Legal Imaginaries: Recognizing Indigenous Law in Colombia

Date30 June 2011
Published date30 June 2011
AuthorSandra Brunnegger
Sandra Brunnegger
The recognition of indigenous law in the 1991 Colombian Constitution
initiated significant social, political, and cultural transformations within
indigenous communities. This article explores how the indigenous law of
Pijao communities in Tolima is being constructed, imagined and
(re)produced by indigenous leaders who are simultaneously staking out
their own political position through an engagement with these processes.
The article suggests that this new generation of indigenous leaders seeks
to ground its political legitimacy by drawing on the (legal) realm of the
state; at the same time, challenges to its legitimacy are also increasingly
framed in a legal idiom.
This article is based on fieldwork undertaken at the Tribunal Superior Indı´gena del Tolima
(Superior Indigenous Tribunal of Tolima) belonging to the indigenous organization CRIT in
Tolima; my research on indigenous law among Pijao communities in Tolima has been ongoing
since 2007.
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 55, 77–100
Copyright r2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2011)0000055007
Latin America’s wave of constitutional reforms during the 1990s had the
effect of recasting most Andean countries (notably Bolivia, Colombia,
Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) as multiethnic and pluricultural states,
granting a realm of autonomy in legal and political terms to their ethnic
communities (Sieder, 2002;Gros, 1993;Van Cott, 2000b,Yashar, 2005).
The 1991 Colombian Constitution, in particular, granted far-reaching
cultural, linguistic, political and territorial rights to 87 recognized
indigenous communities, including a right for indigenous authorities to
‘‘exercise jurisdictional functions within their territories in accordance with
their own norms and procedures’’ (Article 246).
The implementation, however, of constitutionally granted indigenous
rights in Colombia has proved challenging, being subject to often fierce
debates between state agencies and indigenous leaders especially over land
The constitutional recognition of indigenous law has further raised
issues of the limitations of indigenous authorities’ judicial autonomy and of
the basis on which state and indigenous law should interact with each
In particular, the 1991 Colombian Constitution makes a specific
provision for a law to ‘‘establish the forms of coordination of this special
jurisdiction with the national judicial system’’ (Article 246).
Colombia has yet to frame and pass any such ‘‘coordination law.’’ Through
various decisions the Colombian Constitutional Court has instead been able
to establish some basic principles governing this relationship between state
and indigenous law (Sa
´nchez Botero, 1998).
The absence of such a ‘‘coordination law’’ in Colombia has also led to
the emergence of multiple projects and initiatives supported by diverse
actors, including regional and national indigenous organizations, commu-
nities, universities, NGOs, and state bodies; these initiatives seek forms of
working relationships between state and indigenous law. These efforts have
generated a number of recent developments, such as the creation of the
Escuela de Derecho Propio Cristo
´bal Secue (Cristo
´bal Secue School of Own
Laws), overseen by the indigenous organization the Asociacio
´n de Cabildos
Indı´gena del Norte del Cauca, ACIN, in the department of Cauca, a body
training indigenous members in state and indigenous law, and the Tribunal
Superior Indı´gena del Tolima (Superior Indigenous Tribunal of Tolima)
belonging to the indigenous organization Consejo Regional Indı´gena del
Tolima, CRIT, in Tolima. This tribunal provides a means of redress for
indigenous community members dissatisfied with the decisions of their
own authorities. The organizations of these hybrid institutions have

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