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Colombia is a land of natural born storytellers, and a treasure trove of never-ending, amazing, incredible stories, many of which – unfortunately – do not have a happy ending.

But all of the stories that I have heard so far– even when deadly or gruesome – are also full of life, emotion, struggle and hope. Some, are very sensitive real-life cases, which cannot be told without placing at risk, the people who have told them, and the people who are their protagonists.

For an anthropologist eager to have meaningful encounters with people, and to listen to the narratives of their lives and struggles, “Colombia is a paradise”, even more in this crucial and very delicate socio-political conjuncture.

I am loving every second in this amazing land: often a smile and a very innocent question can trigger an entire afternoon of detailed incredible narratives on past and present politics and adventures, most times enriched with other spicy comments. Ironically, I am starting to think that Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the famous Nobel laureate writer – did not have much to discover himself, when writing his amazing books about the land of Macondo and its inhabitants (of course, this is just a joke!).

Graffiti featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Cartagena

I wonder if this trust and ease to share very personal and delicate details, may be a kind of social mechanism enabling people to bear the burden and the worries that continue in their hearts, after the war. These people are often still struggling and fighting for a peace, one not so real and not so close, as the media and the Colombian government would like the world to believe.


Official event “Inclusion and education, pillars for Peace”, in Bogota, with the presence of Jean Arnault, chief of the UN Mission in Colombia; Sergio Jaramillo, Colombian High Commissioner for Peace; Fatima Muriel, feminist social activist from Putumayo region; Ivan Marquez, member of the FARC secretariat.

In the past weeks, I have spoken with people receiving death threats from unnamed armed groups, I have seen the fresh initials of old and new guerrillas painted on signboards in the streets, and I have listened to the trustworthy accounts of people, who have seen small or large battalions of armed people, climbing up towards the mountains or crossing the town in the middle of the day, all under the incredulous eyes of locals. Targeted executions of former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla members, drug dealers, corrupted policemen and even of social leaders and human rights activists are still a reality, especially in rural towns and villages, traditionally ruled by the FARC. In spite of this reality, not all of these crimes end up being reported in the news. District attorneys (Fiscalías) in some parts of the country lack the capacity, the political will, or simply the courage to investigate and prosecute all of these alarming crimes.

Sharing my account is not meant to scare, however I do believe these dramatic facts should be known and reported along with the important achievements of the official Peace agreements and the good news in Colombia that have recently echoed around the world. Behind the official Peace agreements,[1] another reality exists, and it is not as idyllic as we all would hope. The word ‘peace’, may become just an empty term, if we do not understand that the recent official agreements, between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrilla, are just the starting point for a long joint process and effort. We should be aware that the State and the FARC were not the only armed stakeholders involved in the Colombian conflict: other guerrillas and paramilitary groups have not been dismantled, and are still active and ruling over illegal businesses in regions, such as Cauca and others. Violence and conflicts are not completely over, they are just shifting, changing shapes, procedures and the names of their main armed actors.

“Quien critica la paz, ama la paz”

 “Who criticizes peace, loves peace”. I heard this sentence for the first time, in the International Congress at the University of Nariño,[2] in the city of Pasto, around one month ago. It is a common stance among most social and indigenous leaders and it comes back to my mind every time I listen to a controversial political analysis willing to point out different views on the Peace process.

The world-renowned Portuguese sociologist, Boaventura de Souza Santos, whom I had the chance to meet and listen to, at the University of Cauca – at the beginning of my AFE – specifically talks of Neoliberal Peace versus Democratic Peace, and he warns against the risks that are inherent to the first one.


International Conference in the University of Nariño, Pasto. Celebrating with friends from the University of Cauca and Nariño

Many rural and indigenous communities – some of which I had the chance to meet and visit in my AFE – are currently targeted by foreign and national mining extractive industries – often illegal – other times well-known mining multinationals with their headquarters in Canada, Australia or elsewhere.[3] These rural communities accuse the Colombian government of being absent and willing to do business at the expense of their ancestral land, water and health, taking advantage of the new opportunities created by the recent Peace accords and the FARC’s dismantlement.[4] These people, indigenous, peasants or afro-Colombian, claim their right to access a properly regulated consultation, according to 169 OIT Convention.[5]

In this both promising and problematic conjuncture, the EU announced in May, a new fund for Colombia of around 600 million euros, including grants for a total amount of 95 million euros. Other international donors recently announced or formed other special funds for Colombia: the World Bank, the multi-donor fund of the UN system, the sustainable fund of the IDB[6], and the special fund created by the Colombian government, “Colombia en Paz” (Colombia in peace).[7]

