• Indigenous peoples in Colombia

    Indigenous peoples in Colombia

    The indigenous population in Colombia is estimated at 1,500,000 inhabitants, or 3.4 per cent of the total population. 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.

Indigenous World 2019: Colombia

The indigenous population of Colombia, according to official data, is 1,500,000 persons, which represents 3.43% of the national population. 78.6% of the country´s indigenous population is concentrated in rural zones and 21.4% in urban zones. Out of the total indigenous population registered in Colombia in the year 2005, 796,916 inhabited reserves (57.2 % of the indigenous population). Growth in the indigenous population in recent years is notable, since in the year 1993 the indigenous population represented a mere 1.6% of the national total.

The great majority of the indigenous population is affiliated with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), which brings together 80% of Colombia’s indigenous population, equivalent to 1,394,202 persons and 335,784 families, grouped into 49 regional associations and 530 affiliated reserves.1 ONIC is also one of the principal players in the negotiation and implementation of the final peace accord in Colombia. The Constitution of  1991  recognized the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169 (currently Law 21 of 1991). In 2009, Colombia supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. With Order 004 of 2009, the Constitutional Court mandated that the State protect 34 indigenous peoples at risk of disappearance due to armed conflict, and qualified that situation as “a state of unconstitutional things.” In addition, President Juan Manuel Santos signed Decree 1953 on 7 October 2014, which creates a special regime to implement the administration of the indigenous peoples’ own systems in their territories. For its part, the Congress issued the Organic Law on Territorial Zoning, which will define relations and coordination between indigenous territorial entities and the municipalities and departments.

In December 2016 the negotiations culminated between the government of President Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end an armed conflict that had lasted half a century and that drove many peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian families out of their territories.

Key Events in 2018

During 2018, a series of events directly affected indigenous peoples and communities. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia; ONIC), which represents the majority of indigenous peoples in the country, has reported serious incidents and has submitted complaints to several national and international organizations.2

The most alarming incidents intersect with the peace negotiations between the national government and the FARC-EP. Since then, there have been approximately 87 murders of indigenous people and 11,644 human rights violations against indigenous peoples.3

Given that context, the following is noted: 

  • 39 indigenous villages at risk of physical and cultural extermination
  • 35 indigenous villages with less than 200 inhabitants
  • 37 indigenous leaders murdered under the current government of Duque
  • 87 indigenous leaders murdered in the two years since the signing of the Peace Agreement

For their part, the indigenous organizations indicate that the national government refuses to accept the systematic nature of these events, stating that the origin of these homicides are personal vendettas or problems unrelated to political motives. This denial keeps the problem from being addressed and overcome, enabling a repeat of those events in the post-peace agreement era, when all types of human rights violations should be overcome.4

It is also important to note that in the territory of the indigenous reserves, confrontations between armed groups and criminal organizations have accelerated, causing anguish, insecurity, and displacement. The indigenous peoples believe that this has caused the decline of economic activity based on agriculture, fishing, handicrafts and livestock (among other activities), leading to malnutrition, hunger, and poverty in their territories. It can thus be seen that the Colombian State is not fulfilling their duty to guarantee the security of the population, because the State has not acted in an effective manner against armed groups and criminal organizations.

Threats to social leaders and human rights defenders accelerated during the year 2018. The various armed groups, including the Águilas Negras, paramilitary groups, and the dissidents of the FARC, circulate pamphlets in which they offer money for the lives of leaders of the Indigenous Cabildos (Councils), mainly in the Cauca region. According to the ONIC, in December 2018 alone there were at least 15 murders of indigenous people.5

Despite the disarmament of the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, the FARC-EP, there has yet to be a noticeable improvement in overcoming systematic, critical human rights violations against social leaders and human rights defenders, especially in rural areas. The number of violations is rising and jeopardizing the wellbeing and buen vivir [the good life] of indigenous peoples and communities.6

In addition, the wealth of natural resources in the territory of indigenous peoples attracts large multinational corporations and armed outlaw groups seeking mining exploitation opportunities and territorial control. In departments such as Chocó, La Guajira, and Amazonas, this situation has caused displacement, environmental pollution, violence, and insecurity, which directly threatens the uses and customs of indigenous peoples.

According to an article published by Semana magazine, the Yurí and Passé peoples, in a situation of isolation, live their lives without knowing what is happening around them. They nourish themselves from the million hectares of forest that comprise the Puré River National Natural Park, a protected area created in 2002 with the aim of safeguarding them. They move among the forests without suspecting the dangers that surround them and threaten their native way of life. Illegal mining, indiscriminate felling, illegal groups, and even religious ones beset them.

Government policies on several occasions have gone against the wellbeing and buen vivir of indigenous peoples. An example of this is the current situation in the communities located in Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, due to the damming of the Cauca River by the Hidruituango hydroelectric project. The work includes a dam 225 meters high and 20 million cubic meters in volume, which would create a reservoir 70 kilometers long.7

This project has had a large part of the neighboring populations on red alert, since there have been failures in the structures, forewarning the potential for floods that could destroy shelters located on the banks of the Cauca River. The Senú indigenous people, located in the municipalities of Cáceres and Caucasia, could be affected, as could the Embera Chamí and Embera Katío peoples, who live in Tarazá and Cáceres. The displacement of evacuated indigenous people puts their health at risk, as they do not have access to drinking water or sanitary services, and food is scarce due to the severity of the situation.8

In January 2019, the alarming situation continued, because shifts are still occurring inside the dam, threatening the safety of hundreds of indigenous and non-indigenous families.

