Much of the northern part of Cauca department in southern Colombia is populated by the Nasa indigenous group. Many live on reserves now part of mining concessions that Colombia’s government has doled out in staggering numbers across great swaths of Cauca and the rest of the country since 2002.
The Nasa have been ardent defenders of their territory in a region where Colombia’s armed conflict has escalated in recent years--ensnaring the Nasa. Combat between the guerrilla and armed forces is frequent in these parts, and narco-trafficking groups that include the guerrillas vie over coca crops and trafficking routes. Many of these battles take place inside the reserves of the Nasa, who reject the presence of all armed actors on their territory.
The Nasa have developed a remarkable system of territorial defense based on the Guardia Indígena—or indigenous guard. Armed only with a staff decorated with colorful ribbons, the Guardia are a pacifist force that patrols its territory, reports suspicious activity or people, and plays a leadership role in protecting the Nasa, sometimes ushering them out of combat that has erupted in their settlements or trying to negotiate with the guerrillas or army to leave the territory.
Recently, the Guardia on many reserves are facing what they see as a new threat to their territory—mining interests. Not only are foreign companies trying to exploit the mineral riches on the Nasa’s territory, but illegal mining outfits (usually a few bulldozers owned by an individual) with no mining titles are also encroaching on their land.
This spring, several bulldozers were advancing up the Mondomo River into the Las Canoas reserve. Their presence alarmed many inhabitants of Las Canoas. The environmental destruction wrought by these machines is starkly evident—desert-like riverside landscapes and pools of mercury and cyanide used in processing gold. In addition, many of these illegal mining operations have been linked to armed groups and must make extortion payments to whichever armed group controls the area.
I went to Las Canoas and hiked through the reserve down to the Mondomo River with a group of the Guardia to inspect the site where bulldozers had been working. As we walked up and down verdant hillsides, members of the Guardia described a remarkable turn of events in March 2011. After warning the drivers of the bulldozers with a written letter that they must leave the Nasa’s territory within 15 days, the Guardia decided further action was necessary. The Guardia led close to a thousand Nasa down to the river, and another thousand stationed themselves in the hillsides above the river overlooking the bulldozer. The Guardia informed the drivers they had to drive their machines off the land right then and there.
“We arrived peacefully, but we gave them no other choice,” the coordinator of the Guardia in Las Canoas told me as he stood on an expanse of gravel where sugarcane had grown before the bulldozers came.
The Guardia stayed on the heels of the bulldozers, following them up the hillside that flanked the river and out of the reserve. They warned the drivers to never come back. If they do, the Guardia says it will not be so patient the next time, telling me it might have to resort to burning the bulldozers. At the moment, there are no bulldozers in Las Canoas. But a fleet of bulldozers is moving in on a nearby reserve, and the Guardia is on the alert for another possible action.