Fragile Autonomy

Posted by Hanna Wallis – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU

Driving through northern Cauca, the view out the window shifts only slightly between different shades of green. Vast expanses of sugar cane extend off into the horizon, a monoculture sea for biofuel export. Today, I am among hundreds of Nasa community members to “recover” a crop field. The indigenous movement here operates from a different paradigm of sustainability; beyond productive capacity, clean energy, or collective profit, they strive to “liberate the mother earth.”

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Since the 1970s, the indigenous movement organized through the “Consejo Regional Indigena del Cauca” CRIC has fought for many forms of indigenous structural autonomy. Claim to territory lies at the the heart of this struggle, but unlike other movements seeking land access, their conception of geography transcends the idea of ownership. Upon re-claiming a former hacienda plot as their own, the leadership does not divide the space into small individually operated fincas but converts it into collective territory. This philosophic shift changes land into territory, and territory into mother earth. From this foundation, people are not solitary individuals, but units of the collective and members of the community whole.   

I have spoken to leaders at the institutional center of the indigenous movement to gain access to the communities where I have been conducting my research. Today, I participated in a “minga,” the Quechua term for collective action. Among hundreds of Nasa people with machetes and sturdy poles in hand, I enter the cane field, bashful to participate, but eager to be accepted in solidarity and collaboration. I wear a silk scarf tied around my face to block out the tear gas that the police will certainly throw, but the air is still heavy with smoke from distant fires, and I can feel the chemicals seeping through the cloth. The sugar cane companies and other large landowners who have had their property taken over by the indigenous movement send state forces to repress their action. As I slash the existing cane from the ground, I feel conflicted about whether I am destroying or helping give rise to something purer; the same tensions that have shaped people’s sense of allegiance through the conflict.

My original idea for the research was to explore how the peace process will impact this Nasa indigenous movement in Northern Cauca- a broad orienting question that I hoped would sharpen into tighter focus through the field work immersion. My interviews with leaders and community members who are anticipating the changes associated with the accord have only made this analysis more complex. The movement cannot be considered a monolithic unified voice, but a network of internal relationships that seeks to define their collective good. Through that exploration, they have run up against the same kinds of debates and dissonant voices that any other organizing body might, but here, their identity, in essence, emerges out of the collective.

The biggest concern that all of the “cabildos” (indigenous municipalities) face regards how they will receive and reintegrate the former guerrilleros from the FARC. The transition out of the armed forces will require re-entry into the civil societies that the soldiers left when they entered the jungle. In the north of Cauca, many of the FARC came from the same indigenous communities who have suffered from their attacks. Some families anticipate the returns of their sons and daughters, others can’t imagine cohabiting with the ex-combatants who killed their loved ones.

Beyond these excruciating individual emotions, the movement as a whole will have to define how it defines its sense of community. Does acceptance into the tightly-knit social fabric of “proyecto Nasa” territory depend upon the practice of collective action, or an essential essence of indigenous identity? What norms will the guerrilla have to observe in order to demonstrate their involvement and enduring relationship to their heritage? The answers to these questions remain unclear, but through the search, the movement will reaffirm its definition of belonging. The same uncertainties confront Colombian society as a whole- the conflict then, has both fractured collective identities and will force their re-negotiation. My research aims to navigate this evolution.

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