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Colombia’s Indigenous Land Defenders | Close Up

In Cauca, Colombia, Indigenous leaders continue to defend their land despite receiving death threats daily.

Celia Umenza is a high-ranking leader of the largest Indigenous group in Colombia, the Nasa.

The Nasa is an unarmed civilian defence force that has been standing up to armed groups to defend and preserve their land in war-torn Indigenous territories for generations.

The strategy of training unarmed activists has been so successful that leaders of the Indigenous guard have trained peasant and Afro communities to form their own defence forces.

Celia was one of the first women to participate and later became the coordinator of the guards. Today she is the leader of the women’s association within the movement and lives with constant threats to her life. 

“Just as I chose the organisation with my partner, I chose the organisation for my son. I said that I’ll leave them a free world.” said Celia.

Colombia is the deadliest place in the world for land and environmental defenders, and the Cauca region in the southwest parts of the country bears a disproportional share of the violence.

One Indigenous land defender has been killed every three days since 2016, while Indigenous communities are on the frontline against armed groups, multinational corporations, cartels and the Colombian state.

The killings aim to silence the land defenders in their fight against catastrophic climate change. Latin America is the world’s most unequal region: the largest one percent of landholdings concentrates more productive land than the other 99 percent. And Colombia is the most unequal country in the region.

The Indigenous Nasa see the struggle in historical terms. To them, the Spaniards never fully conquered the Indigenous populations of the Americas, despite massive historical campaigns of extermination, disease and exploitation. Not because the colonisers showed mercy – but rather because Indigenous resistance was too resilient.

“One of the Indigenous movement’s slogans is ‘If they kill one of us, thousands will rise’,” Celia says.

The ongoing Nasa rebellion in the mountains of southwestern Colombia is only a recent battle in an episodic colonial war that began 528 years ago when Columbus set foot on the continent.

This post-colonial struggle is also a clash between two world views. One believes in the protection of Mother Earth and the other is only interested in extracting as much profit as possible – regardless of the impact on people and environment.

Filmmakers Jesper Klemedsson and Sebastian Pena Rojas from the documentary collective Recapto have been following Celia and the Colombian Indigenous movement since 2018.

A film by Jesper Klemedsson and Sebastian Pena Rojas

Produced by Recapto

Camera: Hover Hernan Majin

Editor: Ala Alhussan

Translator: Sebastian Espinosa

Producer: Ala Alhussan

Executive Producer: Andrew Phillips

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