Despite this bleak panorama, we observe a lot of different and inspiring examples of civil resistance in Colombia, where communities have developed innovative strategies to protect their land and their way of life.  Sowing seeds and planting crops in Colombia’s fertile land becomes an act of resistance in areas where rural subsistence is at risk due to economic interests prevailing in the territories.

Campesino Reserve Zones: a proposal for peace

50. El Garzal
Salvador Alcántara, a leader from the El Garzal community process (Bolívar department) calms a young cow during the morning milking session. Photo: Caldwell Manners/ECAP

The Campesino Reserve Zones (ZRC) are an example of community based resistance which were formalised through Law 160 of 1994.[1]  The purpose of these Zones is to provide land for the farming population to develop its own economic models which promote food security and sustainable agriculture, and challenge models based on natural resource extraction and large scale exploitation of land through agro-industry.

Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones

Peace Brigades International© 2011 Charlotte Kesl Photography
Photo taken in Chocó by Charlotte Kesl

Biodiversity Zones, like Humanitarian Zones or Humanitarian Spaces in urban contexts, are mechanisms used by communities in Colombia to protect their fundamental rights and the territory they live in. Humanitarian Zones are areas exclusively reserved for the civilian population during armed conflict, as are Biodiversity Zones, but these are also defined areas that recognise the importance of ecosystems, recovering native seeds and traditional crops. They represent a commitment to protect the environment and live in harmony with nature, and they are a means for communities to protect their ways of life from the threat of outside interests in their territories.

Indigenous Guard

La Minga Indigena en Colombie
Members of the Indigenous Guard during a demonstration in the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá. Photo: Damien Fellous / Libre arbitre

The Indigenous Guard is an ancestral entity and an instrument of resistance, unity and autonomy for protecting territory and indigenous communities’ self-determination or life-projects. It is a mechanism of humanitarian and civil resistance which seeks to protect indigenous territories, disseminate their ancestral culture and exercise their rights. Its mandate is derived from the assemblies, and it therefore answers directly to the indigenous authorities.  It was born of the need to protect themselves from all the actors who attack indigenous peoples, but all they carry to defend themselves with is the “chonta” or baston of command, which impresses a symbolic value on the Guard.

Popular consultations

53. Santurban
“Water yes, gold no”, shout protesters in Bucaramanga (Santander), calling for a gold mining licence to be denied in the Páramo de Santurbán high moorland area. Photo: Leonardo Villamizar

Popular consultations are a way for people to decide on issues of national, departmental or municipal interest. In other words, they define the fate of the territory where they live. Although the executive powers at each level are in charge of convoking consultations, they can also be proposed through citizen initiatives supported by a petition of signatures. The question formulated for the consultation is also examined for its constitutionality by the judiciary. In consultations by the inhabitants of Tauramena in Casanare they voted against oil exploration on their land. Since then a wave of similar consultations prospered in five other municipalities around the country. All of them asked about the development of mining and energy projects. Not one of them voted in favour.[2]

Strategic litigation

uwa, Casanare
U’wa indigenous community in Casanare. Photo: Alejandro González

Strategic litigation is an instrument for preventing abuses and protecting human rights. It is a strategy of selecting, analysing and litigating cases on behalf of communities and can have a significant effect on public policy, legislation and civil society. Strategic litigation has had a positive impact on the land rights of indigenous people, and it combines legal action, political advocacy and social communication, capacity development and mobilisation.

The U’wa indigenous people took action against the preliminary oil exploration licence in the Samore Bloque by Compañía Occidental de Colombia (OXY) on its territory, and the Constitutional Court in Sentence SU-039 of 1997, upheld their fundamental right to prior consultation, set out the parameters for the process and ordered the authorities to carry it out. The U’wa case yielded important lessons for litigation to defend indigenous peoples.

The Embera indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities of Antioquia and Choco were affected by a mining concession that granted Muriel Mining Corporation Company permission for a copper, gold and molybdenum mine. In a historic judgment, the Colombian Constitutional Court in Sentence T-769 of 2009, ordered the project to be halted because the legitimate authorities did not attend the meeting and there hadn’t been sufficient information provided. [3]

Training new leaders

Berenice Celeyta
Berenice Celeyta. Photo: Julian Montoni

Creating new leadership that is capable of driving resistance processes and confronting the threats from economic interests is an important action for territorial protection. This capacity building is the work of many of the organisations that PBI accompanies, that have become references for the social movement.

The Peoples’ Intercultural University was created from social processes and debates within communities over the lack of access to education, because graduate level education is unheard of in most of the territories in Colombia. The initiative was created by the Association for Social Research and Action (Nomadesc) as a tool for resolving the internal armed conflict.  Its aim is to facilitate research and education for communities “for themselves, and for the transformations that their territories need” explains Berenice Celeyta of Nomadesc. The Peoples’ Intercultural University is innovative, and its courses are ambulant, outside classrooms and conventional buildings, they are journeys through territories which bring theory together with its practical applications, and attach importance to the knowledge and traditions of the participants and their peoples.[4]

The School of Environmental and Popular Research was inaugurated in 2015 in memory of Daniel Abril Fuentes, farmer, environmentalist and social leader who was murdered.  It is a space of resistance where leaders who have been victims of the resource exploitation and State crimes can meet and fight to protect their natural resources, their food sovereignty and their forms of production.  This initiative is driven by the Social Corporation for Community Advisory and Training (COS-PACC).

Cuerpos Gramaticales: sowing the seeds of resistance

Cuerpos gramaticales
Photo: Bianca Bauer

Cuerpos Gramaticales was born during the commemoration of twelve years since Operation Orion, in which 95 people were forcibly disappeared in the 13th Commune in Medellín. In the collective cathartic performances the members plant themselves in earth, using the symbolism of the land for the remembrance of the fallen loved ones and recognising the power of connection through it, sowing the seed of resistance through their bodies.


[1] Secretaría Senado: Ley 160 / 1994
[2] Semana: La consulta popular: se la explicamos en tres pasos, 1 August 2017
[3] Vniversitas: El concepto de litigio estratégico en América Latina: 1990-2010, Bogotá, N° 121: 49-76, July-December 2010
[4] Movice: El doloroso asesinato del líder del Casanare Daniel Abril, 16 November 2015

* Cover photo: Caldwell Manners/ECAP

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