The Territory is My Body: More on the Indigenous Leaders Workshop in Colombia, Interview with ZPI Executive Director Rami Efal
Above photo by Angelica M. Cuevas, Dejusticia. All other photos by ZPI staff unless otherwise noted.
Anthony: This is Thursday December the 21, 2017. Iâm at the Zen Peacemakers office in Montague MA with Executive Director Rami Efal, who has just returned from Colombia. You participated in an indigenous leaders workshop there.
Rami:Â Yes. We all met in BogotĂĄ, Colombia. Thatâs where the headquarters of Dejusticia is which is a nonprofit co-founded and directed by CĂ©sar RodrĂguez Garavito, a ZPI member. They’re an international human rights advocacy groupâ they run trainings and immersion programs all over the world, as well as conduct litigation for human rights causes and were involved in the recent peace-process in Colombia. In fact CĂ©sar was invited to attend a meeting with the pope on the second day of our workshop for a climate day summit.Â So he had to leave, got on a plane to Italy, meet the pope, and come back.Â CĂ©sar came with the Zen Peacemakers toÂ Auschwitz in 2016, then again to the Week of Service in Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in 2017, and I enjoyed connecting with him and finding we have so much in common, as do the organizations we represent.
So this program started in BogotĂĄ at their Headquarters, where we met Dejusticia’s staff and the program leader Carlos AndrĂ©s Baquero. Â We were coming togetherâ it was just thirty people in a small room and each person there was indigenous from their own communities. Genro Gauntt, Paco Lugovina, Noemi Santana and myself came from Zen Peacemakersâ Tiokasin Ghosthorse, who led us in the Bearing Witness retreat in 2015 and the plunge in 2016 in South Dakota, came as a presenter.Â
Joining together were indigenous leaders from all over the globe.Â There was Shirley Kimmayong, an IfugaoÂ indigenous woman from the northern mountains of the Philippines.Â There were Sreyneang Loek and Neth Prak, a Bunong woman and man from Cambodia. From Africa there was Elhadji Samba ‘Ardo’ Sow, he was Senegalese; Evariste Ndikumana, a Batwa who came from BurundiÂ (Batwa are an indigenous group that was affected by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda);Â Benson Khemis Soro Lako from South Sudan; Karimu Unusa from Cameroon.Â Â There was Liaquat Ali, a Hazara manâ Hazara are an indigenous group that spans Pakistan and Afghanistan and whose main city, Quetta in Afghanistan, is a recurring target for large scale terrorist attacks. Ruth Anna Buffalo came from North Dakota, close to Standing Rock. There were several participants from Amazon communities: AsunciĂłn JimĂ©nez from Oaxaca Mexico and SofĂa Fuentes from Ecuador…There were more and I’ll mention them further on.
(Editors note: A Native American from Eagle Butte, South Dakota USA and a woman from Pakistan couldn’t come because of immigration issues, their story was told in this Dejusticia blog post.)
Anthony: Thirty people total?
R:Â Yes. This was called the First Workshop for Indigenous Leaders. Â The purpose of the meeting was to educate indigenous leaders in common strategies for facing governments, wherever they are. Â
On the second morning, everybody got on buses and got on a plane and flew to Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is the territory of the indigenous Kankuamo, Kogi, Arhuaco and Wiwa. The workshop components â education and strategizingâÂ happened while in a full-immersion in three different villages of the Kankuamo: AtĂĄnquez, Chemesquemena & GuatapurĂ.
Each community was different in resources, means, and access. We were staying at peopleâs homes in any given village we visited. Youâd see a chicken here- donkey there- and weâd be waking up with the roosters. And then the next village was a bit more affluent.Â You could see it by the roaming dogs, they had more flesh on them. One local person at the village referred to another local as an ‘indigenous.’ I assumed that even though both were officially Kankuamo, some are considered internally asâ for the lack of a better word â’more indigenous,’ maybe based on their even more simplified lifestyle and less dependance on modern means.
A: So you flew from Bogota into Valledupar which is developed enough that there was a place to land a plane. Â Howâd you get between the communities after that?
