Colombia’s decades-long civil war, US-backed anti-drug measures and resource-hungry multinational corporations are pushing the country’s indigenous peoples towards “extinction,” local leaders warn. War alone uproots 20,000 Indians from their ancestral homes each year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of Colombia’s 84 indigenous groups have been forced at some time to flee political violence over the past decades. “We lose our identity when we’re displaced,” said Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). “We feel lost in the big cities and it’s an alien habitat for us. Our ties and traditions are with our Mother Earth. Once we leave (our lands), our language and family structures begin to break down.”
There are some 1 million indigenous people in Colombia. That’s just under 3% of the country’s population of 44 million—yet indigenous people account for about 7% of country’s internally displaced population of about 3 million. At least 18 of Colombia’s indigenous groups are at a risk of disappearing altogether, according to Bruno Moro of the UN Development Program (UNPD). “Without doubt we’re talking about a humanitarian emergency on a large scale,” he said in Bogotá.
“We’ve repeatedly denounced the presence of illegal armed groups and the army on indigenous reserves, who use our lands as a refuge or to hide in,” Andrade told reporters. “They take crops and place communities in the line of fire. They’ve no right being there.” He says 20 indigenous leaders have been murdered this year by illegal armed groups.
Many of Colombia’s indigenous are already very small. Around 32 indigenous tribes have fewer than 500 members and around a dozen have less than 100 people, ONIC estimates.
Those cited as at highest risk of extinction are the Guayaberos from central Colombia, the Embera living near the Panama border, the Kankuamo in northern Colombia, and the Nukak, a small tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers who came under the international spotlight two years ago when they were forced out of their their rainforest homes.
Increasingly, US-sponsored herbicide-spraying campaigns aimed at eradicating coca force indigenous peoples from their lands as fumigation planes destroy their food crops. “The fumigation of coca has forced some of our people to leave their lands and has caused illnesses among our children and women,” said Hernando Criollo, a representative of the Siona tribe from Putumayo.
The arrival of multinationals seeking oil, gold and other minerals across Colombia is another growing concern among indigenous organizations. The Colombian government is legally obliged to consult indigenous communities if it wishes to carry out exploration projects on their lands, but indigenous leaders charges this frequently doesn’t happen.
To help preserve their cultures, indigenous leaders are demanding more government funding for schools in their reserves and bilingual teachers who speak both Spanish and native tongues. “We’re responsible for our communities in our autonomous lands but the government is not fulfilling its legal responsibilities to those who’ve been displaced or in the provision of basic healthcare and education,” Andrade said. Despite guarantees in the country’s constitution, he says some 400,000 indigenous people still have not been granted their own reserves by the government.
The UNHCR is currently training indigenous leaders about human rights and how to effectively denounce abuses by illegal armed groups against their communities. But Andrade says the situation remains urgent, and that a march planned next month to raise awareness about the plight of Colombia’s indigenous peoples. “There’s little political will to preserve indigenous cultures and alleviate the poverty that we suffer,” he said. “We form part of Colombia’s great cultural heritage and it’s not being cherished.” (Anastasia Moloney for Reuters/AlertNet, Aug. 15)