A Life for Land Rights: International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Camilla Capasso
5 min readMay 17, 2020
Faustino Rotavista (Camilla Capasso/FPP)

It’s Wednesday morning at La Mandragora, a small finca (ranch), with colourful walls in the indigenous Resguardo of Cañamomo Lomaprieta, four hours north of Medellin, in Colombia. Faustino Rotavista is sitting in the front garden under a gazebo made of bamboo canes and stares away at the near town of Riosucio. He wears a white, wide-brimmed hat and his tone of voice is gentle but firm as he tells the story of a life spent protecting his land.

“I started this struggle when I was really young and I am happy about this achievement,” says Faustino, the excitement in his voice.

Faustino was born on the 7th of January 1934 and has dedicated almost 60 years of his life to the defence of the traditional territories of the indigenous Resguardo Cañamomo Lomaprieta, a group of 32 Embera Chamí communities living in the region of Caldas. The achievement he refers to came when, after years of legal battles, the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognised the need to title and protect the traditional territory of the communities.

Created by the Spanish who occupied the area to exploit gold reserves in 1500s, the Resguardo was established as a reserve to concentrate indigenous slave labour and set aside lands for agricultural products to feed the miners. After the country became a Republic in 1821, much of the initially extensive Resguardo territories were handed out to small landowners who started intensive monocultures of coffee and sugar cane.

Adamant to get their land back, in the 1960s the communities of the Resguardo started to call for the restitution of their territory through the Cabildo, an organisation that legally represents the indigenous peoples living in the area.

Despite his young age at the time, Faustino wanted to do his part. “When we were 20, my friends and I decided to do something to help our communities,” he recalls. “The Resguardo was only half of its original size at the time and the Cabildo gave us the possibility to participate in the negotiations for the restitution of the lands.”

In the 1960s, the Cabildo created a union to negotiate with the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA), a State agency which sought to address the inequalities of rural Colombia through the purchase and nationalisation of private properties. Despite INCORA’s good intentions, only a small part of the lands in Colombia were in fact redistributed and in 1969, the union created by the Cabildo decided to join the Asociación Nacional de Usarios Campesinos (ANUC), a national peasants’ organisation.

“In 1969, we managed to regain seven fincas, which we almost immediately lost due to pressures from the police and the army,” says Faustino. “At that point the Cabildo realised that we needed a new strategy and created a series of support committees. This new phase had a slogan to incite the seizure of land from landowners: “¡a desalambrar! — cut the wire!”

For several nights Faustino and his friends went in groups to the fincas in the area and with the darkness on their side, opened the gates of the animal pens to let the animals out. After a few raids the landowners were left with no choice but to sell their fincas to INCORA, which then returned them to the communities.

The violence of the civil war made the struggle only more dangerous. In 1964, Faustino travelled to Bogotá to attend a course for unionists. When he returned to the Resguardo, three months later, he was accused of being part of the guerrilla and was threatened and harassed on many occasions. “I went to the police so many times and I made so much noise in front of media that they left me alone,” he says. “But it has been hard.”

After a lifetime spent fighting for land rights, the recent decision of the Constitutional Court of Colombia comes as a breath of fresh air for Faustino.

For the first time the Court has also recognised the right of the communities to practise ancestral mining on their territory, while suspending further activity on any current requests for grants or formalisation of mining concessions until the territory of the indigenous communities is demarcated and titled.

“Giving land to community members to improve their living conditions is the reason for our struggle,” explains Faustino. “This is where we socialise, where we practice our traditional activities, where we create community values ​​and where we establish a connection with mother earth and other natural beings.”

But with a population of more than 20,000 people and a territory of less than 5,000 hectares, there is simply not enough land for everyone. Poverty and youth displacement are serious problems in the Resguardo and Faustino believes that the only solution is to expand the Resguardo territory until it reaches its original size.

“The most difficult part of the land reclamation has been the view that the Colombian state has of indigenous communities. They have always treated us as if we were the invaders,” says Faustino with bitterness.

“The decision of the court will help us solve some of the problems that our communities have been facing with getting our ancestral territory recognised,” he continues. “Now we need to discuss it with all the members of the community and see what it means for us in practice but after many years this judgment gives us a reason to keep going.”

Resguardo Cañamomo Lomaprieta (Camilla Capasso/FPP)

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This article was developed as part of the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights. Launched in March 2016, the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights is a five year initiative to mobilize communities, organizations, governments, the private sector and individuals worldwide. It is a call to recognise that secure land rights are at the heart of building a just and equitable world and to work together to double the global area of land legally recognized as owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities by 2020. Join the movement at www.landrightsnow.org