Fighting threatens existence of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, UN warns

Displaced indigenous children in Colombia

22 April 2005 – Colombia’s indigenous peoples, caught up in the fighting between the Government, rebels and armed militias, are facing tragedy as violent attacks and forced displacement increase, with fears that some smaller and more vulnerable groups and their cultures may actually disappear, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.

In the past week, fighting between the Colombian Army and leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) uprooted some 3,500 Nasa people in the south-west, while in the north-west, some 4,000 Embera are at imminent risk of displacement because of fighting between guerrillas and paramilitary groups, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported.

“The tragedy afflicting the indigenous peoples remains largely invisible,” spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “They often become displaced within their remote regions of origin as they try to preserve ties to their ancestral lands, or else they flee into other remote areas where they cannot be easily detected.”

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), a UNHCR partner, has reported the murder or disappearance of more than 20 indigenous leaders so far this year.

The Andean country’s more than 80 indigenous groups together make up a population of just under 1 million people. Although they represent only 2 to 3 per cent of the total population, they make up as much as 8 per cent of the more than 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Virtually all the indigenous groups have been victims of forced displacement or are at serious risk of being displaced from their ancestral lands.

Since indigenous identity and culture are closely linked to the land, these communities suffer irreversible damage when forced to flee. This can mean loss of traditional and cultural patterns, including language, and a dramatic deterioration of lifestyle, UNHCR said.

The warning was the latest in a series, focusing most recently on the north-western province of Choco, where irregular armed groups have increased their activities since the beginning of this year, imposing blockades to stop food, medicine, fuel and other vital supplies from reaching some communities.

But UNHCR and other UN agencies were today visiting the south-western province of Cauca to evaluate the humanitarian needs and support relief efforts by civilian authorities following this week’s displacement of the Nasas, who observers on the ground agree could quickly reach as many as 5,000, if fighting continues.

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