The challenges of popular movements
The one-year anniversary of the Minga featured renewed spaces of convergence in three regional Pre-Congresses held in
Advancing occupation and the urgency of a common agenda
The Minga did not come out of nowhere. Its agenda and spirit reflect a deep analysis and understanding of the context of the communities and individuals that gave the mobilization its force and the urgency of a popular and collective agenda.
The spirit of the Minga sought to name and expose a dynamic regime of occupation, one that extends beyond the administration of the country's current president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In the analysis of the indigenous of Northern Cauca, an ‘integral plan of aggression' is at play in
First is the use of war and terror to displace people from their land and hand over nature and people (land and labour) to transnational capital. Armed actors (left and right, illegal and official) use war and terror to advance and legitimize their existence, interests and actions. In a community assembly in Corinto,
The second strategy involves legislation and laws of eviction to privatize public services and collective territories and goods. Providing legal frameworks favourable to investors over communities and peoples, these laws are locked in permanently through so-called ‘free trade agreements'.
Finally, there is the constant and strategic use of propaganda and the mass media to attack the regime's opponents, obscure reality and make invisible the misery lived by millions. Communities are alienated from one another through a mass media that entertains and saturates public opinion with an obsessive focus on the despicable actions of the FARC over all else. By not addressing other issues with similar effect - such as the re-emergence of paramilitary groups [
At the Pre-Congress in
"Last night, we showed a documentary on Plan Puebla-Panamá [a massive infrastructure project in
Faced with the advancing occupation through an integral plan of aggression, the urgency of the Minga evolved into a need to recognize and name the threats faced by diverse communities across
The Hope of the Social and Community Minga
The other paradigm is ancestral in origin as the essence of indigenous peoples throughout the planet. It is fragmented and now being woven together, promoting the sacredness of life and demanding that the economy serve the wellbeing of people in harmony with nature, rather than life being exploited for the insatiable greed of an all-powerful minority. In contrast with the ‘death project,' his paradigm encompasses the ‘life plans' of peoples.
When the Social and Community Minga arrived in Bogotá in November of last year, in a 60,000-person march from the ancestral territory for Peace, Dialogue and Reconciliation, located at the La María-Piendamó reservation, to the capital, a five-point popular agenda was presented to the country:
1. No to the Free Trade Agreements and the so-called ‘free trade' economic model.
2. No to terror, an instrument of the global system to dispossess peoples of their territories, rights and freedoms and deliver these to corporate interests through all the armed actors, each of whose presence reinforces that of the others and threatens the permanence of people in their communities, as well as the survival of democratic opposition and unions.
3. No to laws and constitutional reforms, which are the backbone of a political agenda designed to evict people from their lands, deny basic and essential rights and freedoms and deliver the country to the interests of transnational capital and accumulation.
4. Yes to the Colombian state honouring its previous agreements and obligations, regardless of who heads the government, with all Colombians, including indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other communities and sectors.
5. Yes to the weaving of a common agenda of the peoples. All causes are our own [
In essence, these points denounce the global transnational regime of corporate capital and its ‘free trade' model as responsible for the economic and ecological crises leading to the imminent risk of collapse for the reproduction of societies, cultures and life itself throughout the planet; they call upon peoples to weave a collective agenda, and they demand that state obligations achieved through struggle be respected.
The power of these five points is that they represent the dignity of peoples with an agenda of their own, illuminating a path for peoples in resistance. Recognition of the aggression was the first step towards rejection of a model through which few have benefited and the collective construction of alternatives where life can no longer be owned.
The Minga sought a space from which to construct a new country, where everyone is included and conscious of the project's urgency and possibilities. It was not a strategy or platform for one group over others but an inclusive and shared process, bringing together the collective pain, struggles and hopes of all sectors. Rather than making demands of or trying to reform the system (comprised of legal and illegal armed actors, the state and the multinationals), the Minga called for an autonomous agenda of the peoples to be woven, for the construction of an entirely new country.
