In the City and On Their Own Terms, Situating the Indigenous Minga in Bogotá

Written by Andres F. Ramirez, Ph.D. student in Urban Planning, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

In the City and On Their Own Terms, Situating the Indigenous Minga in Bogotá

In September 2021, over one thousand Indigenous people from thirteen nations occupied Bogotá’s National Park, one of the most emblematic public spaces in Colombia. Indigenous pueblos banded together to assert their status as refugees and victims of armed conflict, but also as sovereign Indigenous authorities in the city of Bakata –the original, Indigenous name for the Colombian capital. In addition to safe resettlement in their territories, they demanded participation in public policy. The desperate political act follows decades of forced migration, violence, dispossession, destitution, and a Peace Agreement that is yet to fulfil its promises. But it also points to a growing area of research and activism: Indigenous urbanism.

 Indigenous populations are often thought to be antithetical to urban life, residing far from cities, in remote, natural locations. They are romanticized by many as the rightful keepers of the forest. However, Indigenous people have always inhabited cities and actively participated in the (re)production of our urban societies. That said, Indigenous urbanization rates are on the rise. According to a report from the United Nations[1], 40 per cent of the world’s Indigenous population was already living in cities in 2010. In Latin America, research indicates that urbanization is a result of intensifying extractivist practices, armed conflict, and climate change (Bebbington & Bebbington, 2011; Coombes et al., 2012; Hope, 2019; Postero, 2006). While addressing the unjust causes of Indigenous migration is crucial to their survival and sovereignty, recognizing their rights to the city is of equal importance. 

 Indigenous struggles have always had a contentious relationship to land and place. Initially dispossessed and displaced from pre-Columbian urban areas –largely by colonial property law, many Indigenous people today are subject to policies of containment that bind their identity and differential citizenship to an imposed place of residence. It is in this context that struggles for Indigenous rights to the city must be understood. 

 Scholars have noted the importance of understanding the complex dynamics of Indigenous mobility to cities and growing visibility of Indigenous urbanites (McSweeney & Jokisch, 2015; Yescas, 2008). But often studies of Indigenous urbanization or marginalization are conflated with their claims to the city. Indigenous struggles for rights must not be confused with narratives of discrimination and exclusion in access to housing, employment, and urban services. Nor should they be reduced to processes of re-territorialization that imply Indigenous people’s only purpose in cities is to obtain or protect control of land elsewhere. Indigenous social movements in cities around the world –and in Latin America– are active efforts to obtain inclusion, recognition, and citizenship. 

 The case of the National Park in Bogotá is one of many uprisings that demand inclusion, recognition, and rights of Indigenous peoples in Latin American cities (Bengoa, 2000; Horn, 2019). The communities that occupied the park for months demanded to be seen and heard as Indigenous urban citizens. The simultaneous claim to Indigeneity and urbanity reveals a neglected area of research and policy, but also a contested gap in the constitutional rights of Indigenous people. In the last decade, new constitutions in Ecuador and Bolivia ratified Indigenous rights to the city, according to an intercultural, plurinational and decolonial model, based on Indigenous cosmovisions (Horn, 2019). However, literature indicates that certain Indigenous rights remain restricted to those living within specific rural locations (Goldstein, 2004; Horn, 2019, p. 3). These constitutional lapses suggest that Indigenous identities must be rural to be considered authentic and hence to be recognized by the law. Moreover, it leaves urban Indigenous people in a precarious condition of cultural denial, where the path to citizenship is through assimilation.  

 This is the case of Colombia’s celebrated 1991 constitutional amendment, which recognizes and protects Indigenous rights. Indeed, Indigenous Colombians’ rights are bound to resguardos[2] and contingent on an individuals’ membership in cabildos[3], both of which are place-based. When individuals flee to the city –often due to violence– they leave behind many of the differential rights that they hold as Indigenous people. The struggle to retain Indigenous rights and differential citizenship in the city makes the occupation of the National Park an important episode for Indigenous rights and for urban studies. 

 When Indigenous groups decided to occupy the park, they defied municipal law and the idealized notion of public space as inclusive and democratic. Ignoring formal requests to abandon the park and resisting police sweeps, Indigenous groups challenged the very foundation of the settler colonial city: the property regime. As it turns out, public space is privately owned by the state and subject to strict uses and regulations. By refusing to follow norms established by the city, Indigenous occupants deeply questioned the definition of the National Park as a public space. Instead, they inhabited the park as Indigenous territory, employing the minga for survival and resistance. Though the Indigenous “minga” originates from communal work for physical or cultural infrastructure, over the last few decades the term has been employed in Colombia as a political term to mobilize collective protest against neoliberal economic policies, military strategies, environmental degradation, and participation in public policy –including the famed peace process– and to denounce the government’s recurring failure to fulfill its legal obligations to Indigenous people (Murillo, 2010; Rojas Sotelo & Quintana Porras, 2022; Tyrou & Chavarro, 2016).

 The minga in the National Park was unprecedented in its insurgent appropriation of public space for an Indigenous social practice. It may not have been the first Indigenous occupation of public space in the city, nor the first protest to take place in the National Park. It was however the first time urban Indigenous communities held minga in the city for an extended period and as a moving protest or in a rural context. The minga’s defiance of the conventions of public space and the settler colonial property regime can be interpreted as a decolonial geography or a form of planning without property. But it is also an expression of Indigenous urbanism (Daigle & Ramírez, 2019; Dorries, 2022; Ortiz & Tesori, 2022). In the National Park, Indigenous communities relied on an ancient Indigenous practice of collectivity. Following their own epistemology, they appropriated the public space of the National Park and reimagined it as urban Indigenous territory. 

 The eight-month occupation of the National Park concluded in April of 2022 when Indigenous leadership and government officials came to an agreement. In the following months, Colombia’s first left-wing president and Black vice-president were elected with significant Indigenous endorsement. Months after leaving the park, Indigenous groups took to the streets to protest the breech of the agreements. After a violent confrontation with the police, Indigenous leadership was invited to meet with President Petro at the presidential palace. Despite extraordinary attention from several government bodies, the plight of former park residents persists. Yet, from peripheral places of invisibility and racial banishment, Indigenous communities continue to organize, employing collective practices of care, cultural citizenship, and engagement with civic society. In doing so, they further assert their urban identity and uncover possibilities for an Indigenous, liberatory future. As previously suggested, native people inhabit cities on their own terms. These experiences are resurgent, multi-sited, transnational, ceremonial, creative and Indigenous. Indigenous social movements in cities offer scholars and policy makers an important opportunity to interrogate the basis of settler colonial urbanism, in order to re-imagine cities anew. 

Photos by Andres F. Ramirez



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[1] United Nations Report on Urban Indigenous Peoples and Migration (UN-Habitat, 2010)

[2] Resguardos are lands granted to Indigenous peoples for their collective ownership by the Colombian constitution; however, the state retains ownership over non-renewable natural resources. They are a colonial invention that persists to this day. There are approximately 638 reservations that correspond to 27% of the national territory, yet about 13% of indigenous populations live outside of the resguardos (Semper, 2006).  

[3] Cabildos are councils for autonomy and self-governance of Indigenous communities


The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.