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Image Banner: Struggle for survival: Colombia's indigenous people face threat of extinction

Video: Extra-judicial killings in Colombia. Some of the main victims of Colombia’s 40-year armed conflict, are indigenous communities, caught in the cross-fire between insurgents and the Army in an escalating struggle for their territory. 2006. UNTV

Caught in what is sometimes described as the world’s oldest internal armed conflict, thousands of indigenous people in Colombia have fled their lands to escape the brutal treatment of warring armed groups. The struggle to survive and preserve ancient traditions in cities and towns far away from their homes is an often unnoticed casualty of the plight of this second largest group of internally displaced people. Colombia’s Constitutional Court says nearly one-third of the country’s indigenous groups are now at risk of extinction.


The Story

After a 16-day journey that took them down three rivers and across miles of thick jungle, six Baro indigenous families arrived in Leticia on the banks of the Amazon River in southern Colombia. When a UNHCR team met with the group in October 2008, they were still recovering from the shock of fleeing their homes the previous month after armed men entered their territory. The Baro families eventually found shelter in a run-down neighborhood on the edge of town, where they now live in cramped conditions and under plastic sheeting, with no sanitation or running water.

With less than 700 members, the Baro tribe is one of the smallest of Colombia's 90 indigenous groups, one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Colombia’s indigenous people have traditionally lived on collective territories, often strategically located in areas rich in oil, wood and rare minerals. But a 40-year internal war has fuelled clashes between rival armed groups battling for control of resource-rich lands that are home to thousands of indigenous people. Many indigenous groups also live in coca-growing areas where they are frequently caught in the crossfire of drug militias fighting for control of cocaine smuggling routes.

Colombia’s armed conflict has displaced an estimated three million people, about 41,000 of whom are indigenous, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Colombia’s Constitutional Court says at least 27 indigenous groups in Colombia are now considered to be at risk of extinction as a result of armed conflict. Thousands of indigenous people are struggling to survive in towns and cities, estranged from the ancestral lands that have shaped their identities and traditions. With no previous experience living in urban areas, they often fall prey to human trafficking, drugs and prostitution.

In Narino, along the Pacific Coast near the border with Ecuador, the Awá people have suffered the highest rate of forced displacement in the country during the last two years. In February 2009, 17 Awá were killed when an armed group attacked civilians following the arrival of Colombian army troops in Telembi Tortugaña, one of the most isolated and conflict-ridden parts of the country. UNHCR has called for a full investigation of the reported killings.
The loss of land for indigenous groups across Colombia has shattered communities, traditions and identities. Their survival depends greatly on being able to remain on their ancestral territories and maintain close links to the land. “To lose our land is to lose our self,” said one Siona indigenous man recently after being forced to flee his home.


The Context:

  • Colombia’s internal armed conflict that started in 1964 has pitted Colombia’s armed forces against two main guerrilla groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Clashes also routinely involve organized crime gangs and narcotics traffickers that have links to guerrilla and paramilitary groups.
  • Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. There are about three million registered IDPs in Colombia, of which an estimated 41,000 are indigenous. However, indigenous displacement often goes unregistered – due to the remoteness of indigenous territory, lack of access to state services and cultural barriers.
  • Out of Colombia’s total national population of 43 million there are an estimated one million indigenous people comprising about 90 indigenous groups.
  • At least 27 indigenous groups are at risk of disappearing as a result of armed conflict, according to Colombia’s Constitutional Court. The National Indigenous Association, ONIC, says 18 groups are at acute risk of extinction.
  • Indigenous people have suffered an increase in violence linked to armed conflict during the past 10 years. ONIC has reported the murders of about 1,980 indigenous people during the period 1998-2008.
  • Colombia in April 2009 signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark declaration that outlines the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlaws discrimination against them. The declaration upholds the rights of indigenous people to stay on their lands and duties of the State to protect them.
  • Under Colombian and international law, members of indigenous groups are entitled to special protections from forced displacement. One of the priorities of UNHCR in Colombia is to support the State in its efforts to fulfill this obligation.
  • UNHCR has 12 offices around Colombia, where it has been working since 1988 to assist displaced populations.



UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
Marie-Helene Verney, UNHCR Media Officer (Colombia)
Tel: +57 1 658 0600
Send an email

World Food Programme (WFP):
Bettina Luescher, WFP Chief Spokesperson, North America
Tel: +1 212 963 5196
Send an email

Office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights
and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People:

Tel: +41 22 917 9647
Fax: +41 22 917 6010
Send an email



UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Colombia

World Food Programme, Colombia

UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

National Indigenous Association of Colombia
http://www.onic.org.co/ (in Spanish)

Information site on Colombia’s ethnic groups
www.etniasdecolombia.org (in Spanish)

UN News Centre



The Nukak Maku, the last indigenous group in Latin America to have made contact with the outside world, is one of 18 Colombian indigenous groups at risk of disappearing. The armed conflict has forced half of its members to flee the jungle and live in small cities in the Guaviare region of Colombia, jeopardizing the survival of their ancient nomadic traditions. 2007. UNHCR/MH Verney A joint UNHCR and World Food Programme emergency mission delivers food to confined indigenous communities along the Guaviare River in April 2008. Puerto Alvira Guaviare Mission, Colombia. UNHCR/MH Verney The Awa people have been badly hit by violence on their territory in the Nariño region of south-west Colombia, and have suffered a series of massive forced displacements over the past three years due to frequent fighting near the border with Ecuador. October 2008. UNHCR/MH Verney This Quechua indigenous woman crossed the border to take refuge in Ecuador where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) got her documented and gave her a kit to build a small house. 2006. UNHCR/MH Verney