The consultations

During 2018, three free, prior and informed consultations were held, which are a right and an instrument for participation in decisions on all matters concerning indigenous peoples, as established by ILO Convention 169.

In the first half of the year, a consultation was carried out, “By means of which gender equity criteria are established in the award of vacant lands, rural housing, and production projects. Law 160 of 1994 is amended and other provisions are issued.” This project sought to modify the country’s vacant land regime, which, according to Law 160 of 1994, should be earmarked for communities that have no, or not enough, land. And it was concluded that these vacant lands can be delivered in ownership or with unlimited usage rights to mining, hydrocarbons, and hydroelectric entrepreneurs, ignoring the historical debt of the State in territorial terms owed to indigenous communities and peoples. Although the consultation was carried out, the proposals of the indigenous communities and peoples in relation to safeguards for their sacred and/or ancestral territories were not taken into account. In fact, the five indigenous organizations of Colombia with a seat on the Permanent Coordination Board (Mesa Permanente de Concertación; MPC) opposed a legislative bill that seeks to modify Law 160 of 1994, which, at the time, was the subject matter of the consultation. Their opposition has not yet been responded to; neither has the bill been introduced that seeks to modify Law 160 of 1994 before the Congress, taking into account that the modification of this law is harmful and regressive with respect to the rights obtained on the lands of the indigenous peoples of Colombia.

Likewise, at the end of 2018, the second consultation was held for indigenous peoples on the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y no Repetición; SIVJRNR), which provided records of previous peace discussions between the Colombian Government and the FARCEP. There, the indigenous peoples were given a space for participation and an ethnic chapter became a part of these agreements, creating the Special Justice for Peace (Justicia Especial para la Paz; JEP). The consultation was carried out in order to establish guidelines/actions in response to the SIVJRNR instruments, without affecting the indigenous peoples’ own systems of territory, spirituality, participation, women, and family, and without disregarding the institutional configuration of the Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad; CEV), the Search Unit for missing persons (Unidad de búsqueda para personas desaparecidas; UPBD), and the special justice for Peace, with an ethnic focus. Of particular note are the agreement for coordination and articulation of the integral, restorative, transformative reparation of the indigenous peoples of Colombia; the protocol for the coordination and articulation of the integral, restorative, transformative reparation of the indigenous peoples of Colombia; the relationship and coordination protocol between the Unit for the Search for Persons Disappeared (UBPD) and the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia.9

Finally, the third free, prior, and informed consultation was held regarding the 2018-2022 National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo; PND) in comparison to the 2014-2018 National Development Plan “Everyone for a New Country,” which did not attain the required level of compliance, since it fulfilled only 6%, providing what were actually promotional activities and not investment for fulfillment of the agreements made with the indigenous peoples.

In spite of the above, and taking into account the lessons learned, indigenous peoples as collective political subjects are again demanding their fundamental and constitutional right to be consulted and included in the 2018-2022 National Development Plan. To this end, 96% of the indigenous proposals were signed at the session for the formal recording of agreements and disagreements with the 2018-2022 National Development Plan (PND) within the framework of the Consultation and free, prior, and informed consent with the 102 indigenous peoples of the country.

The indigenous peoples of Colombia have always fought for their rights, and it is so reflected in the current political Constitution which was consolidated in 1991 where Colombia is recognized as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural State. However, despite all these efforts, there are few guarantees and little implementation of those achievements. Even so, the indigenous movement has been proactive by staying up-to-date on the various strategic political scenarios in order to request compliance with the agreements that have been established.

It should be noted that with respect to the public policies issued by the government, the ONIC has been working to implement the Sustainable Development Goals SDGs, with a differential indigenous approach, since these objectives are key to the well-being and buen vivir of the indigenous peoples.

Colombian indigenous women, over time, have gained importance in the economy, as was demonstrated in the “Artisan Expos” traditional crafts festivals, where several countries came to Colombia to market their products and, in this way, obtain an economic benefit for their family’s sustenance. Indigenous women, through their ancestral knowledge, have led the way in playing a fundamental role for the survival of their culture, taking steps towards attaining the recognition of women’s rights in different scenarios and, making it possible for women artisans to be increasingly involved in national and international markets. These situations demonstrate the achievements in Colombia for advancing the welfare of indigenous families.

In spite of the many situations that occurred during the year 2018 with respect to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Colombian Indigenous movement is still proudly engaged in the struggle to promote the values of its people, who have always defined their own path.

Notes and references

  1. See ONIC, “La ONIC ratifica posible exterminio estadístico en el Censo 2018 por incumplimiento de acuerdos”, available at: http://bit.ly/2IPbjdW
  2. See ONIC, “National Indigenous Organization of Colombia”, Available at: http://bit.ly/2IRQui9
  3. Ibidem
  4. See ONIC, “National Indigenous Organization of Colombia” Available at: http://bit.ly/2IRQui9
  5. Verdadabierta, Available at: http://bit.ly/2IMGTJh
  6. El espectador, Available at: http://bit.ly/2ISba9G
  7. Semana Sostenible, 2018. Available at : http://bit.ly/2ISaP6U
  8. Semana, 2018. Availabe at: http://bit.ly/2ISaoJO
  9. See ONIC, “National Indigenous Organization of Colombia”, Available at: http://bit.ly/2INK6bG


This article was written by the Organizacion Nacional Indigena de Colombia, ONIC



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