Jonas Wresch lived in South America for four years, spending most of the time in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. The German photographer was struck by the country and its history, and it was there that he discovered the theme for his reportage: since last December indigenous folk of the Nasa tribe have been occupying three sugar cane plantations in the Cauca region, in Colombia’s south west. They are demanding agricultural land that had been promised to them in reparation. Wresch reports on their desperate fight to retrieve their property and preserve their traditions. The whole reportage can be found in LFI 6/2015 and a video can be watched here.
Q: Where did you get the idea to do this reportage?
A: The reportage is part of a larger project about the indigenous Nasa tribe and the situation in Cauca. The village of Toribio in particular is often seen as a test case for the Colombian conflict and is very present in the media. My project centres around the Guardia Indígena, the indigenous people’s unarmed, civil defence troop. Their assignment is to protect local inhabitants in their confrontations with the military and the guerillas, in this conflict-laden region. With regard to the occupation of land, they coordinate campaigns and shield the people. Regaining farmland from the state and big land-owners is part of their identity. Since the time of the Spanish conquistadores, in other words for over 500 years, the Nasa have repeatedly seen their habitat threatened from different sides. Other indigenous people in Colombia tend to retreat from war and oppression. They fear for their lives and abandon their lands – which is often precisely what the opposing parties are hoping for. The Nasa, however, resist. They even try to regain land that was taken from them many decades ago. This aspect seems very important for my project, which is why I documented the land occupation.
Q: How hard was it to gain the trust of the indigenous people? How did you first get in touch with them?
A: The first contact was made by telephone in a very uncomplicated manner. I spoke to the mayor of Toribio, who is also indigenous, and he invited me to come to the reservation. My work was supposed to be a quiet portrait of the local inhabitants. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a conflict with gun battles, land mines and a dead civilian. During all this chaos, the Guardia was always on hand, which is how I became really aware of them. The troop’s main task is to observe, to know who comes into or leaves the reservation, where the guerrillas are located and where the military has camped. They’re like the indigenous people’s secret service. It’s not easy to gain their trust, and it takes a lot of time and loyalty to be accepted by them.
Q: How do you believe the situation in Cauca is going to develop?
A: The Cauca region is reacting very sensitively to the political developments in the whole country. The peace negotiations between FARC-EP guerillas and the Colombian government are both a curse and a blessing. Setbacks in the negotiations virtually always influence security in the region. I assume that, even if the current negotiations are successful, the situation in the Cauca will get worse before it gets any better. Even in the case of peace, the reckoning is that only about half of the active fighters will actually be demobilized. That, of course, is the challenge for the future of the Cauca. The strength of the indigenous people is also a cause of conflict.
Q: How appropriate was your equipment for this reportage?
A: Between rubber bullets and stones being slung, it was a challenge to take pictures with the Leica M9. To take pictures with the quick series function or without a zoom, you can’t stay in the background, and you’re closer to the tear gas than you’d like. What was really pleasant was the Leica’s compact build and weight. Even wearing a helmet and bullet-proof jacket, the camera was light enough so that I could run and react quickly to any situation.
Q: Why did you decide to go for color?
A: Red and green are the colours of the Guardia Indígena, and they stand for blood and the land. They symbolize the historic fight for land, resources, trade routes, drugs and power. Because of these strong symbols, I always saw my project in the Cauca in colour. What’s more, I wanted to underline the actuality of the indigenous resistance, which, right now during these times of peace negotiations, is an example for the whole of Colombia.
Q: What will be the next thing you work on?
A: Right now I’m planning my next trip to Colombia. I still have many ideas for projects and I also want to document the country’s peace process.
Thank you for your time, Jonas!
Read the interview in German here. Connect with Jonas on his website and Twitter. View more in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.