R: Some of the car rides were very long and that’s when much of the bonding took place. On one of them, I talked to Kriz Perez, a Filipino staff member of Dejusticia, about the Zen Peacemakers and Bearing Witness, and she saidÂ “we have a word for bearing witness in Filipino — Pakikipamuhay, literally meaning ‘the act of living with.'”Â
Dejusticia staff, much to the efforts of Carlos AndrĂ©s Baquero, developed a whole program along with the leaders in these communities. The communities provided home-stays, meals and drivers with 4x4s that drove us everywhere. The communities also provided food, did the community and cultural events organizing, and invited the elders that were with us the whole time. So the whole task of hosting was really in the hands of the local community, with collaboration and support from Dejusticia.
A: How big were these communities? Did they vary much in size?
R: Census data puts the total number of Kankuamo at 23,042, and that includes the four groups.Â We were just in one area.Â
TRAININGS IN SOLIDARITY AND ACTION
R:Â In addition to the locals and global indigenous leaders, there were also presenters and scholars who came.Â James Anaya,Â heâs a professor of law at Colorado University and Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.Â If people wanted to petition to the UN about rights violations of indigenous people, theyâd go to James, that was his role. Â Heâd heard so many stories from all over the world so he came with all this knowledge. Â He spoke to us about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous PeoplesÂ including the clause of Free, prior and informed consent, which most governments donât apply. Â
We learned about the ‘black line’ of the Kankuamo, the sacred perimeter that defines their territory, but is not recognized by the government.Â The basic thing many indigenous communities experience, in the best cases, is having a government agent come to them saying, âHey, tomorrow weâre gonna be drilling in your backyardâ, and in the worst case they just have the drillers come. So the whole idea of coming and asking the community, “Do you consent to this?”â that’s one thing.Â But then consultation is a whole other thing. Why is the only conversation around consent?Â As if anyone would give consent to have their rights violated. Maybe the locals donât want that. Maybe the locals have a whole other framework.
As a side note, I had a personal insight about how I heard the word ‘consent’ used in this context of indigenous peoplesâ itâs so similar to how I hear it in the context of womenâs rights and sexual harassment. Â It highlighted to me how in both cases greed is present, and the act of taking without permission.
Back to the workshop, the ideas of consent and consultation brought up a whole other conversation: how the Western sense of democracy may include an inherent flaw, that âmy vote is equal to your vote is equal to an indigenous personâs vote, because weâre all equal.â That doesnât address two sensitivities. One: there are groups that may have specific needs and rightsâ think Black Lives Matters, Muslims, or LGBTQ âand some of us feel called to address them differently, perhaps because they were subject to slavery or genocide or are now subject to discrimination. These groups will simply never get a democratic majority. Democratic process doesnât inherently address this. Â
And the second thing is that the indigenous leaders say âWhy are we only giving votes to people? I consult with the forest and with the birds, with the snow and with the wind. Their territory is their body, thatâs what they sayâ âThe territory is my body.â They speakâ itâs much like Bernie âthey say âMy body is the trees, you cut down the trees, I feel it.â Why arenât these given a vote, a voice? Where is that in the democratic process when we make decisions? Obviously modern democratic models donât address that. Â
Some of the presentations were from indigenous people who, based in their tribes and territories, cut their hair, put on a suit and learned to talk the âlegal lingo,â learned how to develop strategies, and enter the big cities and capitals of politics and economics. One said, âYou know we were so simple, we were village dwellers and we didnât know the languageâ first we needed to organize.â Patricia TobĂłn YagarĂ is an EmberĂĄ indigenous attorney who currently works with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. She said that her elders designated her at age ten to be the first college-educated lawyer-leader to come out and deal and respond to her peopleâs needs. For twenty years she was groomed by her village to do that. Â
Whenever she came to meetings, everyone expected an elderly woman in the traditional cultural dressâ but no, she had her suit and her smarts. Â And another woman, Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa-Sarayaku leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon, gave two riveting presentations about the many legal battles she fought in Ecuador and in international courts, how she had never lost one of them. (Editors note: watch a video ofÂ about the Sarayaku in Equador, featuring Patricia Gaulinga.)
A: The idea about consulting with the local forest, the birds is really interesting. Iâm drawing a parallel between empathy toward the non-human inhabitants of a community and including a sense of wisdom in democracyâŠIn contemporary politics âwisdomâ is a piece of vocabulary that is totally absent.
R: Yes, the lawyers with us talked about how challenging it is to explain the cycles of ecosystem before the courts. When protecting water, itâs not just about water. To explain the whole process of ecosystems, both physically and spiritually, is one of these things that’s very challenging to explain.
