Indigenous organizing groups partnered with student activists and other populist social movements Tuesday for a national demonstration 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.
Leguizamo told Colombia Reports that protesters 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 follow through on 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 agrarian protest movement, which ONIC has indicated is a guiding framework for its current activities.
And with the support of the increasingly dissatisfied MIA and other sizeable organizing bodies, including the student organizers behind other national demonstrations scheduled for later this week, ONIC claims it will continue its 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 police forces during the summer’s agrarian strikes. The tactics used by police 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 as well as the existing legal restrictions on roadblocks.
According to ONIC statements, guards from the indigenous communities’ autonomous security forces will be onhand to ensure protests do not become infiltrated by illegal left or right-wing militia groups or the Colombian government, like they were in various incidents during the recent agrarian strikes.
Alleged infiltration by guerrilla groups were 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 peoples, an estimated 890,000 live under the imminent risk of extinction, according to ONIC statistics, in part because of malnutrition and a lack of accessible health services to treate preventable illness.
Colombia’s indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict and by the escalation of large-scale mining and energy projects, which threaten their native environments and ways of life.
Organizers say they are marching against historic abuse and continued threats to their security — often in the form of forced displacements, kidnappings, assassinations, death threats, and child recruitment — and protesters have called for an end to government neglect and substantive reform of national mining policy.
The ONIC is currently in the process of organizing the first ever Indigenous Copa America, scheduled to be hosted in Colombia next fall, with the goal of drawing attention to the various longstanding issues facing indigenous communities throughout the Americas.