Genith Quitiaquez is an agronomist and a practitioner of indigenous law and legislation. She is an activist of firm convictions. With studies in Gender and Transitional Justice in her curriculum, she is a member of the National Coordination of Indigenous Women of Colombia (CONAMIC )- organisation that brings together representatives belonging to ten different ethnic groups in the country – and belongs to the think tank Women, Peace and Security. . She is also a member of UN Women’s national civil society advisory group and is a member of the Mixed Indigenous Organisation, Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO). Throughout her career as an activist, she has trained and led initiatives on indigenous justice and peacebuilding from a gender and indigenous perspective. At the age of 23, she was the indigenous governor of the Pastos de Nariño people, an experience she repeated between 2020 and 2021, in the midst of the pandemic.
The struggle for territory and for the defence of human rights runs in her family. Her father was a community leader who instilled in her the importance of activism and the defence of the land. Of the eight siblings, Genith Quitiaquez was the only one who came out of the family with a vocation for leadership, she acknowledges. “I remember when the territory was flooded with illicit poppy crops. My father, being a leader, was always being stalked by the FARC. I lived in fear and anguish”. In 2000, in Spain, Genith Quitiaquez had the opportunity to learn about the work of seasonal workers in the fruit fields. “I decided to return to my homeland to fight for our language and culture. I came back to strengthen my community; and to do so both locally and nationally”. For Quitiaquez, working from the grassroots is fundamental, but changes have to be made visible at the global level.
Following the victory of the Petro-Márquez tandem, Genith Quitiaquez is happy and hopeful and hopes that Nariño will emerge from “institutional abandonment”, although she believes that the international community must continue to exert pressure for the full implementation of the Peace Accords, given that, she says, indigenous communities still continue to live in fear. To this end, the activist attaches fundamental importance to the incorporation into practice of cross-cutting gender and ethnicity approaches; she is committed to the participation of indigenous women in decision-making and calls for a reconnection with the ancestral culture of the territory.
Gustavo PetroandFrancia Márquez. Colombia enters a new phase
Colombia is entering a new historic phase: the left, led by Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogotá, former senator and former M-19 guerrilla, and Francia Márquez, the country’s first Afro-descendant vice-president and environmental activist, has just won the elections for the first time. The Historic Pact has managed to enthuse the poorest regions of the country, where participation rates have been particularly high compared to other elections.
Inclusion, social justice and environmental protection are some of the pillars of Petro’s programme, who promised profound changes in the country during his campaign. Subsidies, expansion of social programmes, more investment in education and health, increased food benefits, transformation of the pension system, higher taxes on the rich, higher tariffs on imports and an active fight against the climate emergency are some of the promises that have been made in recent months. However, it will not be easy: after Haiti, Colombia is the most unequal country in Latin America, despite being a territory rich in natural resources. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), almost half of the Colombian population (42.5 per cent) lives in poverty. Extreme poverty affects 7.5 million inhabitants. These figures were exacerbated by the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.
The Historic Pact, the left-wing coalition that has brought Petro to power, aims to bury the legacy of Iván Duque (2018-2022), the successor to Uribism, whose ultra-liberal mandate has been permeated by conflicts of different natures. Political patronage, corruption, assassination of environmental leaders (according to Indepaz, 171 social leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated in 2021), mass protests against the way of governing (in reference to the 2019 National Strike, whose images of repression by the authorities went around the world; 46 demonstrators died), illicit enrichment, etc. It is worth noting that this is not only what Duque leaves behind, but also the legacy of the presidents who preceded him.
In addition to dealing with rising global inflation and market fears, another challenge for the new government will be the full implementation of the Peace Accords, signed between former president Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, which put an end (or so it was claimed) to the longest-running conflict on the continent. These agreements were intended to put an end to more than five decades of armed struggle that have left more than 220.000 dead and six million people displaced. The Accords have not been fully implemented: Duque’s sceptical stance in recent years, as well as threats from paramilitary groups, the assassination of former guerrillas, and the lack of investment in the Colombian countryside have led some guerrillas to rearm.
This is the panorama that the Petro-Márquez tandem will have to redirect in Colombia, in addition to inheriting a deeply polarised and divided country, marked by years of conflict and violence and with a high level of distrust of institutions on the part of the population.
You were the first female governor of your cabildo, in the Pastos, in Nariño. You were only 23 years old. What was that experience like?
I came back from Spain, from training, and I said to myself: my community cannot be left behind; so I decided to run for governor. I managed to position myself as an ethnic reference in the community. Then I became governor again in 2020-2021. In the middle of the pandemic, I took on the challenges that Covid-19 brought to indigenous peoples. They were moments of learning, and a challenge of governance.
It is still difficult for women to govern.
It is difficult for us to enter government and to work as mothers and wives. But the vision of women, at a time as critical as the pandemic was, made everything better. Women are more resilient and proactive. That is not the case with our partners. The resilience and the way we express our feelings, in a time of crisis, is very important.
How has Petro’s victory been received in the communities? How do you think things will change in the coming years?
