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Intercultural Sovereignty: The Theory and Practice of Indigenous Social Movements


In 2006 the U'wa people of northeastern Colombia rejected the government's consultation process relative to the planned exploration and exploitation of petroleum located under U'wa ancestral lands because, in their view, the government had no right to the subsoil in the first place. The U'wa claimed sovereignty over the land and subsoil to reject the Colombian state's desire to exploit petroleum for profit. This raises an interesting paradox: how can an indigenous pueblo call for sovereignty from within the jurisdiction of a state? Beyond that, what are the stakes of indigenous sovereignty to global arrangements of power and resource distribution?

This dissertation examines U'wa efforts to resist cultural and physical extinction within a context of globalization and on-going civil conflict. What can we learn from this resistance--its persistence, its forms and methods, and its successes and failures? To both pose and answer this and related questions, I draw conceptual and analytical tools from the modernity/coloniality (M/C) research program to develop an intercultural approach that is grounded in the transnational networks that partner with the U'wa struggle. My multi-sited field research includes archival research and participation in organizing processes, interviews, and discussion groups.

I argue that intercultural sovereignty, a concept that builds on indigenous conceptualizations of sovereignty, helps make visible how marginalized and colonized peoples move beyond the traditional notion of sovereignty to build self-determination. My research finds that the U'wa build intercultural sovereignty through their relationships of collaboration with outsiders, through the mobilization and redefinition of an international discourse of rights and in cross-border social movement partnerships.

This research contributes to academic and activist debates by adopting a decolonial approach that makes visible marginalized knowledges and practices in terms of sovereignty and human rights. Rather than engage a critique of sovereignty internal to Eurocentric modernity, I argue that it would be productive for Political Science to engage with indigenous concepts of sovereignty to address the history and consequences of colonialism and recognize different relations to land. Finally, the long-standing transnational partnerships engaged by the U'wa offer a different, complementary metric for measuring success in transnational advocacy networks.

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