At the edge of optimistic and consistent international investments, it is possible to hear a few critical and well-informed voices coming from some of the same UN bodies present and working in Colombia. The UN OHCHR[8]  has been accompanying communities and social and indigenous movements in Colombia since its presence in the country.  This office often works as an impartial negotiator and advocate of Human Rights in disputes between the State, armed actors and rural communities and Indigenous movements. Every year, this UN office publishes an annual report on the situation of Human Rights in Colombia. According to their last report,[9] in 2016, 59 human rights defenders have been killed in targeted assassinations, but other institutions such as the Colombian Ombudsman gives higher estimates and maintains that 156 social leaders were killed from January, 1st, 2016 to March 1st, 2017, in just 14 months.[10] According to CRIC,[11] many of these executions specifically targeted and killed indigenous leaders who “said no to the mining engine”. According to UN OHCHR’s representative in Colombia, Todd Howland, “the economic, social and political inclusion of communities who live in areas traditionally influenced by the FARC guerrilla” is the best way to prevent the assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders.[12] This UN office also advocates for an increased involvement of Colombian civil society in the peace process. These are reasonable and heart-felt recommendations by a UN representative who is known for his commitment and care for Colombian people and social movements, but it has still to be seen: How? According to which model are these suggestions to be put in place, in order to be really beneficial to local people and different cultures?


Meeting in Popayan with UN OHCHR, CRIC and the Secretary of the Special Justice of Peace (Justicia Especial de Paz)


Popayan, capital of the Cauca department, also known as the White City.

During my AFE, and as a part of my research, I was lucky enough to witness and accompany some important joint processes and negotiations between UN OHCHR and the indigenous movement in the Cauca region. I continued asking myself: In which way, can Human Rights – and the articulation with Human Rights International Organizations – be really useful for the emancipation of Indigenous and Social movements? What does ‘Peace’ really mean to different stakeholders, social actors and people with different stances, cultures and ethnicities? Where stands the constitutionally guaranteed Autonomy of indigenous people, in this process?

In the search for some preliminary answers to these questions, I was mostly in Nasa[13] indigenous communities, congresses and assemblies, where I interviewed different political and traditional authorities, who are or were part of, the strongest indigenous organizations of Colombia: CRIC and ACIN.[14]


Peaceful view from my little room in San Francisco, Toribio
A typical meal: sancocho de gallina (chicken&veggies soup) and Coca Sek


While I write this piece, I am in a small and tidy municipal library in Toribio,[15] looking outside of the window, I catch sight of condors flying in circles over the mountain and two brown horses walking by, in search of a better place to eat some fresh juicy grass. Some years ago, I would not have been able to be here, easily visiting, interviewing and writing, as I am doing now.


Left: musical parade towards the House of Culture in Toribio. Right: house of the Cabildo of Toribio, office of the Indigenous traditional authorities in town.


The little town of Toribio,[16] mostly inhabited by Nasa people, received more than 700 attacks during the war between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrilla, the last ones only just reported in 2015. In spite of this dramatic recent history, few people were displaced in this area: they instead strengthened their organization in order to resist the difficulties of the war in their own territory, and in some cases managed to throw guerrillas out of their territories, rescue kidnapped authorities and negotiate ceasefires. Proyecto Nasa[17] – an autonomous and locally-led initiative of governance and local development funded in Toribio – won the National Peace Prize in 2000. Nowadays, Toribio is a small and quiet town, possible to visit without major inconvenience. But underneath the present situation of relative peace, there is a hidden, illegal and still dramatic world that is easier to get a glimpse of after dusk: the beautiful patterns of lights dressing up the mountains all over the town are not part of a bucolic nativity scene, but are meant to ‘energize’ the illegal crops during the night, so that the plants of marijuana can grow faster and stronger. Some families make their living by selling the products of these plantations to ‘new’ guerrillas or to paramilitary groups who are nowadays taking the territory left ‘free and empty’ by the demobilized FARC. In the life of these families, there is no more night for a peaceful rest, nor for admiring the beautiful starry sky over the mountains. Only lights, and a dazing aroma, all day long. Is this Peace?


Top: Andean corn, a typical local product (left). Coffee drying under the sun, in Toribio (right). Bottom: Annual Barter’s fair in Toribio (left), with different local businesses taking part (right).


Weaving is both a spiritual and an economic activity in many indigenous cultures in Latin America.

The Cauca region has been, for a long time, one of the main territories of social and political turmoil in Colombia. In most of this region, the peace process has been problematic and challenging, due to the presence of armed actors, illegal economies and extractive industries, fighting for the control over the territory and threatening or dividing communities.

This land is also the ancestral territory of one of the most resisting and fierce indigenous people of Latin America: the Nasa people. According to their own historical perspective, their resistance started in the XVI century, with the arrival of the first Spanish conquerors. The main Nasa mandate has been for centuries and still is “to set free the Mother Earth”, from exploitation, extractive industries, guerrillas and other armed groups, and – to use their own expressions – “from whatever or whoever des-harmonizes the sacred balance among nature and humankind, that must be preserved and protected”.

The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca – CRIC was founded in 1971 by different indigenous people living in the Cauca region, and is one of the leading indigenous organizations in Latin America. The CRIC’s motto is “Unity in defense of territory, life and autonomy of indigenous people”.[18]

This organization, and ACIN later, supported and coordinated important initiatives for autonomy, resistance and self-defense during the war, in a territory that was mostly abandoned by the State and occupied by FARC guerrilla. The Nasa resistance was recently analyzed for drawing connections with Ghandian non-violent movement and practices: Nasa people created during the war, La Guardia Indígena, the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed and volunteer corps that was institutionalized in 2001, and that won the National Peace Prize in 2004. Nowadays, La Guardia Indígena is part of the daily life and governance in all the indigenous resguardos in Cauca.