"The Minga is such a beautiful idea," said an elder outside the Coliseo in
He also noted that the current challenge of the Minga is not only in confronting external powers but also the contradictions of powerful interests internal to the process itself.
This was echoed by Ricardo, a teacher from a rural community in
‘Authorized' Resistance? The changing word of the Minga
Since last year, the Minga has garnered much attention from within
The spirit of the Minga is such that it has the capacity to mobilize thousands in an instant. The image of resistance and hope is thus projected outwards, collecting sympathy and support, some genuine and some opportunistic.
A number of leaders have risen to prominent positions, and diverse organizations have latched on to the Minga, in some cases modifying its agenda for narrow interests. This has occurred in a number of ways.
Little more than a month after the Minga's five-point agenda was proclaimed in Bogotá in November 2008, the Regional Indigenous Councils of Cauca (CRIC) presented a document to a meeting of the Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI), an indigenous-led political party [
1. Respect for human rights and the "good name" of the indigenous movement;
2. Respect for international declarations, agreements and conventions, in particular the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
3. The halt and reversal of legislation of eviction, where "the national debate on the FTA is a fundamental requirement" (emphasis added);
4. Compliance with pending agreements between the government and "processes of social mobilization"; and
5. "The construction of a country where differences are understood and included within the national territory and a state that responds to the dreams of the popular majority" [
These five points differ substantially from those presented to the world a month earlier. First, they focus on issues faced by indigenous peoples in particular, though the Minga was intended to be a process that spoke to the issues faced by all sectors. Second, the emphasis on opposing the FTAs was downgraded from outright rejection to a call for "a national debate," as just another law of eviction. This allowed the first point to focus on human rights and the "good name" of the indigenous movement. The issue of human rights is included out of context from the social and economic rights that the original agenda defended and insisted upon. Moreover, the demands are for "respect," not transformation. In sum, the changes proposed by the CRIC do not seek to challenge the current situation in
Moreover, there is a fundamental problem in how the modified agenda has come about: through the organizations and among their leaderships, without the input of the communities that have continually breathed life into the Minga as a process from the grassroots. In the current discourse of the Minga, the original five points appear to have survived attempts to change them. But these attempts are dangerous signs for any popular process.
Referring to the varieties of the five-point agenda that have arisen since November 2008, one Minga participant exclaimed, "The only word being walked here is ‘confusion.'" This has undoubtedly had an impact on the coherence of the Minga.
There is also the emergence of a political-electoral direction for the Minga. Last year, indigenous leader and Minga spokesperson Feliciano
Escué's speech indicated much more explicitly an attempt at re-orienting the Minga. "I want to outline three important aspects for our work here," he told the crowd: "1) Why are we here and for what? Human rights! [...] 2) What are we going to think about? Distributing land and pushing for education! [...] And 3) How do we get more people involved?"
Without mention of the five points of the people's agenda, Escué appeared to be outlining a campaign platform, not a popular agenda. The opportunism of such statements is also evident in his calling for the expansion of mobilization in the absence of a clear direction.
As a number of interests swarm towards the action, the picture is further obscured. Marches become demonstrations of mobilization capacity and nothing more. The leaders walk at the front, and the people are confused and left behind, projecting the image of massive popular support for narrow interests. Meanwhile, the regime does not even flinch.
The Minga will continue. But if it loses its essence, it risks becoming a form of resistance that is considered acceptable to power. Charles Hale and Rosamel Millamán use the concept of ‘
Nurturing the seed of the Minga
What is emerging is a dual system of power within the Minga itself. On the one hand, there are the leaders and representatives of organizations and NGOs, who have played an active role in re-orienting the Minga as a way of legitimizing themselves to funding agencies and colleagues. On the other hand, there are the participants, the marchers from the communities that believe so strongly in the Minga as a process that is of them. This confrontation is the primary challenge currently facing the Minga.
Evidence of the confrontation is emerging among some participants. One noted, "What really kills me is to see those people walking barefoot for miles in the march. Barefoot! To show how much they believe in this process. They have so much hope in the leaders without knowing what's going on behind the scenes."
