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Celia Umenza Risks Her Life to Defend the Rights of Indigenous People in Colombia

Celia Umenza
Celia Umenza, a leading Indigenous advocate for the Nasa people in the northern Cauca region of Colombia, told the United Nations Security Council on Oct. 21, 2021, that it bears some responsibility for the rising violence against human-rights defenders in her country. It is considered the most-dangerous country in the world for activists like her.

Celia Umenza, an Indigenous leader who has survived three attacks on her life while advocating for the self-determination of Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities in the northern Cauca region of Colombia, recently told the United Nations Security Council that its bears some responsibility for the rising violence against human-rights defenders in her country.

Umenza, 53, the legal coordinator for the Indigenous reservation of Tacueyó, has been leading the resistance against the exploitation of Cauca’s natural resources, which includes gold and other precious metals, and consistently denouncing the illegal practices of the extractive multinational corporations in the region. Her movement has cost the lives of dozens of women in Cauca in recent years, mostly Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people.

In a video statement during an open debate in the Security Council on Oct. 21, marking the anniversary of Resolution 1325 (the women, peace and security agenda), Umenza spoke for women campesinas from across the world who “suffer from war, poverty and discrimination,” she said. She got to the gist of her story by reminding the Council that for the second year in a row, Colombia was the most-dangerous country in the world for human-rights and land and environmental rights defenders. According to the international nongovernmental organization Global Witness, at least 65 activists were murdered in Colombia in 2020. A third of the killings occurred in Cauca.

Organized crime and paramilitary groups, involved in illegal gold mining and coca and marijuana production, are responsible for a high percentage of the documented killings in Colombia. The violence also stems from the fight to control the natural resources, including access to water, which has resulted in the destruction of vast swaths of forests and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and Afro-Colombians.

Of the 181 attacks perpetrated against human-rights and land defenders in Colombia from 2015 to 2019, almost half, 44 percent, were linked to five companies in the mining and fossil fuel sectors: AngloGold Ashanti, Big Group Salinas (BG Salinas), Cerrejón Coal (part of Anglo American, BHP and Glencore), Ecopetrol and EPM, according to a 2020 report from the nongovernmental organization Business and Human Rights Resource Center. For instance, protests against El Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, located in Cauca, have been linked to several death threats against land defenders.

“On average, at least one Indigenous defender is killed every week,” Umenza told the Security Council. In Cauca, three Indigenous women leaders whom she worked with were killed in 2020, she added, saying, “Their brutal murders illustrate how women often pay a terrible price for their leadership.”

The UN presence in Colombia has not made much difference. The Security Council established a verification mission in Colombia when President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), rebel groups signed a peace accord in November 2016, after decades of war and devastation in the country. The mission’s mandate is to verify the reintegration of the former rebels into political, economic and social life and to carry out security measures for the disputed territories.

Yet violence in Colombia has not abated. A key part of the peace agreement consists of providing incentives to farmers to substitute coca cultivation with alternative crops such as cacao and coffee. However, the program has been poorly implemented, which has led many former rebels to retake arms and regroup with dissidents from FARC-EP factions that have never stopped fighting.

In response, the government of President Santos’s successor, Iván Duque, began a military crackdown against the FARC-EP in September 2019, jeopardizing the peace process and endangering civilians. Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities were caught physically in the middle of the fighting.

Umenza, a leader of the largest Indigenous group in Colombia, the Nasa, demanded that the UN and Western powers pressure the Colombian government to carry out the 2016 peace accord more fully. For the people of Cauca, peace has meant only a brief interruption of the long war. Up to 20 percent of the inhabitants of Cauca, some 235,000 people, have been registered by the government as victims of the armed conflict.

A member of Cxhab Wala Kiwe, or “Great People’s Territory,” in the Nasa Yuwe language, also known as the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of the North of Cauca, Umenza talked to PassBlue in October in Spanish by Zoom from her base in the municipality of Toribio. The interview, translated into English and lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers series, focusing on individuals who are influencing global matters in profound ways. — MAURIZIO GUERRERO 

PassBlue: What was the main idea you wanted to convey to the Security Council in your remarks on Oct. 21?

Umenza: That civil society must be heard and that the United Nations must be the guarantor for peace and security for civil society. The United Nations has to supervise the peace process and the implementation of the peace agreement.

PassBlue: What is the current situation regarding violence in your community and the Indigenous communities in Cauca overall? 

Umenza: Due to the fact that the peace agreement has not been implemented, the violations of human rights of the Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant populations have worsened. Militarization has increased, but that has not meant more respect for human rights. The more military and police forces we have within the territories, the more human rights are violated. It is well known that we in Colombia have daily murders of leaders, women and men. We face accusations, threats and displacements in the Indigenous territories, especially when they become concessions for exploitation, and there is a territorial rivalry between armed factions. Without that respect for our territories, our survival as peoples, as civilian populations, is under threat.

PassBlue: Are conditions for Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities in Colombia worse off today than before the adoption of the peace agreement?

