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Cauca: Over 500 Years of Resistance

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Map of the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia

By Bárbara Orozco Díaz

The department of Cauca, in Southwestern Colombia, is a tri-ethnic and rural department equally divided in population and territory between peasants (28%), Afro-Colombian (26%), Indigenous (24%) and urban mestizos (22%). Its communities have developed, over more than 500 years of history, a capacity to organize collectively to resist the devastating impacts of war, socio-economic exclusion and discrimination.

Since the arrival of the Spaniards to their lands in the 16th century, ethnic and culturally diverse communities have resisted all forms of physical and symbolic violence suffered under the belief of racial superiority, discrimination, greed, armed policies, authoritarianism and homogenizing and dehumanizing economic models. There are at least three types of violence that they have and continue to resist, structural violence, partisan political violence and violence due to armed conflict.

In Colombia's contemporary history, community resistance through coordinated non-violent actions such as the Guardia Indigena, nation-wide general strikes, and land liberation campaigns have gained much visibility in recent years and have pursued structural changes using a positive understanding of peace, where the root causes of social conflict are addressed as opposed to simply the absence of war.


Cauca is one of the Colombian departments with the highest rates of inequality inland distribution and the highest rates of land concentration, which is at the root of the structural violence suffered by its Indigenous, Black and campesinxs communities: land tenure.

It was not until the 1991 Constitution, when for the first time in Colombian history, indigenous and black communities were recognized as citizens of the first order by defining Colombia as a multiethnic and multicultural nation. It established the legal framework of differential rights, thus guaranteeing collective rights under the political and territorial figures of Resguardos and Cabildos for indigenous communities and Community Councils for Black communities.

However, campesinxs communities do not have their collective rights recognized in the 1991 Constitution because they do not have a specific ethnic identity, and only Law 160 of 1994 regulates the Campesinxs Reserve Zone (ZRC) as an alternative for collective land management and protection of small campesinxs property to prevent land grabbing.


During the last six decades, sugarcane agribusiness and mining extractivism have generated a profound change in traditional campesinxs, Black and indigenous economic practices in Cauca and have also caused serious environmental damage.

Beginning with the Green Revolution (agro-chemical infused plantation monoculture or agribusiness) in 1960, the capitalist, neoliberal agribusiness model and its surplus production coincides, in the 1970s, with the implementation of the concept of Food Security by the United Nations (UN) to create standards in the fulfillment of the state's duty to its population. Likewise, it also generates a new business for a few countries such as the United States, which is currently a food exporter.

The expansion of the mining industry, oil exploration and logging projects, promoted by government policies aimed at bolstering export industries, led to an export boom in Colombia in 1990, causing a loss of biodiversity, contamination of waterways and the degradation of arable lands.

As a form of resistance and reflection of rural, campesinxs, Black and indigenous struggles, the concept of Food Sovereignty (La Via Campesina) is generated as a model of localized food production and against the negative environmental impacts of agribusiness, a concept for which survival is what prevails.

Likewise, campesinxs, indigenous and Black communities are organizing themselves to carry out processes of recovery and liberation of Mother Earth as a way to retake ancestral territory, redistribute land, and halt the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture and large-scale mining operations.


Indigenous Communities

Presentation of the Indigenous Guard (Guardia Indigena)

Seventy percent of Cauca's indigenous population is concentrated in 10 municipalities in the northeastern part of the department: Páez, Toribio, Silvia, Caldono, Santander de Quilichao, Totoró, Jambaló, Morales, Inzá and Caloto. They are mostly located in rural areas.

The indigenous movement of Colombia has been largely based in Cauca. During the last five decades, they have committed themselves to non-violent proposals and actions for the recovery, strengthening and protection of their cultures, their exercise of autonomy and the development of a political project that they identify as La Madre Tierra - Pachamama.

"The construction of a new country and a possible and desirable world"

Indigenous collective resistance is millenary, ancestral, integral, strong and successful.

Black Communities

Meeting of members of the Maroon Guard

Colombia has the third largest Black population in Latin America. It is mainly concentrated in the Pacific Basin. One of the most dynamic processes of Black community organizing can be found in the communities of Northern Cauca, with nationally and internationally recognized leaders mainly in the municipalities of Padilla, Puerto Tejada, Villa Rica, Caloto, Suarez and Buenos Aires.

For Black communities, artisanal mining was consolidated in the 18th century as part of a project of construction, subsistence and freedom from slavery. They organized themselves socially and economically around it, and produced most of their own food through traditional subsistence farming.

The cultural and existential sense and the defense of the territory is established in the prevalence and actuality of the ancestral, in knowing and feeling part of Nature and in the collective as an expression of the African muntu expressed in the Ubuntu: I Am because We Are.

"Territory is life and life is not for sale, it is loved and defended"

Campesinxs Communities

Miranda Campesino Reserve Zone, Cauca

The Campesinx struggle in the country has been renewed and has gained prominence in recent years, from the National Agrarian Strike of 2013 and the Coffee Strike of the same year, to the installation of the National Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit.

The campesinxs communities have extended their demands towards the recognition of the differential rights of ethnic communities, opening up the possibility of not only the right to own land, but also to access the territory, to exercise territoriality, to exercise collective self-government, and to order the territory autonomously, placing the collective interest of the communities that inhabit it at the center for the first time.

The Campesinxs Reserve Zones, as a territorial figure, are far from the characteristics of the indigenous reserves and the collective lands of the black communities, since they only manage to regulate the size of the property and formulate sustainable development plans as a possibility to collectively manage the territory.


The 2016 Peace Accord implements a major transformation of the countryside, establishing measures in Point 1 for a Comprehensive Rural Reform and in Point 4 to provide a solution to the cultivation of illicit crops.

The Ethnic Chapter incorporates actions and measures that generate guarantees of non-repetition and peace-building based on diversity, collective rights and comprehensive and differential reparations.

Likewise, it also seeks to guarantee the non-regression of rights won by the communities such as prior consultation, autonomy, governance, sustainability of uses, customs, practices, languages, cultures and traditions in a relevant and adequate implementation to guarantee territorial peace.

Despite the legality and recognition of the collective rights of the communities, the civilian absence of the State, the non-implementation of the Peace Agreement (Points 1 and 4), the permanence of at least 8 illegal armed actors, the fact that it is one of the most militarized departments in Colombia and the extractivist policies mean that the Indigenous, Black and Campesinxs communities continue to resist against all types of violence.


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