Different images of the Guardia Indigena, at the ACIN congress, and in Toribio. The Guardia is part of the Nasa and indigenous governance in Cauca region and it is a fundamental body of territorial and social control. La Guardia is voluntary, open to both men and women, and constitutes a fundamental element of Indigenous identity for Nasa and other indigenous people in Cauca region.

Needless to say, the indigenous organizations, CRIC and ACIN, were among the strongest supporters of the Peace process, and jointly advocated for the inclusion of an ‘Ethnic Chapter’ into the Peace Agreements between the government and the FARC-EP.

In the past few months, these movements have been re-organizing in order to respond to the new challenges arising in the Post-Agreement phase, as well as withof the current conjuncture.

I have been particularly lucky during my stay in Cauca, as I had the chance to witness the two major congresses – each one happening only once in several years – in which the Nasa and other indigenous people living in the Cauca region discuss their major problems and proposals for the next period, and they also elect their new authorities.


The trip to the XV CRIC Congress in Rio Blanco Sotará has been an incredible experience and adventure!
Images from the XV CRIC Congress in Rio Blanco, Cauca (June, 25th-30th, 2017).


A banner at the XV CRIC congress, translated: “As millenary people we want peace with social justice”.


Peace is a process that implies a truthful respect of differences. If development is pursued in the name of peace, it cannot be attained at the expenses of others’ wellbeing, health and balance with the environment. If contemporary Colombia really wants to “walk the word”[19] of Peace – as Nasa people would say – Colombians should also try to understand and live with other cultures that have been marginalized in the last five hundred years, and particularly during the recent civil war. The challenge is pursuing ‘unity’ inside and in spite of differences, and in the full respect of the territory, as the CRIC’s motto states.

At the end, we all are sons and daughters of the Mother Earth.

La palabra sin acción es vacía. La acción sin la palabra es ciega.
La palabra y la acción fuera del espíritu de la comunidad es la muerte”

-Pensamiento Nasa

“Word without action is empty. Action without word is blind.
Word and action out of the spirit of the community is death.”

-Nasa Traditional Wisdom


The future of Toribio: children in traditional dresses, in a public fair in town


Minga means ‘community work’ all over the Andes, but this word is used by Nasa people also to refer to social, civic and political events organized by their community, as the historical one in this postcard.



I am sincerely and profoundly thankful to the Rotary Foundation and the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, who fully trusted me and endowed me the funds and the support to undertake the independent exploratory research project in Colombia and in the Cauca region. In this project, I am exploring the interconnections, collaborations and tensions between the local indigenous movements and the Human Rights institutions working in the Cauca region in the present conjuncture. I also would like to thank the Department of Anthropology of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I found an encouraging and supportive environment for implementing this ethnographic fieldwork, as well as other academic projects and endeavors. A special thank you goes to the Colombian people and institutions that are making this AFE/research possible and also an incredibly rewarding experience: in particular, I would like to thank the Universidad del Valle, that opened the doors to my project proposal, and the friends from the Universidad del Cauca with whom I had the chance to exchange important moments and information. Last, but not least, I would like to thank the indigenous and Nasa people and traditional authorities from CRIC, ACIN and different resguardos, who shared with me important stories and details about their lives, their dreams and their never-ending struggle for autonomy and peace in their ancestral territory.

Photo Credits: Francesca Sorbara

La Chiva, traditional bus, at the ACIN Cogress in Toez.


[1] The complete text of the Peace agreements can be found here:

[2] 1a Minga Internacional para la Paz, el Buen Vivir y la no Violencia:

[3] On this issue, see this interesting report, in English:

[4] Interesting article in Spanish:

[5] A very recent article on this issue, in Spanish, can be found at:

[6] Inter-American Development Bank.


[8] The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the work of UN OHCHR in Colombia, see the following links, in Spanish:;

[9] Please, see also this link in English:


[11] Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca. In English: Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca.


[13] There are between 140.000 and 160.000 Nasa indigenous people in Colombia, mostly living in Cauca region. They are organized in two main organizations: CRIC and ACIN.

[14] Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca. In English: Association of Indigenous councils of Northern Cauca.

[15] Toribio is a small town of around 30.000 inhabitants – 95% of which indigenous Nasa people – in the mountains of the Macizo Colombiano, in the South West of Colombia, in a department called Cauca.


[17], website in Spanish.

[18]La Unidad en Defensa del Territorio, la Vida y la Autonomía de los pueblos indígenas”, in Spanish.

[19] “Caminar la palabra”, is the expression in Spanish.








One Response to “Francesca Sorbara – AFE blog – University of Valle, Cali, Colombia”

  1. Cliff

    You write beautifully. Thanks for what you are doing.
    See you soon,

Comments are closed.