In recognition of August 9th’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) warns that many of Colombia’s indigenous groups are in danger of extinction, due to murder, threats of violence, and forced displacement.
In a report published by the UNHCR’s Bogota office, the refugee agency wrote that “in spite of new efforts by the state” to protect Colombia’s indigenous people, through “special protection” plans for 34 indigenous communities, concern over their situation continues to grow.
The report cites the recent forced displacements of the Sicuani and Wounaan peoples, which are included among the 34 communities, as examples of why the protection plans must be enforced.
“The protection plan is very important for us because the situation in our communities is getting worse. Before they didn’t plant coca, now there are plantations all over the place, and with them the presence of [illegal armed] groups, and violence, is increasing. Continually we can move around less, including to hunt or gather food,” commented an indigenous leader who represents the Wounaan people on the Valle del Cauca Association of Indigenous Councils.
According to the UNHCR, while in some regions of Colombia violence is decreasing, in others it is on the rise “and the indigenous people that live there suffer the consequences.” The report states that homicides and death threats against indigenous leaders “are not infrequent” and cites that reported murders of indigenous Colombians rose by 63 per cent between 2008 and 2009. Thirty-three members of the Awa community were murdered in three separate massacres in 2009.
The UNHCR lists the Wounaan, Embera, Awa, Eperara-Siapidara, Jiw, Nukak and Sicuani indigenous communities as requiring “special attention.” There is also “growing concern” over the forced recruitment of young indigenous Colombians by illegal armed groups, as well as sexual violence committed by those same groups in the Guaviare and Choco departments. It is suspected suicides by young female indigenous Colombians may be related to this sexual violence.
According to the report, the danger remains that these 34 communities, as well as others not included in the protection plans, may disappear either physically or culturally, despite eleven United Nations projects already in place which provide drinking water, schooling, housing, and strategies to prevent displacement.
Nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes such as the Nukak, the Sicuani, the Jiw, and the Jitnu are being forced to settle or forcibly confined by illegal armed groups, preventing them from accessing traditional food sources, rituals such as hunting and other social practices.
The report also found that indigenous displacement to urban centers is a “cause for growing concern” because it hinders the preservation of cultural identity and traditional social structures.
Simon, a 40-year-old member of the Inga community, told UNHCR about the effect of his people’s displacement from the mountains in southern Colombia to Villavicencio, a city on the country’s eastern plains.
“The children that were born in Villavicencio don’t speak Inga; if they can, they are embarrassed to. And that is not the young people’s fault. If we were able to have meetings, if they were able to continually participate in the meetings of us, the Inga, it would be much easier to feel part of a community and be proud of it,” Simon said.
The report recommends that indigenous people be consulted about plans for economic and social development in their territories because they have the right to participate in national decisions, as well as to advise the government on the specific needs of their communities.