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Indigenous activist

Aida Quilcué is an indigenous candidate for Colombia's senate. She is one of the founders of the Minga ('Community Action'), an indigenous movement that has organised mass protests against multinationals and free trade. Aida's husband was murdered last year, her daughter narrowly escaped a gun attack and Aida continues to suffer threats of violence. Interview by Grace Livingstone

February 8, 2010
4 min read

Why did you become an activist?

I was born on a reservation. My family is from the Tierra Adentro reservation in Cauca, southern Colombia. I have been involved in community organising for 15 years. I became an activist because I was born indigenous; my parents were community leaders, so I suppose it’s in my genes. For me, the most important thing is to work with the community – work together, walk together – and this has led me to defend our indigenous territories.

Can you describe the resguardos?

The reservations are an indigenous territory and hold a collective land title. They have their own election authorities, run their own schools, have their own teachers, health workers, a whole system run by the community. Each family lives on their own plot of land, where they have their little house; they cultivate maize, onions and yucca and other food crops. These are mainly subsistence crops and very little is sold. It’s an autonomy we depend on. We fear that as soon as the multinationals arrive on our territory that will be the end of our collective system.

Why do the multinationals pose a risk?

Many indigenous lands are at risk from multinationals. For example, Anglo Gold Ashanti has made numerous applications for mining concessions. The multinationals want minerals, gold and precious stones, so the risk is that when they start mining they will destroy nature and our sacred sites.

There are also multinationals that want to explore for oil. There are those involved in privatising water, not just in Colombia but across the world. And there are companies that want to patent our ancestral knowledge of plants, seeds or even our own genes.

What is the Minga?

The Minga was formed to mobilise civil protest and demand respect against the multinational invasion. It has five demands:

1) Respect for human rights. The Colombian government’s policy of ‘democratic security’ is not a strategy for combating terrorism and drugs-trafficking but to militarise the country and give free passage to the multinationals.

2) We want the government to adopt the UN declaration of indigenous peoples’ rights.

3) We oppose changing our laws to favour multinationals, such as through free trade treaties. The free trade agreement [with the US, which the US congress has so far refused to sign, citing human rights concerns] will allow companies to exploit the biodiversity that exists in Colombia, most of which is in indigenous territories.

4) We want the government to honour the accords on education, health and other public policies signed with indigenous peoples and other social movements 20 years ago.

5) We call on all the different groups in Colombia to unite to defend our rights.

The government has said that the Minga is run by the FARC [left-wing guerrillas], but we have shown that we are not terrorists. We are indigenous peoples engaged in civil resistance and we are demanding respect. The indigenous community has suffered attacks from both FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.

Can you tell me about your husband, Edwin, who was murdered last year?

They killed him because they wanted to attack the leaders of the Minga – not just me, all the leaders. An order was given to a squadron of 37 soldiers operating in Cauca. They knew that I travelled in a red van, but that day, 16 December 2008, my husband was in the van alone; he was on his way to pick me up. The Colombian army fired 106 bullets at the van.

Despite being injured, my husband managed to drive eight kilometres, which saved him from becoming a ‘false positive’ – which is when the army dress their victims in guerrilla uniforms or leave weapons and say the person they have assassinated was a terrorist. When the soldiers were detained, they were found to have three additional guns, uniforms and all the things they use for ‘false positives’.

Your 12-year-old daughter was also attacked, wasn’t she?

After the murder of Edwin, an intense campaign of persecution against me began. My daughter was attacked in our own house on 11 May 2009. A car with four armed men drove by. One of the men shot at her. Luckily she was not hit.

How can you live with this level of danger?

The Colombian government offered me protection but I didn’t accept it because I suspect that the security service and police bodyguards appointed would be the same people responsible for the assassination of my husband. The indigenous authorities give me protection and I carry out a type of self-protection. The active support of the indigenous communities makes it possible for us leaders to remain in the region.

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