Indigenous groups demand meeting with Colombia’s president

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of Indigenous protesters marched through Colombia’s capital Monday to demand a public meeting with President Ivan Duque and call for reforms they say are crucial for their survival.

The group of about 5,000 protesters has been traveling for more than a week in brightly colored buses and pickup trucks in a procession known as the minga — an Indigenous term for joint community work or action.

The Indigenous groups, most from the country’s southwest, are complaining about mining concessions and growing violence that has accompanied setbacks in implementation of a 2016 peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group.

The accord called for improved infrastructure and aid for rural areas, including Indigenous territories. But protesters say many of those promises have not been kept and they want to stage a public debate with Duque over social and economic policies that affect their territories.

“We will be here until he shows up, because we want dialogue. We have not come here to fight,” said Richard Flores, an Indigenous leader from Cauca state who joined the demonstration with a ceremonial baton and a machete strapped across his chest.

Duque has refused to hold an open meeting with the protesters, with his advisers saying debates about public policy should be held in Congress.

The president, who has suggested meeting with a small group of Indigenous leaders, urged the protesters to handle their grievances through standard channels and expressed fears that this week’s protest would boost coronavirus infections.

“Wherever there are mass gatherings we risk a new wave of infections” Duque said Monday while attending the inauguration of a fashion trade show. “Nobody can argue that to be listened to, in a democracy, it is necessary to promote mass gatherings.”

The demonstrators come largely from rural areas that have been affected by rising violence, exerted by criminal groups that are fighting over drug routes and other illicit resources abandoned by the FARC rebels following the 2016 peace deal. Protesters are demanding a resumption of peace talks with another, smaller rebel force, the National Liberation Army, that broke down last year.

Organizers of the protests also want the government to remove the military from Indigenous areas and to improve safety for community and human rights leaders, more than 160 of whom have been killed this year in Colombia.

The government says it already has spent $190 million, largely for education and security in Indigenous areas, to meet demands made by previous minga demonstrations.

That did not deter thousands of people from heading toward the presidential palace Monday, banging drums and holding ceremonial batons. Protest leaders said that if Duque does not meet them in public, they will place an empty chair in the square for him to underline his absence.

“We are here to defend our rights to life and territory,” said John Tote, a protester who wore a black face mask and a bandana with the green and red colors of the Cauca Indigenous Council.

The president, who has two years left in office, faced large protests over his social and economic policies at the end of last year, but those tapered off this year amid the pandemic.