Umenza: Civil society in Colombia lived for a very short time the happiness of peace, of calm, after the agreement was signed. However, the agreement was not implemented, and the guerrillas regrouped and restarted their activities. The wave of murders arrived, and that murderous wave also targeted civilians. Those who put down their arms in 2016 and took up arms again affect the civilian population even more today because now we have no one with whom to sit down and talk. We no longer have a dialogue with the armed actors, and the government has refused to listen to us. That has been one of the biggest factors of the war in Colombia: Civil society is not listened to.

PassBlue: Who is blocking the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement?

Umenza: The history of Colombia has been to live in war. Unfortunately, we have not had a response from the state for this war. There are no social investments in the Colombian territories. I would say that Colombia is a country in structural warfare. Unfortunately, for us to speak of peace in the country or to savor peace, we have to revise the structures of state policies. But there is not even a dialogue now.

PassBlue: What are the provisions of the 2016 peace agreement that have not been carried out and that are directly affecting access to land for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women?

Umenza: Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant women have been suffering the same discrimination as before [the peace pact]. The territorial agreement has been breached, as well as the provisions on social investments. These affect women directly. Women already have to respond to the problems created in the families who suffered violence and rights violations. Indigenous leaders are killed every day. And when I talk of leaders, I am not referring to those of us at the forefront and speak out. If these were the only people killed, the community would remain, but the great leadership for us is the community itself. And that directly affects women. This is why women’s leaderships have emerged, because they represent the community, although their demands have not been met.

PassBlue: Talk about the crucial role of the feminist movements in the peace agreement in Colombia and the status of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women.

Umenza: Thanks to feminist struggles in Colombia, we managed to have gender provisions in the peace treaty, although women in the conflict zones have seen practically no improvements. The little that we have achieved has been with the help of international organizations that have given visibility to the breach of the peace accord and to the analyses that show that the agreement has not been fulfilled. The government has failed us women in all aspects. There are senators in the country, and we have a vice president who says that she represents us. There are women in the departmental and municipal governments, but these representations have no substance. These women have become part of the bureaucracy. This has only meant that the government employs women, although it has not worked to comply with the peace provision on gender or Indigenous issues of the peace accord.

PassBlue: What is the role of multinational corporations in the continuing Colombian conflict?

Umenza: The government has an alliance with multinational corporations, so peace is not convenient for the government because, unfortunately, all of our territories are under concession for exploitation. The struggle of Indigenous people, Afro-descendants and peasants for their rights has not progressed because the military protects the assets of the multinational corporations, which are also in alliance with the paramilitaries. The large corporations were the ones that strengthened paramilitarism in Colombia. All the mines and the natural resources are in Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant territories. So if the government deploys the military and armed actors there, we will never have peace.

PassBlue: United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken was recently in Bogotá to launch the US-Colombia high-level dialogue and discuss human-rights issues. Do you think the Biden administration can push Colombia to respect the peace accord?

Umenza: Hope is the last thing that dies. And, of course, we have great hope that the United States will help implement the peace accord instead of increasing the military force in Colombia, although the United States has been the country that has contributed the largest amount of economic resources for the war, for the military, in Colombia. Another hope is that in the next elections [scheduled for May 2022] we can elect a president who seeks peace in Colombia. It would be very important for the UN and the United States to implement an oversight mechanism so that the elections take place without corruption.

PassBlue: You said that the decades-long war was structural, so how was that changed from the previous president, Juan Manuel Santos, to the current administration of President Iván Duque?

Umenza: At least Santos put the issue of peace on the table, so that was a change. That is why we dream that the new elections will bring us closer to peace.

PassBlue: What has the UN done to help carry out the peace agreement, and what can it do to reduce violence against Indigenous and Afro-Colombians in their territories?

Umenza: Nongovernmental organizations have been able to give some direction to the UN in Colombia. And although the UN has supported civil society with its resources, it has also supported the war. That is why we have said that international cooperation has to reach the people in the territories. In some meetings, UN representatives have told us how they support peace in Colombia, but they have done so with the government, giving it resources, which have strengthened the Colombian bureaucracy and corruption in Colombia. The UN has encouraged that. There are many international organizations that have reached our territories, although very few have worked in the territories. Hopefully, the policies of international organizations will help us to solve the territorial needs of the civil society in Colombia.

PassBlue: You specifically requested the Security Council to call on the Colombian government to provide resources — money — for women-led community groups. Why is that crucial?  

Umenza: Civil society organizations have demonstrated a very transparent administration of resources. We have taken advantage of the few resources that reach us directly for the communities to make proposals on how to implement the peace provisions, analyze the situation and organize actions within the framework of the agreement. Neither the government nor the armed actors can achieve a truly lasting peace. As civil society, we are the ones who have to implement the peace agreement directly.

PassBlue: Do you sense that the Security Council and the international community in general support Colombian grass-roots groups to carry out the peace agreement?

Umenza: In the [Council] debate that I participated in, on Oct. 21, and in conversations with some ambassadors, I noticed that they have political will. I saw them concerned and I saw others very committed. We even agreed with the United States ambassador [in Colombia] that we were going to have a glass of red wine in my territory so that he could bring the president of Colombia to listen to us. In Europe, particularly Spain, we have seen a lot of interest. As an Indigenous population, it is the country that has been closest to us. I believe that, as part of Europe, we could rely on Spain to advocate for peace.

Maurizio Guerrero was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations for 10 years of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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