How a Colombian indigenous community is using its history of resistance to improve public administration and the lives of its people.
Every day, as Mayor Flor Ilva Trochez walks to her office, she passes the portrait of one of the most important heroes of the Nasa indigenous community in Jambaló. Marden Betancur Conda had completed half of his four-year mandate when he was gunned down in 1996 by a leftist guerrilla group. The community’s first indigenous mayor had been pushing forth Jambaló’s Municipal Development Plan, which set out to strengthen indigenous land rights and give the community a larger say in local government.
Jambaló is unlike other Colombian municipalities: its population is nearly 100 percent indigenous, and for the past 25 years, political leadership has been intertwined with Nasa tribal leadership.
“Our most important weapon is community mobilization. After our mayor was assassinated, we never stopped carrying out our own development plans,” explains Trochez, Colombia’s first indigenous woman to become mayor.
Today, Trochez—who stepped into her role in January 2016—is building on all those years of Nasa collective memory to bring better infrastructure, agricultural projects, and culture and identity to the more than 17,000 people living in Jambaló. As she sees it, in the wake of the ongoing peace process, Jambaló finally has the opportunity to improve the lives of its residents without fear of reprisal from the guerrilla and paramilitary groups that once patrolled the region’s hinterlands.
“After our mayor was assassinated, Jambaló was stagnant for 15 years. We received no visitors. We were disconnected,” explains Trochez. “The conflict got deeper and deeper into our society. Children were recruited [to be soldiers], and people were disappearing.”
If Jambaló once felt like a cage, today the municipality is an expanse of possibility in which the Nasa community, led by Trochez, is enjoying historic levels of freedom. After a long history of oppression, the systematic loss of their ancestral lands, and most recently Colombia’s war, Nasa leaders have more self-determination than ever before.
Twenty years after the assassination of Marden Betancur, the community’s objectives have not changed: defend Nasa tribal lands and ensure that the people living on them are at the forefront of shaping the community’s future. To do this, community mobilization is critical, and no document better reflects the community’s priorities than the Municipal Development Plan. Every four years, the administration works with the community to revise the plan, and ensures it always reflects a broader 20-year Nasa “Life Plan,” which spells out the community’s values and vision.
A Starborn Hero
Getting to this stage has not been easy, and the battle for land rights and a higher degree of autonomy goes back to a time before Trochez, Marden Betancur, and the creation of a Life Plan. In fact, the Nasa identity is best personified by Juan Tama de la Estrella, a 17th-century Nasa leader who used dialogue to lead the resistance against the Spaniards invading their territory. In 1685, Juan Tama sat before a Spanish court in colonial Quito to secure land titles for five Nasa communities: Jambaló, Vitoncó, Caldono, Quichaya, and Pitayó.
By the time Juan Tama did this, the Nasa and other indigenous groups had already abandoned the fertile lands of the Cauca River valley, forced by colonial settlers to move into steeper, rockier terrain in order to avoid assimilation—or worse, annihilation—and to maintain their cultural identity. Because of his contributions, Juan Tama was quickly adopted into Nasa lore as the cacique who was born when a star fell into a lake and survived on the maternal milk of seven Nasa mothers, each dying a sacrificial death after nursing the legend. At the end of his life, Juan Tama disappeared into the same lake whence he came, vowing one day to return to his people.
In modern history, the Nasa’s fight for their land has always been predicated on the existence of those colonial property titles and how, in spite of these titles, latifundistas usurped their land and forced the indigenous families to become indentured servants who paid rent to the new landowners in order to live on lands that were once theirs.
“We were slaves on our own land, and we wanted to do something to change that. In those days, it was not easy to mobilize the community,” explains Trochez. “Especially because our community didn’t have any experience with social protest, people were scared to speak out.”
Until Marden Betancur became mayor in 1994, the municipality of Jambaló was always governed by mestizos who tended to represent the interests of the region’s wealthy landowners and not those of its Nasa inhabitants.
In 1971, the Nasa, the Misak, and other indigenous groups from Cauca organized the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) as a vehicle to recover their land and defend their culture and identity from the region’s powerful landowners. The creation of CRIC marked the renaissance of indigenous movements in Colombia, and allowed the Nasa to mobilize, to create indigenous communication outlets, and eventually led to the creation of the larger, National Indigenous Organization of Colombia in 1980.
In 1991, the Colombian government established a progressive constitution that stipulates the protection of indigenous and ethnic minority communities. Finally, in 2009, Colombia’s highest court declared dozens of Colombian indigenous communities—including the Nasa—at risk of physical and cultural extinction, and ordered the government to protect them.
“The community has come a long way thanks to their determination and the capacity to quickly mobilize. Today, Jambaló is an example of one of the most equitable land distribution schemes in all of Colombia,” says Tatiana Bachiller, an expert in ethnic communities, based in Cauca, for the Land and Rural Development Program.
Caught in the Crossfire
The Nasa community in Jambaló has always practiced integrated agriculture, one that relies on a variety of crops to sustain families and the community. After 2005, as the conflict in Colombia intensified, armed narco-militias seduced Nasa farmers with a higher incomes in exchange for coca and poppy harvests. But with these illicit crops came more problems, and the FARC’s Jacobo Arenas Front tried to tighten its grip on Jambaló and the territories in Cauca. The column of FARC fighters was notorious for blitzkrieg attacks that employed large amounts of explosives, and was responsible for more than 100 kidnappings between 2005 and 2012.
