Feliciano Valencia: "They are killing us, or they are going to kill us”
Feliciano Valencia is a renowned indigenous leader in the Cauca department in southwestern Colombia and a senator for the MAIS party. On October 29, an assassination attempt was carried out against his life, when he was on his way to Tacueyó. This is his testimony.
Feliciano is one of the nine children of Claudio Valencia and Fidelina Medina. He was born in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, and spent his childhood and teenage years picking coffee and cotton. He wears shirts embroidered by his wife and is one of the most important and recognized Nasa leaders, an indigenous group living in the Andean zone of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. In 2004, he received the National Peace Prize for being an example of peaceful resistance to the armed conflict. Since 2018, Valencia has been a senator for the Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement, MAIS in Spanish.
"I feel good when they call me an Indian," says Valencia. "Many have used it to try to insult me, but it is actually an honor for me. Since I started my work as an indigenous leader, I got used to being called a guerrillero [guerilla member]."
Feliciano is five inches tall and has a strong voice, highlighted when he talks about his people’s rights. "My struggle is old, although I am 54 years old. My full name is Feliciano Valencia Medina. My grandfather was a slave of Cauca's landowners, who were the ones who gave us our surnames. We inherited their names and they stole our land."
Valencia was born in the Canoas Indian Reservation in Santander de Quilichao. "I went to primary school in my village. Then, in 2012, I finished high school.” Feliciano grew up like almost all indigenous children in Colombia: working and surrounded by nature, which, for them, is sacred, it's the source of everything. "My family is big, so money was not a problem. As a teenager, I went looking for work all over the country, and that's how I ended up picking coffee in Antioquia and cotton in Tolima."
He never wanted to be a soldier or fight someone else's war. When the Army came to the villages, he would hide so they wouldn't recruit him. The same thing happened when the guerrillas arrived.
"I went from one place to another, always knowing that I wanted to return to my homeland. The Nasa, like other tribes in the country, are attached to their land since birth. When the mother gives birth, the grandmother or another close relative cuts the navel and buries it under their house, thus sealing the bond between the Indian and the territory.
"When I managed to save some money, I went back to Toribio, set up my house, and got married." There, he began his community work as well. "My idol has always been Alberto Ulcué Chocué, an indigenous priest who was murdered in 1984 for defending the process of restitution of land for the indigenous people of the region. The land is our mother. It is sacred, and we defend it because it is the mandate we received from our ancestors.”
Valencia claims that the western world does not understand the philosophy of indigenous peoples. That's why it's important for him to represent them, and their worldview, politically.
An unusual path
Valencia sought to be part of the country's political sphere since his beginnings as an indigenous leader. After winning leadership positions in his community's Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, Cric in Spanish, he ran for mayor of Santander de Quilichao in 2010, but lost.
In 2013, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC in Spanish, announced the creation of the MAIS. At that time, Valencia ran for Colombia's presidency under this party. He was not elected. In 2015, he was captured by the Technical Investigation Body of the Colombian Attorney General's Office, CTI in Spanish, and the Popayán High Court sentenced him to 18 years in prison. This because amid an indigenous mobilization, Cauca's Indigenous Guard held and sentenced the army corporal Jairo Danilo Chaparral to 20 lashes, a action in which Valencia was involved and that has been widely questioned.
In 2016, the Attorney General's Office asked the Supreme Court of Justice to overturn the conviction. In June 2017, the Court overturned the decision and upheld the one made by the first judge in 2015, which acquitted Valencia.
Two years later, he was elected senator for the MAIS, from where he assiduously defends the rights of his people and the fulfillment of the Peace Agreement, signed in Colombia 2016.
Feliciano says his leadership skills comes from his mother and grandparents: "When I was a child, I listened attentively to the stories told by my grandparents and parents, I understood the hardships my ancestors lived through, so I dedicated my life to reclaiming our villages.” He also remembers an episode that stayed with him: "In a sacred ritual, a bamboo stick fell on me. I felt a warm feeling throughout my body, and then I fainted. I was taken to the hospital in Cali." He suffered from memory loss and paralysis in half his body. He recovered and says he returned to his village feeling "more lucid.” The Tatas [elders] told him the event was a message from his ancestors, so he decided to dedicate himself entirely to his work as a leader.
He never denies his mistakes. In addition to the sentence and acquittal in the Army corporal case, in 1999 he received 14 lashes for not delivering the food quota for his first ex-wife. For him, "that punishment was my own doing. Sometimes one is filled with negative energies, and the wise send a whip to bring us back into balance. Leadership is essential because, although Colombia’s Constitution states we are a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation, this is not reflected in the materialization of our rights. The beauty of the law for indigenous people is that it remains only on paper. If we do not develop the norms for indigenous people, they will always look at us as different. But it will be difficult to achieve full recognition of our rights because the law would have to go through Congress. Since we are a minority, we tend to lose.
Attacks without a break
Between 2009 and 2020, Feliciano has received hundreds of threats demanding that he stops his work. In 2009, the International Commission on Human Rights even asked the Colombian government to adopt security measures for a group of indigenous leaders, including Valencia.
"In Colombia, racism is high. We are still seen as third-class people. We are considered minorities; no public policies guarantee our protection with a differentiated approach. To make matters worse, certain political sectors and a large part of society look at us as guerrillas, criminals, communists, and treat us as such. It's very difficult," says Feliciano. "We Afro-Americans and indigenous peoples, managed to incorporate an ethnic chapter into the Peace Agreement, but the current government's failure to comply with the Agreement has ruined our aspirations to access more land. The little we have achieved on the land issue is due to agreements reached through mobilizations and protests."
On October 29th, while traveling along the road to Tacueyó in Cauca to accompany the commemoration of the first anniversary of the La Luz massacre - where five indigenous people from the region were killed - Valencia's truck was intercepted by armed men who, in response to his refusal to stop, shot at the vehicle, which is now in the hands of the National Protection Unit, UNP in Spanish.
"I am grateful for the solidarity of all those who have supported me. Luckily, I am with my family, and I am fine, but I want to say: when we say we are being killed or are going to be killed, we are not lying."
And he is right. In 2020, more than 40 indigenous leaders were killed, adding to the 269 killed since 2016. In face of this, Feliciano asks for protection, action on the part of the government, which, although condemned the attack, "continues to fail to protect the country's leaders. The government always insists that the assassinations and massacres of social leaders result from retaliation from drug trafficking, which is not true. I believe the government is not interested in attending to and stopping this massacre, because it considers us to be in opposition and because 'we are linked to drug trafficking.'"
He also calls for the adoption of the Escazú Agreement, which would be vital in defending those who fight for their territory in countries like Colombia: "To stop saying that the organizations that are part of the Permanent Table of Agreement, which includes the 115 indigenous peoples of Colombia, have never requested that prior consultation be held to ratify the Escazú Agreement. On the contrary, on September 30th, in a letter, we asked the government to begin the process of advancing the bill that will endorse this Agreement."
"I join the voices that are asking to initiate the bill so that the Agreement is ratified by Congress, since it would translate into the strengthening of environmental legislation in Colombia. We need protection now."
Not a week has gone by since the attack on Feliciano's life occured, but he is still standing: he is still fighting.
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