PEACETALK: Learning from Each Other in Conversation: Peace Processes, and Colombian and Philippine Ethnic Groups

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 23 Dec) — After the peace accord brokered by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) failed to earn approval in the October 2016 referendum, that unfortunate development in the Colombian peace process got cited as an example of what Filipinos would not want to happen in our own peace processes.

But there is one thing which transpired in the Colombian peace process that we do want to also happen in the Philippines: the deliberate inclusion of indigenous peoples in the process, and in any agreements that would come out of it.

The August 24, 2016 Colombia Final Peace Accord had an Ethnic Chapter that included considerations, principles, as well as safeguards and guarantees particularly on integral rural reform, participation, safety, solution of the illicit drug problem, victims of the conflict, and implementation and verification.

This and other marked similarities and relevant differences between our two countries were among those that were tackled during the November 2016 Conversaciones (Public Conversations) hosted by the University Community Engagement and Advocacy Council (UCEAC) of the Ateneo  de Davao University as part of the  Colombian IP Exchange Visit to the Philippines organized by the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), the Katawhang Lumad Council-Mindanao Peoples Peace Movement, and the TEBTEBBA (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education).

Luis Fernando Arias, an indigenous leader, Marino Cordoba, an Afro-Colombian leader, and Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, human rights advocate, comprised the Colombian delegation that participated in the Exchange.

Comparing and Contrasting Colombia and the Philippines

Armed conflicts have persisted in both countries (52 years in Colombia, the longest running in the western hemisphere; 47 years in the Philippines, the oldest in Asia) with harmful consequences on their populations. The estimates are that the conflict with the FARC killed 220,000, caused the disappearances of 30,000 to 60,000 others, and 5,000 extra-judicial killings, and made Colombia #2 in terms of displacement worldwide at some point. The roots of conflicts in the two countries are of the same categories: inequality particularly with respect to land ownership, reluctance of the political elite to share power, and the use of violence to impose elite interest. As in the Philippines, multiple actors have been involved in the Colombian armed conflicts: aside from the FARC, the ELN (National Liberation Army) and other guerilla groups, private armed groups engaged in acts of terror and violence and cooperated with the elite and the military; by the 1980s came the armed groups involved in the cocaine trade. The Colombian government is also preparing to negotiate with the guerilla group ELN.

Like the Philippines, Colombia has a significant population of indigenous peoples (IP). They have 102 IP groups of about 1.4 million with 68 distinct languages. Colombia is also home to Afro-Colombians who number 4.3 million, have been there for 400 years, and share territories with IPs. IPs and Afro-Colombians, together referred to as ethnic minorities and who make up about 14% of Colombia’s peoples, have collective land titles and are in territories coveted for their mineral and wood resources. Colombian ethnic minorities are affected by the activities of all the armed actors whether State, para-military, guerilla, or drug-related.

Colombian ethnic peoples are demanding recognition of and respect for “identity that is autonomous and independent of the conflict.” This is significant given their experiences of armed groups also claiming ethnic territories and peoples as “their areas, their people.” Ethnic groups are seeking ways to respond to heavy militarization in their areas without resorting to taking up arms themselves.

In the Philippines, Mindanao IPs or Lumad fighters allegedly comprise a significant part of the New People’s Army or NPA (estimated from 75 to 80% of the NPA force). Even the Armed Forces of the Philippines has claimed that three of every four NPA surrenderees in Mindanao are Lumad. The military has also organized Lumad groups; and many Lumad have been recruited into the para-military. IP leaders in various fora have protested the ‘lumadization’ of armed conflicts in Mindanao, particularly in the CPP-NDF-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People’s Army)  conflict line.

Perhaps the one distinctive aspect of the Colombian peace process relative to the Philippine experience is the role of the United States, which has been described as the country’s biggest donor and ally, as a third actor.  Arguing that since the US funded the conflicts in Colombia with their military aid and their drug campaign, the US is thus obliged to play a role in attaining peace through solidarity, and by promoting respect for IP rights, as well as their integration in the peace process. Colombian institutions also seem to be sensitive to international opinion. In contrast, Timuway Jimid Mansayagan noted that the Lumad were more affected by American colonial rule than the Spanish colonizers. The Americans initiated public education which alienated generations of Lumad from their cultures; and created provinces, municipalities and barrios that divested Lumad of their ancestral lands.

In the more recent past, the US had the CPP and NPA declared ‘foreign terrorist organizations’, signaling among others, the undesirability of engaging them in political processes.

Peace Processes and Right to Self-Determination

Both Colombia and the Philippines and their indigenous populations are at interesting junctures in their respective histories.

Colombian IP leader Arias was of the view that peace negotiations are the way to resolve the armed conflicts noting that “neither guerillas have taken State power,” and that military victory might only perpetuate the contradictions that generated the conflicts.

The Ethnic Chapter provided a frame for appreciating the right to self-determination (RSD) struggles of ethic peoples in Colombia. It included the guarantee of “full access to their human and collective rights in the context of their own aspirations, interests and world views,” and recognized ethnic groups’ suffering under “historic conditions of injustice,” and their contributions to “building a lasting and sustainable peace, progress, economic and social development.”  In the Philippines, IP RSD has been described as self-governance of territory, and also as part of a national struggle against historical injustices perpetrated by colonial forces and the national elite.

