Colombia has one of the world’s most diverse Indigenous heritages, encompassing a great variety of cultures, languages, social structures and ways of life. There are 104 nations making up 1.4 million people, around 3.4 per cent of the total population. At least 34 of these nations are at risk of being wiped out. This is the story of three of those nations.
The Kankuamo People live in northeastern Colombia on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Beginning in the 1980s, insurgent groups moved into the territory, followed by army-backed paramilitary groups. The Kankuamo were literally caught in the crossfire, viewed as military targets by both sides. The Kankuamo have endured the burning of their homes, massacres, and hundreds of assassinations.
Militarization of the territory has coincided with reports of grave human rights abuses by army personnel, including torture, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and sexual violence against Indigenous women.
Such violence has terrorized families into fleeing the territory, resulting in the mass displacement of the Kankuamo. In urban slums, displaced Kankuamo report increased infant mortality as well as a breakdown of social and community relationships that sustain their culture.
The Kankuamo have testified that economic interests are behind the violence which has displaced so many, including drug trafficking and resource extraction megaprojects. For the Kankuamo, this land is inextricably linked to their physical and cultural survival.
The Wayúu People live in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia.
The territory is rich in natural resources like coal. Its geographical characteristics also make the area advantageous for drug trafficking. As a result Wayúu territory has become increasingly militarized and a battleground for control by warring parties in the armed conflict.
The Wayúu People have paid a heavy price. Forced recruitment, threats, massacres, enforced disappearances and assassinations have caused many Wayúu to flee their territory in search of safety.
In calling for measures to safeguard the rights and survival of the Wayúu People, Colombia’s Constitutional Court observed that armed conflict and forced displacement have caused a breakdown in cultural traditions and structures, affecting the continuity and transmission of Wayúu culture.
In March 2012, the Wayúu women’s organization Fuerza Mujeres Wayúu testified at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the impact of large scale mining: “We have lost autonomy over our territory, the basis of our culture and well-being. Contamination has damaged plants we relied on and food crops. We are suffering cancers and skin diseases. We have also experienced increased conflict. Mining has brought with it militarization of our territory. It feels like war. There is increased sexual violence against women. Many people have felt compelled to leave our territory but displacement is a huge threat to our survival as Indigenous People. We fear the Wayúu will become extinct.”
The territory of the Zenú Indigenous People comprises the valleys of the Sinú and San Jorge rivers as well as the Caribbean coast around the Gulf of Morrosquillo, in the northern regions of Córdoba and Sucre.
The principal economic activity of the Zenú is agriculture and beautiful weaving with natural fibres.
Like other Indigenous Peoples, the Zenú have suffered grave human rights abuses as they have sought to defend their territory and their rights.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly requested measures to protect the safety of Zenú community members and their leaders amidst threats, attacks and killings.
In its landmark 2009 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court determined the Zenú to be amongst 34 Indigenous Peoples at serious risk of physical or cultural extermination.
The Court called on the Colombian government to develop and implement an ethnic safeguard plan to protect the rights and survival of the Zenú People.