For Trochez, the conflict hit even closer to home. The FARC threatened to take her life on several occasions between 2001 and 2008. The guerilla then threatened to kidnap her son, and she made the decision to send him away to a neighboring municipality to finish high school. Today, he works as a guardia indígena, the local homegrown police force protecting Nasa lands and its people.
“These are the additional costs of war. Many young adults in our community were kept from finishing their education or going to university due to the violence, prevented from achieving their dreams,” she says.
At least seven Nasa leaders were threatened during the period, and in 2002, Trochez joined a ‘humanitarian commission’, created by the Nasa Permanent Assembly, in order to confront FARC leaders in their high mountain camp in Loma de Barondillo. The commission consisted of only women.
“We, the indigenous women, decided we would not continue giving birth to children just so they could be recruited into war. The indigenous women knit the fabric of the community, we are the builders of peace.” The special commission sat down with the FARC and demanded respect for their lives and their community, their territory, and that the FARC refrain from recruiting or interacting with the Nasa. The Nasa people would not participate in this war.
During that same time, Colombia’s army established a small batallón in the urban center of Jambaló, which instead of protection, only created an attractive target for FARC’s explosives, causing collateral damage in the form of human lives and destruction to inhabitants’ livelihoods. The war that never meant anything to the Nasa community persisted until 2013.
“There is an evil alliance between armed militias, the guerrillas, and drug traffickers,” former Cauca governor Guillermo Alberto González told the media in 2011. “Cauca is a region where large amounts of marijuana are constantly on the move, in addition to the cocaine that is being trafficked in the mountains.”
Expertise in Planning
The FARC have since left Jambaló and the country’s recent ceasefire has brought peace, but the conflict has continually held Jambaló back in rural development: only five of its 35 villages (veredas) have access to potable water, there is but one paved road in the entire municipality, and over 1,000 families still lack access to fertile crop-growing land.
The Municipal Development Plan should tackle these problems, but without technical expertise in development planning, the municipal government has seen its work double in size every four years as unfinished tasks accumulate from previous administrations. In 2016, the Land and Rural Development Program (funded by USAID) began partnering with Trochez and her administration to restructure the Municipal Development Plan and carve out realistic goals based on the administration’s capacity.
In addition, the program and the municipality worked together to create an Agricultural Development Plan, which outlines products and value chains in need of investment and technical assistance. Trochez and her team have earmarked US$300,000 to invest in the production of coffee, fruits, and a multipurpose agave fiber known as fique, over the next four years.
As part of the institutional strengthening package, the program also trained municipal leaders to formulate projects—such as roads and irrigation—that embrace the same principles and characteristics as those typically funded by the national government.
“As much as we talk about production and building capacity, if there are no improved roads, and access to water, it’s just talk. Agriculture production goes hand in hand with roads and irrigation, and this plan taught us to formulate projects that incorporate all aspects of rural development,” she says.
Under the new agricultural plan, the Nasa community set up a producers’ forum to bring leaders together and help define the direction of Jambaló’s agricultural products. In late 2016, the program sponsored an interregional exchange forum at an agribusiness vocational center in Risaralda, where farmers and municipal leaders acquired skills and knowledge for creating and managing successful farmer associations.
“With these skills and knowledge, we can strengthen our associations,” explains Vicente Quimboa, Jambaló’s secretary of agriculture. “We know that we have to market our products and create a brand and put themout there in front of potential buyers and consumers.”
Farmers have turned to lulo, a popular highland fruit consumed daily throughout Colombia. Earlier this year, USAID, the mayor’s team, and Jambaló lulo producers won an early victory for their products. Under a commercial agreement between Jambaló fruit farmers and Colombian firm Comfandi, the commercial partner guarantees the purchase of one metric ton of lulo fruit every two weeks. In return for a steady supply of quality fruit, the company will increase the purchasing price by an average of 30%, from US$700 to US$900 per ton.
“Municipalities like Jambaló are now ready to start mobilizing resources
from the national government. For example, when the Ministry of Agriculture issues requests for proposals, these municipalities are already armed with a general plan outlining what kind of technical assistance they need, as well as a municipal-wide registry of farmers,” explains Cielo Ordoñez, the Land and Rural Development Program’s regional manager in Cauca.
With or without these partnerships, the Nasa leaders in Jambaló is diligently working to improve the lives of its citizens. The Nasa’s planning and organizational skills, which were perfected in the group’s land recovery efforts, are producing results. Since 2009, the municipality has created nutrition centers that serve isolated villages, promoted backyard chicken kits among its most vulnerable residents and started a coffee grower’s school with the objective of using the profits to pay for university or vocational studies. Recently, the fique grower’s associations purchased a truck on credit, allowing producers to increase loads of fique delivered three hours away in Santander de Quilichao.
“We have set annual goals for each of the next four years. By creating a realistic development plan, we also win credibility with our community and no longer suffer the anxiety of not being able to complete our plans,” according to Trochez, who will remain mayor of Jambaló until 2020.
If the progress continues and the country remains peaceful, Juan Tama may decide to wait before making his next appearance.
Here, you can listen to Mayor Trochez speak about the peace process and changes in Jambaló (En Español):