The government we currently have [el d’Iván Duque] has been very challenging in terms of not guaranteeing the rights of peoples and I believe that one of the structural issues is precisely the rights of indigenous peoples, closely related to the global agenda of climate change and the protection of biodiversity. For us, peacebuilding requires a real commitment in terms of agrarian reform, in which there are many challenges. The appointment of some of Petro’s cabinet posts are already a clear message of change. However, we know that structural change is not going to be easy, after 213 years of right-wing domination. We are aware of that; and we are aware that building peace depends not only on the government, but also on the grassroots, that we have to break the polarisation that exists in the communities. Although it was won, it was not won with a large majority: there was a percentage of the right wing that will be aware of what happens and there will be strong opposition to this government if strategic agreements are not reached. It is sad what the [de Duque]government leaves us, but what is coming is hopeful and challenging. And we also know that it will not be possible to change all the structures. Some things can be shaken at the top, but at the bottom, in the mayors’ offices, in the governors’ offices, there are still many leftovers from the lessons learned from corruption. believe that the way to build peace is not from the top down, but from the grassroots, from the territory, upwards.
What do you expect from the new government on gender issues?
The last debate showed how Petro was learning about gender. We hope that, alongside Francia Márquez, he will be sensitive to our proposals. We hope that a parity government will be formed and we hope that there will be progress on gender. We want the contributions of women and the LGTBI movement to be recognised. History has taught us that we cannot stop insisting on the struggle; and the agenda of the feminist and indigenous movement is clear.
What about the Peace Agreements?
We do not want anything to be invented; we simply expect what has already been agreed to be fulfilled. We do not need anything to be invented at this stage.
In which direction do you work in the National Coordination of Indigenous Women of Colombia (CONAMIC)?
CONAMIC is an initiative of Colombian indigenous women. Colombia has a structure of five mixed representations. Before, we women did not have our own voice, especially when it came to peace-related issues. CONAMIC is a national commitment of women who have some space for representation in our territory to make our situation visible nationally and internationally. As women peace builders, our mission is to make dialogue, mediation and new ways of working for peace in the territories possible, recognising the challenges in terms of security, protection and care from various dimensions of being. We are allied with feminist organisations because they are also committed to innovation as a way out of the conflict. This journey with indigenous women from other territories and feminist women opens up a panorama for indigenous women and allows us to make our work and our commitments visible, both in the local territory and for the rest of the country in terms of a peace and security agenda.
What challenges do the people of the Pastos de Nariño face?
In the first place, we have the difficulties posed by the expansion of illicit crops towards the Pacific and the department’s mountain range, as well as the migratory passage as a border area with Ecuador, with people leaving Venezuela to Ecuador, Chile or Argentina, and all the effects that occur in a migratory passage. In the Andean region, which now benefits from the Peace Agreement, we have a territory free of illegal armed groups. The FARC used to operate there, and since 2016 it has been a free territory. However, we now have another problem: mining concessions. In addition, the trans-Andean oil pipeline [conegut com a OTA]passes through our territory. This pipeline has 115 oil wells that supply the port of Tumaco. Now the problem is that they want to increase the production of crude oil with fracking in addition to granting mining concessions for precious metals and minerals in this vast area of jungle. In short, the conflict has been transformed. On the Pacific side we have difficulties with illicit crops, threats to social and environmental leaders and the forced displacement of both indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.
You say that the conflict in the territory has been transformed. In 2016, the FARC demobilised.
We feel the change in the territories left by the pressure of an armed group and now we feel calmer. The situation has changed, but we had the illusion that the Agreement could repair the victims and that the state could reach the forgotten territories that it has never reached, but this has not been the case. The Peace Agreements have not been fully implemented due to many factors. The government does not feel the need for reparations, nor does it know our deepest Colombia. It has not seen the gains that the Agreement has brought. We had high expectations, but it never arrived in the territory. The institutions did not arrive, with more health and more education. What did reach us were the mining concessions. We live in a territory abandoned by the state. The state does not arrive, but the conflict associated with mining exploration and concessions does reach us. This is the contradiction in which we live. This generates uncertainty and causes communities to fragment. That’s why I say it generates another type of conflict.
According tofigures from Indepaz (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz), 171 social leaders and human rights and environmental defenders were assassinated in 2021. How do you deal with this situation in the communities?
Indigenous peoples are no strangers to this reality. To kill a leader or a governor is to kill resistance. For women it is more challenging to reach leadership spaces. Being threatened or stigmatised is a clear message for us to stop fighting and defending our rights. A leader is not made overnight, but is made as a child. A leader is not made immediately, there is a whole process. To kill a leader is to cut off the struggle of an entire people. It is sad what happens in our territories with the death of social and environmental leaders, because they kill the resistance of the people.
How do you work to eradicate gender-based violence?
In recent times, indigenous women have been reflecting on the origin of machismo. Machismo did not only come from outside. There are and have been practices in the communities that need to be reviewed. In this joint reflection, we have realised the role that women have been playing in protecting the territories. We women must go back to the origins: we have a mandate in the territories and a fundamental role in the recovery of the social fabric. We have to sow the chagra again and look for our origins in order to recover our relationship with the territory. And it is in this reflection that we find ourselves today.
What does it mean to go back to the origin?
For indigenous women, going back to the origin implies thinking of ourselves as the creative force. This is our worldview. We must combine the national work and the advocacy we have been doing without forgetting where we are and where we come from.