Managing Multiculturalism
Indigeneity and the Struggle for Rights in Colombia
Jean E. Jackson



In July 1991, upon arriving in the town of Mitú in the southeastern part of Colombia, I heard people talking about a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had stayed there until the previous month, when they were flown back to their territory in the neighboring department of Guaviare.1 The group had emerged from their forest habitat a year earlier, one more case of forcibly displaced victims fleeing the horrendous violence characterizing the region. Surely this group, identifying themselves as Nukak and consisting entirely of women and children, merited a warm welcome from townspeople and humanitarian treatment. But no one had anything good to say about them. In fact, I was treated to a display of appalling bigotry on the part of the locals, both indigenous and White, when they responded to my questions. The Nukak were “not really people.” They stole bananas and pineapples from gardens. They ate raw meat, sometimes while their prey was still alive. Worse, they were cannibals. The women were out to seduce other women’s husbands. And so on.

It was, as they say, a teachable moment. But I was not there to teach but to do ethnographic research, and so not in a position to tell people what I thought of their absolutely deplorable behavior.

These conversations with Mitú townspeople, some of whom I had known for over twenty years, are described more fully in Chapter Three. I mention them here because the Nukak’s sojourn in Mitú illustrates many of the points made in the pages that follow about the state’s responsibilities with regard to the country’s indigenous citizens; state interventions during crises—particularly in areas beyond state control that were being devastated by violence; the role of nonstate actors, in particular religious missions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); indigenous identity; indigenous rights; and indigenous imaginaries—both those held by members of mainstream society and those indigenous people have of themselves.

This book follows the long trajectory of my research in Colombia as a way to explore the evolution of the country’s indigenous movement, a subject, I believe, of considerable interest and significance. Given that indigenous people constitute only a small part of the national population, the movement’s accomplishments are nothing short of extraordinary. Some leaders became near-celebrities, appearing on television and the front pages of the national press. Amazingly, indigenous communities gained collective ownership of almost 30 percent of the national territory. This struggle occurred during a half century of violent armed conflict among conservative and liberal political parties, state security forces, leftist guerillas, right-wing paramilitary forces, and criminal elements, mostly drug traffickers—an implacable battle for power, control, and territory that profoundly affected the country’s indigenous (and Afro-descendant) communities. The truly compelling story of these efforts—how indigenous organizing began, how it found its voice, established alliances, and won battles with the government and the Catholic Church—has important implications for the indigenous cause internationally and for understanding rights organizing of all sorts. I do not offer here a comprehensive history of the movement, one that would encompass all significant organizations, actors, and events throughout Colombia. Rather, I attempt to illuminate what seem to me certain crucial dimensions of the struggle by examining a number of telling ethnographic cases, most of them drawn from my fifty years of research in the country.

Over the five centuries since the Spanish conquest, the indigenous peoples of Colombia—and elsewhere in Latin America—have been forced to confront exploitation, dispossession, and other forms of oppression. In theory this situation ought to have improved in the twentieth century, as the countries in the region championed “universal and undifferentiated citizenship, shared national identity and equality before the law.”2 But while important improvements have occurred, in fact, racial, ethnic, and class inequities continued throughout, revealing a yawning gap between ideals and reality. Late in the century, beginning in the 1970s and taking off in the 1980s,3 in a period of political liberalization known as the democratic transition,4 many countries promoted neoliberal reforms,5 including a turn to civilian rule, reduction of state repression, and the promotion of multiculturalism. Fifteen Latin American republics instituted constitutional reforms6 targeting corruption and loss of legitimacy, while at the same time promoting rights discourses7 that would, it was hoped, go a long way toward solving the “crisis of representation” gripping governments in the region. Responding as well to widespread indigenous and Afro-descendant discontent and mobilization, the move toward democracy and multiculturalism received added impetus from two important international meetings in 1971 and 1977, the first dedicated to the plight of Amazonian peoples, the second to the repression and exploitation of indigenous communities throughout the region.8 The document that emerged from these meetings, the Declaration of Barbados, drew attention to the plight, until then often hidden, of those communities.

The organizing stimulated by the Barbados meetings departed from previous efforts earlier in the century in several respects. As activists forged links to the international environmental and human rights movements,9 they began placing greater emphasis on identity and culture, both for the sake of the issues themselves and as a foundation for political and territorial claims. In the crucial matter of land rights, while indigenous organizations demanded territorial control to promote economic subsistence and development, as well as to gain political autonomy and self-determination, they also came to embrace a culturalist notion of territory, one foregrounding the spaces within which indigenous peoples could live their lives in keeping with their traditions, a trend reinforced by emerging notions of intellectual property rights in part resulting from increasing interest on the part of pharmaceutical companies in medicinal plants. In the later 1990s both prospecting for pharmaceuticals and the testing, patenting, and ultimate marketing of human genetic resources occasioned indigenous protests.10


1. A department (departamento) is the equivalent of a U.S. state.

2. See Sieder 2002, 4–5; and Yashar 1996 and 2005.

3. Multiple mobilizations and other forms of protest also took place earlier in the century; see, for example, Becker 2008.

4. Note that Colombia, a democracy, did not go through this process.

5. Neoliberal refers to the notion that limiting government interference in the marketplace enhances personal liberty.

6. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. See Hooker 2005, 285.

7. Discourse refers to Foucault’s notion of modes of representation that are seen to construct social realities. People’s “ways of thinking the world, themselves and others around them are constituted—rather than simply constrained—by discursive formations . . . coherent ways of representation of a given realm of activity and experience” (Wade 1997, 80).

8. A third took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1993.

9. A number of authors have analyzed this linkage: for example, Varese 1996; Brysk 2000; Conklin and Graham 1995; Conklin 1997 and 2002; Ramos 1998; and Ulloa 2005.

10. See “Los 82 pueblos indígenas de Colombia: Por la autonomía, la cultura y el territorio” 1996, 25. For example, in 1997 the Universidad Javeriana’s blood-sampling project was harshly criticized as bio-piracy (“No patentamos genes: U. Javeriana” 1997).