CEREMONY & Â CREATIVITY
R: Every morning and every evening the group was led in âspiritual harmonizationâ by the Mamos, who are the spiritual leaders of the Kankuamo. Â
The Mamos invited us to do a ceremony with them, inside their gathering huts called Kankurwas. Â There was one hut for men and one for women, and each one represents one of the two nearby mountains of the Sierra Nevadasâ oneâs called the father and one’s called the Mother. Â So when you go into the hut, you walk into the mountain, into their mother and father. The Mamos led a sharing circle, like council, asking to hear from us, the guests.
They told us that just recently someone torched the Kankurwas, the sacred huts in a nearby village. And then they said, âWe can either spend time finding who did it, or we can spend time constructing new Kankurwasâ because until we have the next place of worship we wonât be able to forgive. So we must build it first, then find the person who torched it.â
The Mamos every morning would give us a little piece of cotton and told us they were recorders. Theyâll record all your thoughts and feelings. And at the end of the day we had to give it back to the medicine man.
We led council groups with people from North Dakota, from South SudanâŠyouâd hear all these stories. Â Many spoke about displacement, about challenges with religious, womenâs and indigenous rights, about keeping tradition, languageâ language was a big subject.
It was beautiful to see the connections between the Colombians and the Africans because theyâre both very gregarious people, they love music and dancing. Â And it was also interesting that there are 3rd or 4th or 5th generation Carribean âAfro-Colombians,â sometimes referred to as ‘Afros,’ who are descendants of enslaved people from Africa. It was moving to listen to poems written and read by one of our participants, a man from Senegal, about how he related to the âAfros,â the connection he felt. Senegal used to be one of the western African states from which enslaved Africans would be shipped to the Caribbean.
Laura Salas, an organizer and filmmaker from the human rights advocacy organization Witness, which was founded by the musician Peter Gabriel, brought a methodology to create a documentary in 48 hours. It activated the group. It wasn’t a film crew that came in to film but the participants themselves were conducting the interviews, shooting the videos, recording the audio, and then bringing everything together. In three days we did a ten-minute documentary. It was amazing and it developed bonds between us because we had to work together, working with cultural differences and language barriers. All the community gathered in the school one night to watch the premier, and the Dejusticia staff led us in a community process of choosing the title.Â
As well as the documentary,Â Mario Murillo, a Colombian-New Yorker radio creator, led the group in creating a radioÂ podcast.Â In both these creative projects we drew on people’s skills and talents – some were radio professionals, like Diana Jembuel from Colombia and Devkumar Sunuwar from Nepal, others were film professionals like Ronald SuĂĄrez from the Peruvian Amazon and Fredrick Ssenyonga from Uganda.Â I can draw, so I painted portraits of the individuals we interviewed and used them in the film. The place was buzzing with creativity and energy.
Zen Peacemakers Genro Gauntt, Noemi Santana, Paco Lugovina and myself were invited to share about ZPI and lead council and meditation at different times during the week. The whole program aligned very well with our ongoing Native American Bearing Witness and Service programs. I thought the workshop was a real celebration of diversity and global indigenous solidarity, and a wonderful result and expression of the Three Tenets, constantly exploring and adapting, with ample opportunity to take actions and plant seeds for new ones. I am inspired by CĂ©sar’s and Dejusticiaâs work.Â It had profound effect on individuals through whom change will continue to ripple.
About Rami Efal.Â A dual citizen of Israel and the USA, Rami has been a student of Zen Buddhism since 2005Â and has lived for 4 years at Zen Mountain Monastery and Zen Center of New York City.Â He met Bernie Glassman at the 2013 Auschwitz Retreat, became his attendant in 2015Â and, following Bernie’s stroke in 2016,Â was hired asÂ the executive director of Zen Peacemakers International. Since then Rami has organized all aspects of the organization, including the Auschwitz and Native American Bearing Witness programs. Prior to this, Rami participated in Israeli-Palestinian dialogues in New York City,Â trained in peace-building at Vermont’s School of International Training, co-led multi-day workshops in Nonviolent Communication with the New York Center for NVC, and was an illustratorÂ and fine âartist. He presented on art and peace-building at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, on NPR and at the UN headquarters in New York City.
July 22, 2020
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