Colombian Indigenous Group Strengthens Community Through Media

The Nasa Indigenous community in the North of Cauca, Colombia is based in indigenous reserves on communal lands which cannot be sold or bought. This community of 112,000 people is organized through the Association of Councils. The Association generates work and development projects through health, security and judicial programs to better the living of all indigenous people in the North of Cauca.

The Association of Councils is divided into working groups called Weaves. There is the Human Rights Weave, The Life Defense, The Economy and Environment, the Judicial, and there is a Weave call the Communications Weave, which is the one where I work.

This Weave is composed by 3 radio stations, an area of printing, the web page, and an area of video production. The idea of the communication area is to show the community processes, which in a large context is called the Plan for Life. This Plan for Life is the objective, the dream for life for the community. It is an ideal of co-habitation with themselves, the territory, and everything around.

To be able to understand the Communications Weave is necessary to understand that we are all part of a community. We don’t look at the community as an object for study, nor do we utilize the processes or the struggles of the community in order to make communication projects as if we were strangers looking in. We are a part of the community and we spring from within, from the internal needs of the community, and in relation to the outside.

Communication has existed for a long time. It can even be traced back to Colonial time, when they used to communicate through smoke, through the use of the horn, or the different sounds; to relate one another, to create networks to warn of external dangers. Afterwards, the community organized itself to vindicate its rights, to vindicate its culture. Communication was also very important because there were working groups that used to run around the trails, letting people know about new policies, about the different processes. They used to walk from house to house, from to town, from county to county.

Today, we use all those communication strategies of the past, and have incorporated them to the new media, such as internet, video, and radio. The community itself proposes the strategies to follow. Thus, in the area of radio, it is through the assemblies and the meetings. The community itself says: we need you to communicate these things. And we, through the radio stations do that. We try to identify what the community has already told us, and try to communicate that internally. We all have to take care of the water, the territory and we all have to have a political consciousness in our struggle. So, we bring those ideas through the radio stations. Sometimes we do the same internal reflections through video, though these are usually geared to an external audience, even an international one. We show what we’re doing, and what our processes are like. It is important for us to look for sister projects with other people, other cultures.

We utilize the web page mainly to form a social consciousness at an international level; to denounce the abuses in our territories, to denounce the aggressions, the presence of multinationals, the presence of armed groups that affect our territories. We need to let people know this in order to generate opinion and international solidarity.

This is not only done by the people in charge of the technical area. We also have community communicators who support us. We call them Nodes. They are the nodes in a weave. It is the unifying points of the network that strengthen it. We have people who collaborate with us in every inch of the territory. Teachers can be leaders, people who are interested in spreading the word about the processes that are evolving within the territory. This had already existed for a long time, but the Communication Weave works to integrate these people, so that we can all view a common path, capable of integrating individual and collective processes; all the small reserves integrated in an area covering the 17 councils.

In what way do they collaborate with us? Well, we have radio and video programs. They receive copies and they distribute them throughout their county, throughout their reserve. They may organize film forums, reading communiqués through a megaphone, or playing the radio programs in a cassette player, and helping out in all the efforts the Weave makes to interact with the community. These nodes collaborate with us and they are the ones who actually make up the Communication Weave. Through the use of the media we propose certain things, but it is the community itself who actually makes it dynamic.

Our community is aware of the communication needs of the territory. It knows that communication is especially necessary as a tool for denunciation… In protests and marches there are community members and many indigenous people who carry their own video cameras, and they tape because their also know that this is a weapon to stop police from committing abuses against them.

When I was taping the video that I’m presenting – which is about the recovery of a farm, and the community that entered the farm and was kicked out by the police – I saw many people with their own cameras. They even told us interesting anecdotes. One of them told me that in an instance where the police had them all surrounded with weapons. Then the people started taking out their boots and held them in their hands as if they were cameras. They made them believe that they were videotaping what was happening. This made the police stop the attack and hide the weapons.

Basically, communication means exactly this in these difficult moments that we are living in Colombia. It is denunciation. We are able to utilize it to slow down the weapons that the government utilizes.

Communication is so present in the community that they understand clearly even how the mass media work. They are perfectly aware of the fact that mass media is manipulated by political and economic interests, and that it doesn’t present their reality. In many cases there is a lot of reluctance to accept external journalists, whether they are national or international. They think of them as liars, distorting reality, which of course is a fact.

