According to the 2018 Census, the Colombian Indigenous population numbers some 1,905,617 individuals who, in turn, belong to 115 different native peoples. Approximately 58.3% of this population lives in 717 collectively-owned resguardos (reserves). The same census counted 4,671,160 people (9.34% of the national total) who self-identify as black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal or Palenquero. Around 7.3% of this population lives in 178 collectively-owned territories, organised around Community Councils.
Along with many campesinos and Afro-Colombian, many Indigenous Peoples in the country continue to struggle with forced displacement and landlessness as a result of the long-term armed conflict in Colombia.
The Government of Colombia adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The Political Constitution of 1991 recognised the fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169.
At the national level, Indigenous Peoples are represented by two main organizations: the "Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia" (ONIC) and "Autoridades Indígenas de Colombia" (AICO).
President Santos signed a decree in 2014 that created a special regime to put into operation the administration of Indigenous Peoples' own systems in their territories until Congress issues the Organic Law of Territorial Management that will define the relations and coordination between the Indigenous Territorial Entities and the Municipalities and Departments.
There are 65 Amerindian languages spoken in the country. Of this 65, 5 have no capacity for revitalization and another 19 are in serious danger of disappearing.
Main challenges for Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples
Data from the Victims Unit show that 192,638 Indigenous People and 794,703 Afro-Colombians were affected by the war experienced in recent years. The guerrilla made life impossible for several indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, and massacres such as that of the Awá in Nariño and Afro-Colombians in Bojayá, mined collective territories, communities stripped of their territories and young people and children recruited are some examples of the FARC's violent acts carried out against ethnic peoples.
Almost a third of the national territory is categorised as indigenous reserves, and most of them have to face serious environmental conflicts and land grabbing due to extractive activities in the zone.
As a result of a resurgence in the internal armed conflict following the 2018 electoral success of President Iván Duque, who is opposed to the Peace Agreement, violence and the armed re- taking of many of the regions inhabited by these peoples intensi- fied during 2020. In this context, as stated by the Ombudsman’s Office, there is a conspicuous delay in implementing the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Agreement and a clearly deteriorating humanitarian situation which, in 2020 alone, left 112 Indigenous people dead in different regions, not to mention the members of Afro-descendant communities, whose deaths are not fully differentiated in the records.
The summit took place on July 27-30 and was attended by seven national Indigenous organizations and 8,000 participants. The event produced a document that will be submitted to the new government setting out a road map for the relationship between both parties. Ancestral thinking and dialogue as a basis for building unity were the cross-cutting themes of the different committees. Neither the President, Gustavo Petro, nor the Vice-President, Francia Márquez, kept their promise to attend the summit.
Although the demographic and sociocultural vulnerability of Colombia's Indigenous population is often attributed to the ill-fated times of the conquest and colonization, their gradual disappearance continues relentlessly amidst the urban diaspora, the long internal armed conflict, forced displacements, loss of territories and the lack of guarantees for their rights to autonomy, self-determination and self-government. In recent decades, the spiral of violence on the Indigenous peoples’ territories allows us to speak of a deliberate extermination as a strategy for the appropriation of their natural resources for extractivism and drug trafficking with the complicity of the State.
Colombia is a country noted for its geographical, biological and cultural diversity. Vast coastal and Andean regions, tropical rainforests on the Pacific and in the north-western Amazon, the Orinoco plains, vast desert areas and islands are all home to 115 Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities, recognised as the collective subjects of rights by the Constitution and law.
The lengthy armed conflict has left most Colombians with psychological, physical and community scars. Faced with this traumatic reality, the philosophy of “vivir sabroso” offers Colombians a new vision of life for their country. This sentipensar or thinking-feeling of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples is helping to reshape the narrative of how we imagine the nation.
Bahía Málaga. Photo: Albeiro Palma for Colectivo de Trabajo Jenzera
Drug trafficking penetrates Indigenous communities, persecuting their leaders, and co-opting the youngest members. Through violence, illegal armed groups increase the illegal cultivation of coca leaf, marijuana, and poppy. The damage to the social fabric undermines sustainable development, harmonious living, and the culture of solidarity. While illegality maximizes profits and creates incentives for drug trafficking, the government does not respect political agreements that could favor the fulfillment of Indigenous rights.
Marked by trade since colonial times, the Indigenous people of La Guajira live along the Colombia–Venezuela border. Between a lack of drinking water, the extractive industry, wind farms and the humanitarian crisis, the Wayúu survive despite dispossession and food insecurity. In recent times, violence caused by the militarisation of the region and the territorial disputes between paramilitary groups, smugglers, drug traffickers and the illegal trade in fuel has only added to the problem. The closure of borders is leaving family and community dynamics at crisis point.