WHAT THE DOWNFALL OF AN INDIGENOUS ORGANIZATION REVEALS ABOUT ETHNIC POLITICS AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN COLOMBIA

September 14, 2018
In 2005 one of Colombia's oldest indigenous organizations, the Chocó department's  Embera-Wounaan Regional Indigenous Organization (OREWA), gave in to violence and internal divisions, raising concerns about the effects of armed conflict and corruption on local organizational efforts. The Chocó department is located in the Pacific littoral of Colombia and its population is for the most part Afro-Colombian and indigenous. The heavily forested department is also considered a bio-diversity hotspot. A political periphery and economic enclave, Chocó's relationship with the national government was historically mediated by mining companies, a merchant class primarily interested in extraction (Wade 1993), and Claretian missionaries who had arrived in 1909 on an evangelizing mission (Flórez 2007). When Chocó became a full department in 1945 local elites gained access to key patronage institutions, while profitable economic activities continued to operate through commercial links in the departments of Antioquia, Risaralda and Valle del Cauca. Not coincidentally, Chocó's roughly 400,000 people currently count among Colombia's poorest as well as its worst victims of violence.
 
Between 1950 and 1980 economic pressures intensified as integrating peripheral areas to support economic modernization policies increased, and as violent entrepreneurs and illegally armed actors arrived in the region and began to co-opt or circumvent local institutions and displace entire communities from their lands (García and Jaramillo 2008).
 
Afro-Colombian and indigenous social movements formed because of such economic pressures and successfully declared the lowlands as territories of difference (Escobar 2008). OREWA led indigenous land claims in the late 1970s and Afro-Colombian peasant communities along the Atrato River followed suit in the 1980s. The OREWA, the Integrated Peasant Association of the Atrato River (ACIA), the Organization of Popular Neighborhoods of Chocó (OBAPO) and the San Juan River Peasant Association (ACADESAN) among others, contributed to a movement that placed the political rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities on the national agenda. 
 
In 1991, Colombia's new Constitution responded to the claims of indigenous organizations with far-reaching multicultural laws. Reform advocates also promoted decentralization to increase the central government's territorial legitimacy in the hope that unifying the fractured country would put an end to conflict. The new Constitution recognized Indigenous Territorial Entities (ETI) as subnational authorities whose governance over decentralized fiscal resources, health and education programs, natural resources, and customary justice systems was enabled by laws passed between 1991 and 1999. New laws also developed Afro-Colombian rights to collective property and to organize under Community Councils. Indigenous communities acquired collective land rights to 34 million hectares of land and riverine Afro-Colombian communities to 4.7 million hectares (Departamento Administrativo de Estadística (DANE) 2005). This boldly transformed governance in one third of the country's territory, and it had a significant impact in Chocó.
 
Most indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, however, either failed to benefit from these rights or are struggling to maintain a semblance of them. The literature on Colombia's ethnic politics offers two broad explanations to make sense of this. First, few communities could endure neoliberal economic reforms that de-localized decision making to favor large capitalist companies, nor could they fend off an increasingly regionalized political economy of war based on violent land occupations to control people and natural resources. Secondly, communities that sustained local decision-making did so by linking up to national and international social movement networks, resisting violent pressures on their communities, or holding the national government accountable. In other words, only communities with extraordinary capacities to mobilize innovative strategies and networks of support could safeguard local decision-making practices. 
 
My research builds on these claims and points to the problematic ways in which authorities adapted decentralization reforms in the context of local political dynamics already overwhelmed by extraordinary transformations of political and economic organizations. 
 
Decentralization and Local Politics
 
As the relationship between different tiers of government was modified, local and regional actors were expected to deliver new forms of inter-institutional coordination. In what respects indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, the national government delegated responsibilities to departmental and municipal governments with which regional ethnic movements had developed mostly adversarial relations over the years (Pardo and Álvarez 2001). When key laws were passed in 1993 to enable ethnic-political autonomy and collective rights to land, social movement activists and ethnic authorities began to reorganize indigenous cabildos or create Afro-Colombian Community Councils. Indigenous authorities had to build upon intermediations between cabildos, and local and departmental institutions, a situation that required a careful balance between customary and statutory laws that would make sense to communities, and not simply replicate old clientelistic practices learned from political party or local government patronage networks (Oslender 2001). Not surprisingly, most communities were ill-prepared to assume administrative functions, and coordinate fiscal resources and development projects with municipal authorities; likewise departmental or municipal authorities were usually unsupportive or unprepared to address ethno-political autonomy, giving it a very low priority unless pressured by indigenous authorities or national-level institutions. 
 
Afro-Colombian Community Councils were not constitutionally recognized as public authorities in the same manner as indigenous cabildos. Councils formally oversee collective property and natural resources, serve as community intermediaries in local administrations and deal with matters of conflict resolution using traditional authorities. However, Afro-Colombian rights to self-government were far more limited because of violence and government malfeasance. 
 
As the case of Chocó demonstrates, reorganizing local authorities after the reforms was difficult to achieve under institutional settings weakened by armed conflict, government corruption and obstructionism, and capitalist extraction. First, not everyone could comply with complex institutional demands. Second, the reforms prompted new types of leaderships that in some cases undermined traditional authorities or in others placed themselves outside community controls. Finally, they provided some leaders with new controls over communal lands, which they then used to negotiate with business intermediaries. In sum, the new institutional framework required people or institutions on the ground with the knowledge, resources, and technology to navigate the new system, and ran the risk of empowering local intermediaries who implemented reforms to suit their own objectives (Haller 2002).
 
OREWA's capitulation highlights the difficulties facing ethnic-territorial authorities embedded in violent geographies and detrimental political environments.  In such a context, the new institutional framework endowed local intermediaries with increasing controls over communal decisions, disenfranchising communities and organizations across the board.
 
Figure 1 : Authors' picture 
Figure2 [map]:  Ethnic community lands. Map created by Nicolas Vargas Ramirez. Sources: Black community lands and Indian reserves: Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi (IGAC) (2010) and Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Rural (20Î1, 2012). Cartographic base: IGAC. Used in the article.
 
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LARR article: 
 
Jaramillo, M. (2014). THE TERRITORIALIZATION OF ETHNOPOLITICAL REFORMS IN COLOMBIA: Chocó as a Case Study. Latin American Research Review, 49(3), 126-152. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43670197
 
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About Author(s)

Marcela Velasco
Marcela Velasco is associate professor of Political Science at Colorado State University. She teaches in the areas of comparative government, South America and environmental politics and has worked at various universities in Bogota, Colombia. Her research interests include social movements and local governance, institutional change, and ethnic organizations