They themselves determine what the objective of the Communication Weave may be. When I am present at some tapings, they say, make sure to broadcast this, please. Let people know about these videos to show our situation. And we try to do exactly that. But the reality is that those videos have no space in commercial spaces. Fortunately, the community is aware of that. That it needs to be represented in a space that tells their stories and their needs.

Communication is already assumed, or better, the Communication Weave is already assumed as such: as a space that is aware, as the counter-response to the insidiousness of the mass media in the community. Fortunately all of us are aware of that, and we know how to read the news, and how to understand the newscasts. People understand that (the media) are manipulated by interests, and they know that they have to look for spaces, how to use the daily struggles to confront what the conventional media proposes.

The Colombian conflict cannot be limited to a narco-trafficking or a guerrilla problem, as it has been portrayed internationally in the conventional media. The Indigenous communities are aware that the Colombian conflict has strong social roots focused in the unequal distribution of wealth, the unequal distribution of water, the loss of land, the lost of Indigenous territory. In regards to this, the Indigenous resistance, the ideological proposal of the Indigenous Movement focuses in the recuperation of the stolen space, and the generating of alternatives. It is not only to denounce, but also to propose alternatives. And that proposal, that denunciation, that alternative, is obvious, must be featured through a media that focuses in a public by which we may feel supported, in solidarity, and capable of strengthening us all

The idea is not to generate a purely Indigenous agenda, but an inclusive proposal that contemplates all the excluded movements, the peasants, the Afro-Colombians, all the union movements, the teachers, etc. The idea is to utilize community media as nodes to fortify a network of community work.

The armed conflict is aggravating the situation day by day. The social conflict is present in everyday life. The proposal of our media is to show it, to generate alternatives, to generate the struggles that in fact, are already taking place, and the Life Plan of the community. (We want to show) how this is taking place, and how it works internally in the community. Through this space, we believe is important to find links between this Life Plan, not only internally, but also with other cultures. And truly, this does not remain only in words. This is already happening. We already have sister projects with other Indigenous communities in the continent, with other social movements in the continent.

This has been possible thanks to the use of media, thanks to the use of the internet. Thanks to the videos we have produced which have transcended to other borders. Thanks to the fact that we have those sister projects with other radio stations in Colombia. This has made possible for us to direct our thought and our political ideology. To direct the popular media to search for ways to strengthen this ideology, and this community process which is taking place, and which in one way or another is being led by the Indigenous Movements who are aware of the aggression suffered in their territories, of the presence of multinationals in their territories, of the presence of paramilitary groups, or armed groups which are trying to take over their territory.

The struggle that is taking place with more force in the community is definitely the struggle against the Free Trade Agreement. The community is aware of the fact that is a treaty that affects the interests of the community. This is not only a union’s struggle. It is not only a struggle seen from the point of view of the leaders. One asks the youth, the elder, the women who work at home, or in the land, what is the Free Trade Agreement? And they answer that they know it is something that is damaging the land, the water, the national economy, the economy of Indigenous people. They know that they must struggle, that the community must struggle against this aggression that is the Free Trade Agreement.

This is why, through our media, we are emphasizing all of this and strengthening this struggle. Creating the sister projects. Creating links with other brothers in the continent to try to stop as much as possible and to confront this great aggression on the part of the government and the multinationals.

In Colombia we have two private channels, one of which has stocks in our current president’s campaign. We are aware of the fact that this government is against the Indigenous Movement, and consequently, the mainstream media are against the Indian Movement. There is no space for production that may show the Indigenous thought. There are apparently some spaces offered by the Ministry of Culture, but in reality these are for productions made by outsiders, looking at the Indigenous communities as an object for study, as death communities, in which what is important is their past, their rituals and their ceremonies. Their own vision of their current needs is not important. These programs don’t offer political or social visions obviously because the government does not want to show that. In order to give out the excuse that it is indeed including the Indigenous people, it includes them as I said before as an object for study. But there is not in reality an inclusive participation on the part of the Indians, nor does it show their real needs.

As we, in the Communication Weave, are just beginning to gestate an audio-visual proposal, we haven’t had any time to think about negotiating certain things such as how we can have access to the mass media outlets. Our objective for the time being is to produce a lot of audio-visual programs. We have produced two videos that fortunately have found an echo internationally, and I’m happy to see that people in other parts of the world are having similar experiences.

Mauricio Acosta is the Video Coordinator of Association of Indigenous Council of the North of Cauca (ACIN) in Colombia. Photo from Native Networks