“Colombia has drafted and implemented the most proactive legislation for the protection of indigenous peoples of any country in Latin America,” said Anne Deruyterre, chief of the IDB's Indigenous Peoples and Community Development Division, at a meeting on indigenous governance held recently in Washington. In 1991, Colombia became a pioneer in the region when it incorporated into its national Constitution basic rights for indigenous peoples.
Floro Tunubalá, the first indigenous governor elected by popular vote in Colombia, pointed out at the meeting that although indigenous peoples had earned some rights under the past two administrations in Colombia, they also lost some important battles.
Among the losses, Tunubalá mentioned the closing of a national office for ethnic issues that used to serve indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities as well as of the office in charge of logistics for such groups. He also stressed the significance of the Ministry of Agriculture's loss of funding for land acquisitions.
“The Ministry used to having funding for acquiring land that it would then return to native communities. Having autonomy over the land is extremely important to indigenous peoples. It seems that although the government recognizes our rights,” Tunubalá said, “there are no policies in place to enable our development as communities and peoples.”
Tunubalá is also concerned about the economic wellbeing of indigenous communities. “Our people barely earn enough for day-to-day survival—the current situation of our local economies is very dire. Plan Colombia isn't helping; the ongoing fumigation of the coca plantations will only generate further problems for the Colombian people.”
Even though he faced many challenges during his tenure as governor, Tunabalá also achieved many accomplishments for indigenous communities. “We created ‘peace laboratories' in order to encourage the participation of civil society in politics and to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. Today, Cauca is the epicenter for indigenous organizations in Colombia.”
Lack of funding from the national government forced Tunubalá to be creative and search for sources of support outside of Colombia. In October, for example, some cities in the province of Cauca received technological support from Hanover, Germany. Cauca also obtained assistance from the Netherlands to implement an environmental recovery plan.
Tunubalá also emphasized the strides that have been made in education and health services for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. “Through the innovative ‘Plans for Life' that we developed in Cauca, we have received support from the government as well as from the clergy to implement bilingual and bicultural programs in the school curriculum. Another huge accomplishment is that now, the best hospitals in Colombia tend not only to those affiliated with social security, but also to over 10,000 individuals that lack such affiliation.”
Among the other accomplishments Tunubalá mentioned during his presentation are that indigenous peoples living in border towns with Peru and Venezuela can now enjoy the benefits of double citizenship, and that indigenous youth no longer are required to comply with obligatory military service.
“Indigenous peoples may be new to participation in government in Colombia,” said Tunubalá, “but we are already beginning to making our mark.”
Floro Tunubala, a native of the Guambiano indigenous community in Colombia’s Central Andes, served as governor of the province of Cauca from 2001 until 2003, and was one of Colombia’s first indigenous senators (1991-1994).
The IDB is currently preparing two documents on indigenous peoples. The Strategic Framework for the Development of Indigenous Peoples will provide the foundations for the objectives, priorities, and plans of action to be systematically included in programs and projects aimed at providing support for indigenous peoples. In addition, the Operational Policies on Indigenous Peoples will establish the rules, conditions, and requirements for the implementation of the Strategic Framework for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. The Bank is currently conducting a public consultation on both documents and comments are welcome until June 30, 2004.