In Colombia, indigenous people are but a small 2% minority, subdivided into about a hundred peoples scattered throughout the entire country. One very important ethnic group among these is the Nasa people – compromise during the guerrilla war; the struggle for survival by defending their lands and their traditions.
At present, the Nasa, which in the local language means ‘living being’, are to be found in seven regions in the south and south-west of Colombia, on the central Andean Cordillera (Cauca, Valle, Huila and Tolima) and in the Amazon zone (Caqueta, Putumayo and Meta). There are around 220,000.
They are originally Amazonian, who then became Andeans and absorbed all kinds of cultures and ethnicity, as a consequence of agreements or wars. In the last century, compelled by the need for land, many Nasa families left the Andean territory and resettled in Amazon territory.
The history of the Nasa people may be divided into three parts: the first is that of “Autonomous Development”. This was in the context of other indigenous peoples who probably emigrated from Asia towards the American continent, until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors around 1534. It was an extremely long period, mostly unknown, during which a “culture of one’s own” was formed in all its dimensions – political, economic and symbolic.
The second stage is that of the “Resistance” to conquest, to colonisation and successive invasions. This stage began with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1534 and lasted until the creation of the Cric (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca). The third stage began in 1971 and saw the promulgation of the new Constitution in 1991.
The Nasa were never a subjected people, even if they were deeply wounded: having used various strategies.
We may also divide this stage into three periods, corresponding to three different strategies. At first there was the “Armed Resistance” from 1534 to 1650. For more than a century, the Nasa people, together with other indigenous people of the Region, resisted Spanish conquest. The most outstanding character of this period was the Cacita (Founder) Gaitana. This was followed by the “Legal Resistance”, from 1650 to 1900.
Using the laws of the Spanish Empire, the Nasa people, with admirable political acumen, moved from war to accords with the conquistadors and obtained the recognition of their own territory with the creation of the “Resguardos Indigenas” (places where the indigenous people could freely live). Lastly, the period closest to us is that of “Affirmative Resistance”, from 1900 to 1971.
After the independence of Colombia, the new government passed laws abolishing the “Resguardos” and permitting the invasion of indigenous territories. Because of this, the Nasa began a struggle to reclaim their right to their own territory, as an essential base where to live and exercise a minimum of political and cultural autonomy.
Lastly, the third stage is that of the “Journey towards Autonomy and the Alternative “, from 1971 until today. In 1971, in a great Assembly, the Cric (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca), was created, the first organisation of indigenous authorities and communities in Colombia and Latin America, as an instrument to continue and to broaden the struggle begun by Nasa leader Manuel Quintin Lame to reclaim territorial, political and cultural autonomy.
In the following years, other regional indigenous organisations were set up and, finally, in 1982, the Onic was founded (national Indigenous Organisation of Colombia) at the national level. Two years previously, in 1980, on the initiative of Father Alvaro Ulcué Chocué, a Nasa priest, the Nasa communities of Northern Cauca began a process for the reconstruction of the Plan of Life of the Nasa People: a process which afterwards spread to all the indigenous peoples of Colombia.
In 1991 the new Political Constitution of Colombia was promulgated; it was the fruit of a Constitution Assembly that had two indigenous representatives and recognised Constitutionally the pluri-ethnic and pluri-cultural identity of the Columbia nation and the right of the indigenous peoples to territorial, political, economic-environmental and cultural autonomy. From that time until today, under the leadership of the Nasa people, they are fighting to achieve their dream, recognised at last by the Constitution.
In this context, in 2008, the indigenous peoples, at the suggestion of the Nasa people, carried out a long march from their territories to Bogota, inviting organisations from the Afros, peasants, students and the workers’ city quarters to unite in order to make a common proposal, an alternative to the dominant capitalist neo-liberal model of development.
During the Conflict
Northern Cauca is a strategic place for communication between the North and the South of the country due to its closeness to the city of Cali. From the start of armed conflict in 1964, Farc-Ep was based in this territory, forming the «sexto Frente» (sixth Front). Other armed groups came later such as the M-19 (Movement of 19 April, disbanded in 1990), the Quintin Lame (disbanded in 1991), the PRT (Revolutionary Workers’ Party, disbanded in 1991).
In response, besides the national police, the army also came to the area. In this way, the territory progressively became one of the main war theatres with very serious consequences for the civil population, 95% of whom belonged to the Nasa people.
From the start, Farc-Ep settled in the territories of the indigenous peoples, both on the cordillera and on the selva. Usually, relations between the two realities were ambiguous. On the one hand, there was a degree of harmony since the indigenous peoples were fighting for the land and against the state and the national government. On the other, there was some antagonism because the indigenous people considered themselves the only legitimate owners of their territories and demanded respect for their culture.
In general, the indigenous people accepted guerrilla warfare as an ally but not as their master. It was for this reason that, in the eighties, in Northern Cauca, the Nasa people opened their doors to M19 and started their own guerrilla group, the Quintín Lame, against Farc-Ep, because Farc wanted control of the territory and did not respect the indigenous culture.
There has always been strong opposition between the Marxist/materialist culture of Farc-Ep and the spiritualist culture of the indigenous people, between the struggle for power of the Farc-Ep and the fight for autonomy of the indigenous peoples.
When, in 2012, talks began in Cuba, many indigenous leaders expressed doubts about the agreement and asked to be heard. Fortunately, the final text of the agreement recognises the needs of the ethnic minorities, including the indigenous peoples and this persuaded their organisations and authorities to favour the peace treaty.
Meanwhile, life goes on in the valley of the river Cauca. The economy of the Nasa is based mostly on agriculture with maize, beans, potatoes and coffee being produced. The land is collective property and cannot be sold. Each family cultivates an allotment but also gives some of their time to community work called “minga”, which may mean using time for public works or helping other families to build a house or to harvest crops, operations that end with a great feast.
Even though they are a people very much attached to their traditions, in recent years they set up eight radio stations and a periodical and are also active on the Web with their website, a newsletter and the social network with which they try to keep the community informed on the progress of their struggles.
One of these is the use of their language called Nasa Yuwe. There are only 80 thousand speakers, as the more urbanised Nasa stopped using it and it is now listed by Unesco as one of the languages in danger of extinction.
According to the Nasa, to preserve their language and to reclaim their “motherland”, occupied for centuries by conquistadores, landowners, industries, drug traffickers and Farc. Land and language: the two hinges of the peaceful resistance of the Nasa.