A key rationale for ethnic participation in the Colombian peace processes is that, according to Cordoba, it is a “big political arena for differentiated approach to ethnic minorities” given the “disproportionate violence” experienced by ethnic groups.

Colombian ethnic minorities through the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Defense of Territorial had to organize and assert their inclusion in the process, which after a global campaign ultimately led to the formulation of the Ethnic Chapter. Similarly, IPs in the Philippines have also been campaigning to be part of the peace tables involving the Bangsamoro groups, and the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New Peoples Army (CPP-NDF-NPA).

It was noted that no IPs were involved in the crafting of the 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, and the framing of the 10 decision points in 2010. Although freedom of choice was articulated in the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, and two Lumad leaders were appointed to the first Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), observers noted that the IP provisions in the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) version drafted by the BTC were weak.

As of early November 2016, the uncertainty of the status of the peace accord with FARC was akin to the pall cast by the failure of the previous Philippine Congress to pass the BBL.

By November 30 a revised peace agreement had been signed by the parties and was approved by the Colombian Congress. The Ethnic Chapter was not among those that were mentioned as having undergone revisions.

Applying Lessons Learned

Moving forward on the peace processes and other political processes, there are lessons that can be learned and applied from the Colombian and Philippine experiences in general, but more specifically concerning Indigenous Peoples.

Among the lessons cited from the failed Colombian referendum were that people became complacent and overconfident over the ability to secure public support, which became truly problematic given the active and effective campaign by opponents to “manipulate, misinform and mislead voters.”  The differences in exposure to armed conflicts between urban dwellers and the rural Colombians translated into differences in how they voted on the Colombian Government-FARC agreement, with the latter voting in favor.

Ethnic groups could thus be a big source of support for peace processes. Garzoli said that the “Afro-Colombians and indigenous, who make up a disproportionate number of the conflict’s victims, are the strongest proponents of the peace accord” and voted heavily for it. This is of significance to the Philippines where IP numbers have been estimated at 12 to 15 million (10 to 15% of the total population). Whether they are adequately prepared to participate in a political exercise such as a referendum would be another matter.

The Colombian experience stressed the importance of an independent ethnic panel to participate in the peace process, their use of the Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries #169 of the International Labour Organization or ILO as an enabling policy, the importance of securing international support, waging social protests and dialogues as pressure strategies, organizational capacity building, and combining cultural and spiritual forms of struggle.

Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, former government chief negotiator for the talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, advised that IPs build on previous negotiations, raise the bar in terms of representation and consultation, and be clear about the core issues towards addressing competing ancestral domain claims.

To be effective in getting the parties to respond to the calls for IP participation, Garzoli recommended that it would be helpful to find the motivations of the different parties, and to focus on what would make them “look good or bad” or “weaken what it is they want to achieve”.

Three of the four substantive peace agreements between the Philippine government and the CPP-NDF-NPA are still being negotiated. While both panels have made statements about the inclusive nature of the documents, IP-related matters remain vague. How IP concerns would fare in the new proposed Bangsamoro legislation is also a concern, given that the legislative convergence of the agreements with the different groups will likely be done by Congress.

IP rights advocates believe that the IP Rights Act of 1997 can serve as the minimum standard for the protection of IP rights in peace processes. Perhaps further inspiration can be drawn from the Colombians who successfully asserted in the Ethnic Chapter recognition of ancestral domains, respect for autonomy and self-governance, the observance of free, prior informed consent, and guarantee of non-regression on rights that had already been extended as fundamentals.

IP principles can serve as platforms to forge ahead not only to assert RSD in the context of peace processes, but also in support of the attainment of durable peace. The Colombians subscribed to a four-fold view of unity, life, culture and territories; while those of the Lumad as articulated by Timuway Alim Bandara numbered six: 1) retaining closeness and unity with nature; 2) collective leadership of IPs in governance; 3) communal ownership of basic means of livelihood; 4) equal status of every Lumad; 5) peace of mind as basis for social peace; 6) and Lumad pluralism which translates to openness to other people.

Future Conversations

Gus Miclat of the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) pointed out that when peoples of varying nationalities or ethnicities interact, the tendency is to look for similarities and differences, and also lessons that can be learnt from each other.  But more powerful than the practice of comparison, contrast and lessons learning is engaging in people-to-people solidarity, which could mean continuously supporting each other without the mediation, and sometimes even in defiance of formal State structures.

IPs in Colombia have the authority to define and implement laws and procedures inside their territories including the judicial system. However, while they have the authority, they lack resources. Afro-Colombians on the other hand have authority over land in their territories but are unable to exercise judicial powers.

Colombian ethnic leaders like Arias and Cordoba are looking to consolidate these authorities towards a federal state that includes ethnic political autonomy in the future.

Perhaps political transformation could be the subject of more conversations in the solidarity work of the peoples of Colombia and the Philippines in the future.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Maglana is one of the convenors of Konsyensya Dabaw. Please email feedback to