Anastasia Moloney, Originally published in Reuters AlertNet, August 15, 2008.
Colombia's decades-long conflict, U.S.-backed anti-drugs measures and resource-hungry multinational companies are pushing the country's indigenous peoples towards extinction. War alone uproots 20,000 Indians from their ancestral homes each year, the United Nations' refugee agency says.
From the Arahuacos of the remote snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, to the Wayuus - a matriarchal group of goat herders living in the deserts of the Guajira near Venezuela - most of Colombia's 84 indigenous groups have been forced at some time to flee sporadic fighting between government troops and left-wing guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"We lose our identity when we're displaced," says Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organisation 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 roughly a million indigenous people in Colombia. That's just under 3 percent of the country's population of 44 million, but indigenous people account for about 7 per cent of country's internally displaced population, which stands at about 3 million.
At least 18 of Colombia's indigenous groups are at a risk of disappearing altogether, threatened primarily because they've been forced off traditional lands.
And Bruno Moro from the U.N. development programme agency paints a grim picture of the future for Colombia's indigenous groups. "Without doubt we're talking about a humanitarian emergency on a large scale," he said in Bogota this week.
It's not the first time that humanitarian agencies have raised the alarm about Colombia's endangered indigenous communities. ONIC, the country's main indigenous association, has been warning about the disappearance of indigenous groups for years.
"We've repeatedly denounced the presence of illegally armed groups and the (state) army on indigenous reserves, who use our lands as a refuge or to hide in," Andrade tells 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.
Colombia's indigenous groups speak 64 different languages and live in distinct habitats - from remote jungle to mountainous regions - which means their plight remains largely invisible.
Many of the tribes are already very small. Around 32 indigenous tribes have fewer than 500 members and around a dozen have less than 100 people, ONIC estimates.
The ones at highest risk of extinction are the tribes who live in the Amazon, the Guayaberos from central Colombia, the Embera Indians living near Panama, 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.
As displaced indigenous communities seek refuge in other reserves, U.N. agencies say some indigenous reserves and their food supplies face growing pressure.
"In some cases, different tribes are obliged to concentrate all under the same territory to survive, something that endangers their own cultures," Moro says.
The government's war on coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has also uprooted indigenous groups.
Increasingly, U.S.-sponsored coca crop-spraying campaigns are forcing indigenous tribes off their lands as duster planes accidentally destroy their food crops at the same time. Indigenous groups often live in and around coca-growing regions, which brings them in close contact with FARC guerrillas who fight to control coca production.
"The fumigation of coca has forced some of our people to leave their lands and has caused illnesses among our children and women," says Hernando Criollo, a representative of the Siona tribe from Putumayo, a major coca-growing region in the country's south.
The recent arrival of new multinationals looking for oil, gold and coal across Colombia's largely unexplored and resource-rich lands is a growing concern among indigenous organisations. The Colombian government is legally obliged to consult indigenous leaders if it wishes to carry out exploration projects on their lands or negotiate their resettlement, but this doesn't always happen.
Indigenous social and cultural customs are intertwined with their ancestral lands. Displacement disrupts traditional ways of life and makes it difficult for indigenous groups to preserve their cultures and bind communities together.
For example, the use of traditional medicine among some tribes is disappearing completely, Andrade says.
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 indigenous languages. Universities, they say, should be encouraged to offer scholarships and diplomas relevant to indigenous people.
"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 says. Despite laws enshrined in the country's constitution, he says around 400,000 indigenous people still have not been granted their own reserves by the government.
Other indigenous leaders are encouraging their people to take up positions in local and central government so that Indian interests can be better represented.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is currently training indigenous leaders about human rights and how to effectively denounce abuses by illegal armed groups against their communities.
But Andrade remains pessimistic and says there's a march planned in Colombia next month to raise awareness about the plight facing Colombia's indigenous groups. "There's little political will to preserve indigenous cultures and alleviate the poverty that we suffer," he says. "We form part of Colombia's great cultural heritage and it's not being cherished."
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