Of the current direction of the leadership, one elder lamented, "they think of the here and now, of immediate things, and not all that came before this and could come after. That's why they collect a little more here and there to satisfy the immediate needs of the organizations and lose sight of the process, the seed that this Minga has planted not just for
For now, burning questions stand out with respect to the health of that seed. How can the Minga be strengthened to avoid being susceptible to the narrow interests of a few prominent organizations and protagonists?
As in the past and across different contexts, cooptation has looked and felt like mobilization for change, yet rarely contesting the fundamentals of a brutal system. We need to ask why popular agendas are removed from the control of those barefooted walkers, and also how they allow them to slip away?
As the mingueros march, they walk the word. But which word? And for what?
As an indigenous Nasa proverb tells us: "The word without action is empty, action without the word is blind, and action and the word outside the spirit of the community is death."
An annual march changes nothing. The necessity of critical self-reflection is urgent. It is one thing to find ways to defend the Minga by returning the action and word to the spirit of the communities. It is also important to be able to name the contradictions of our own processes without destroying their original spirit, embodied in the hopes of those barefooted walkers. That is how the seed of the Minga can be nurtured and cared for.
Recognizing these challenges is the first step in overcoming them, so that the Minga and other popular and collective initiatives can prepare to face them from the outset.
* Thanks to the people in Minga, especially those who shared their stories and experiences. We are also grateful to two wonderful compas (they know who they are) for their comments on earlier drafts of this article and for their friendship, guidance and love.
 ‘Minga' is the name given by indigenous people in the Andes to an ancestral practice that involves entire communities in efforts towards the achievement of a common goal. It is a collective process, and as such, cannot be owned.
 "Country of the Peoples without Owners" is the title of an excellent documentary produced by the Tejido de Comunicación (ACIN) on the Minga in 2008. http://canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com/2009/06/country-of-peoples-without-owners.html. For excellent coverage from the Minga last year, see also Mario Murillo's blog: http://www.mamaradio.blogspot.com.
 See coverage of the 2009 edition of the Minga by the Tejido de Comunicación (ACIN) translated into English here: http://canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com/2009/10/social-and-community-minga-and-its-word.html
 This short (6:40) video was produced by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) in July 2008. It outlines the context of aggression faced by this community, the context in which threats are made to destabilize local processes of resistance. Available in English here: http://canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com/2008/08/video-plan-of-aggression-in-northern.html
 Ó Tuathail, Micheál, "Es mejor morir hablando que morir callado," Nasaacin.org, 4 July 2008: http://www.nasaacin.org/noticias.htm?x=8141
 This latest threat against Minga participants comes from the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group: http://canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com/2009/10/organisations-of-social-and.html
 See the Center for International Policy's ‘Colombia and Beyond' blog. Especially the ‘para-politics' sub-section: http://www.cipcol.org/?cat=58
 See for example, the so-called ‘Yidis-política' scandal, which allowed Uribe to win the constitutional reforms that secured him a second term in office: http://www.caracolradio.com/nota.aspx?id=603788
 See CIP's ‘Colombia and Beyond' blog for up-to-date analysis of the evolving DAS scandal: http://www.cipcol.org/?cat=57
 See Almendra, Vilma, "Communications: Key for Indigenous Resistance," Nasaacin.org, 21 April 2009: http://www.nasaacin.org/noticias.htm?x=9919
 "All causes are our own" is a phrase from a fantastic document on the challenges faced by social movements in Colombia and the "Colombia Model," written by Manuel Rozental: http://canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com/2008/06/social-movements-all-causes-are-our-own.html
 See the CRIC document to the ASI in Spanish here: http://www.cric-colombia.org/noticias/index.php?show=9&catid=1
 See Hale, C., and R. Millamán. 2006. "Cultural Agency and Political Struggle in the Era of the ‘Indio Permitido.'" Cultural Agency in the Americas. See also Hale, Charles R. 2004. "Rethinking Indigenous Politics in the Era of the ‘Indio Permitido.'" NACLA Report on the Americas. https://nacla.org/node/4137.