indigenous communities were strong backers of the protest movements in the agricultural sector in particular, which ONIC statements indicate is something of a guiding framework for its current activities.
And with the support of the increasingly unsatisfied MIA and other sizeable protest bodies, including the student organizers behind other national demonstrations scheduled for later this week, ONIC claims it will not end its mobilization campaign until a substantive discussion with the government is underway.
In some cases, said Leguizamo, protesters have already begun to block roads and highways, a strategy that led to violent altercations with the police during the agricultural sector’s strike campaign. The tactics used to unblock roads led to widespread claims of human rights abuse against the government, which has since taken steps to strengthen its anti-riot police forces and the existing restrictions on roadblocks.
According to ONIC press releases, guards from the indigenous communities’ autonomous security forces will be on hand to ensure protests do not become infiltrated by illegal left or right-wing militia groups or the Colombian government, as happened in various incidents during the August-September national strikes.
Alleged infiltration by guerrilla groups was the government’s primary justification for the use of force throughout the previous protests, including during one prominent incident — in which President Santos ordered the militarization of Bogota and the deployment of 50,000 army troops to the Colombian countryside — subsequently revealed to be the work of right-wing neo-paramilitary organizations.
Of Colombia’s nearly 1.5 million indigenous citizens, an estimated 890,000 are at risk of extinction in the coming years, according to ONIC statistics.
Colombia’s indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by Colombia’s armed conflict and by the escalation of large-scale mining and energy projects, which threaten their native environments and ways of life.
Organizers claim they suffer from the historic abuse of Colombia’s rural population and continued threats to their security — in the form of forced displacements, kidnappings, assassinations, death threats and child recruitment — fostered by government neglect or active encouragement of mega-mining and paramilitarism.
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Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist with a degree in Latin American literature and Spanish from Tufts University, interested in labor, environmental and human rights issues in Latin America.