More than a quarter of Colombia’s 1.4 million Indians have been forced to flee their tribal lands in recent decades, the head of the government’s program to protect indigenous peoples has said, highlighting the threat that some tribes may disappear entirely.
In a recent interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Gabriel Muyuy, head of the presidential program on indigenous peoples, said these communities are driven from their jungle reserves to escape fighting between warring factions or death threats issued by armed groups, and to stop their children from being recruited into rebel groups.
Decades of fighting between the government, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups have killed at least 220,000 people and uprooted about 5 million Colombians, according to government figures. Colombia is home to one of the world's largest displaced populations, and its Indians bear a disproportionate brunt of the displacement.
While indigenous tribes make up some 3 percent of Colombia’s population of 47 million, they represent roughly 4 percent of the total number of displaced people.
“Currently, according to latest figures, 28 percent of indigenous peoples are outside of their territories, living in cities and in municipal towns in very difficult circumstances,” Muyuy told El Tiempo.
He added that while the Colombian government over the decades has granted indigenous tribes swathes of autonomous tribal lands in which to live, “armed actors have invaded their territory and drug trafficking has come to their lands, which has led to the problem of forced displacement of indigenous peoples.”
Once pushed off their lands, indigenous groups seek refuge in the slum areas of Colombia’s major cities, where they often live in extreme poverty—forced to beg and at risk of sexual exploitation, indigenous leaders say. While living in urban areas, they risk losing their traditional medicine, language and culture.
Laws in Colombia exist for the protection of indigenous people and their ancestral reserves, but indigenous leaders say that the government is not doing enough to protect tribes and that crimes against them go unpunished.
Colombia’s constitutional court warned in 2009 and 2010 that at least 35 of the country’s 87 officially recognized indigenous tribes were at risk of extinction because of the decades-long conflict and the displacement it causes.
Since the Colombian military stepped up its U.S.-backed offensive against the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002, the conflict has moved away from urban centers towards remote rural and jungle areas where many indigenous groups live in designated reserves. This shift has exposed isolated tribes to attacks by armed groups who operate near or on their territory, forcing them off their lands.
In addition, indigenous reserves often straddle coca-growing areas, the ingredient used to make cocaine, which puts indigenous communities in close contact with the drug-running FARC rebels and other drug traffickers.
In recent years, Colombia’s Awa Indians, a 35,000-strong indigenous tribe of semi-nomads and hunter-gatherers—along with the Embera and Nukak-Maku rainforest tribes—have borne the brunt of the conflict, driving thousands off their lands to escape drug turf wars and the crossfire between government troops and rebels.
Many of Colombia’s Indians struggle daily to remain neutral in a conflict where both sides—government armed forces and rebels—place pressure on indigenous tribes to participate, indigenous chiefs say. They blame the FARC for many of the dozens of killings of indigenous leaders over the years. The rebels often target Indians whom they accuse of acting as informants for the military.
The plight of Colombia’s indigenous tribes is compounded by the looming threat of local and foreign gold, timber, mining and palm oil companies and criminal gangs encroaching on their resource-rich lands, indigenous leaders say.
“Indigenous people live in territories rich in natural resources, but at the same time, contradictorily, they live in the midst of poverty,” Muyuy told El Tiempo.