• 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 2020: Colombia

According to the national census conducted in 2018,1 the Indigenous population in Colombia has grown by 36.8% and now accounts for 4.4% of the country’s total population, or 1,905,617 Indigenous individuals across all peoples.

Demographic growth among Indigenous Peoples was six times higher than among the rest of the population, and can largely be explained by a birth rate double that of the national average. It is also linked to the fact that people were counted this time round who were not included in the 2005 census.

The 2018 census also revealed that there are now 115 different Indigenous Peoples in the country whereas only 93 had been identified in 2005. The additional 22 peoples correspond to new ethnic groups or Indigenous Peoples living in border areas. Peoples living in voluntary isolation (Jurumi, Passe and Yuri) were also not included in the census.

The departments with the greatest number of Indigenous individuals are La Guajira, with 394,683 inhabitants; Cauca, with 308,455; Nariño with 206,455; Córdoba, with 202,621 and Sucre with 104,890. The ethnic groups with the greatest number of members are the Wayuu (380,460), Zenú, (307,091), Nasa (243,176) and Pastos (163,873). These peoples account for 58.1% of Colombia’s Indigenous population.

The 1991 Political Constitution recognised the fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169 (now Law 21). In 2009, Colombia supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Constitutional Court Ruling 004 of 2009 ordered the state to protect 34 Indigenous Peoples at risk of disappearance due to the armed conflict. Former President Juan Manuel Santos signed Decree 1953  on 7 October 2014 creating a special regime for the administration of Indigenous Peoples’ own systems within their territories, while Congress has enacted the Organic Law on Territorial Organisation, which will define the relationships and coordination between the Indigenous territorial bodies and the municipal authorities and departments. In December 2016, the culmination in the negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) put an end to more than half a century of armed conflict that had displaced many peasant, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian families from their lands.

2019 was marked by a wave of violence reaching right across the ancestral territories. Massacres of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia are a scourge that has not been eliminated, and they reveal a complex panorama of violent groups multiplying across the country with the aim of controlling the territory and its different illegal economies. The anxiety and violence that had abated due to the peace agreement have returned with a vengeance, and even worse than before. Despite accusations of an extermination plan, neither the local, departmental or national authorities have thus far come up with any policy that might guarantee Indigenous people their rights to life, territory, cultural identity or to their own government.

One of the departments most afflicted by violence has been Cauca, where 57 Indigenous leaders have been murdered. Those at the sharp end know that the conflict is only worsening. “They will kill us whether we stay silent or not. So we will not keep quiet.” These were the words Indigenous governor Cristina Bautista used just a few days before her death to describe the tragic situation being experienced by thousands of Indigenous people in Cauca, hemmed in by armed groups fighting for domination of their territory and control of the drugs trade.2

The number of Indigenous murders increased during 2019, a year that the United Nations declared the “Year of Indigenous Languages”. According to the UN, Indigenous Peoples’ languages represent their ancestral knowledge, their customs and a particular world vision linked to the land.

The serious humanitarian situation caused by the armed conflict has resulted in displacements, extreme marginalisation and the environmental degradation of Indigenous territories. Factors such as illicit crops and megaprojects implemented without adequate concern for the legitimate collective interests of the Indigenous communities are ongoing obstacles to their survival.

According to Indepaz’s early warning bulletin,3 the department with the highest murder rate among Indigenous leaders is Cauca, with 88 people killed between January 2016 and 30 October 2019 alone. This is partly because of the armed conflict over land for drug growing and for the creation of corridors for trafficking cocaine base paste and marihuana; the impact of territorial conflicts with legal and illegal private sectors (gold mining, sugar cane industry, logging, etc.) must, however, also be considered.

Of the 32 Indigenous people murdered in 2019, most were in the northern area of Cauca: nine in Toribío, seven in Caloto, six in Páez, three in Suárez, two in Santander de Quilichao, two in Corinto, one in Miranda, one in Cajibío and one in Silvia.

Policies enshrining Indigenous Peoples’ constitutional recognition have proved a highly important tool for the physical and cultural survival of Colombia’s native peoples but they have clearly not been sufficiently implemented since the obliteration of the peoples continues apace, affecting hundreds of native families. Although there is written recognition of the land provided to Indigenous groups, as set out in a comprehensive rural reform point in the peace agreement, it is on those territories that the armed conflict has intensified the most.

There has been partial compliance with the recommendations on Indigenous Peoples since the signing of the peace accord but also some setbacks and dangers. These have been caused by the issuing of regressive legislation on Indigenous Peoples’ rights that endangers their cultural and territorial integrity and highlights the lack of legal security of their territories together with the lack of guarantees of their free, prior and informed consultation and consent. The failure to ensure implementation of the peace agreement and its Ethnic Chapter is starkly illustrated by the alarming number of murders of Indigenous leaders and authorities. It is of vital importance that the special agreement on eradicating mines and restituting the Indigenous territories is effectively fulfilled, in accordance with the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP. The declaration issued on 29 August 2019 by former FARC members Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich and Hernán Velásquez, calling for a return to arms among so-called FARC dissidents, is an alarming and concerning development. This has caused dismay among the country’s ethnic communities as it is always the most vulnerable rural populations – Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities – that are the primary victims of this internal conflict.

The Indigenous communities are suffering an armed onslaught from guerrilla groups trying to uproot them from their lands. Agreements have been reached between the Colombian government and the Indigenous Peoples with the aim of protecting their lives and which state that neither the public security forces nor any armed actor should invade their territories. These agreements have been worth little more than the paper they are written on. The communities are suffering a serious humanitarian crisis caused by the presence of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug traffickers, all of whom are destroying their culture and customs. Indigenous communities across the whole country have been denouncing this intensification in the war to different supervisory bodies since the FARC dissidents’ call for a return to arms.

Conflicts between the FARC and ELN dissidents and paramilitary groups have resulted in dire situations for Indigenous communities who have lived on their territories since time immemorial and wish to continue to do so. They have responded with what is known as the Indigenous Guard, which is not a police structure but rather an ancestral form of community organisation with the aims of defending their territory, customs and culture generally.

The Indigenous Guard is composed of men, women and children who are trained in the values of Indigenous preservation from an early age. Belonging to the Guard is not a paid role. Everyone who joins does so out of a conviction and belief in their Indigenous roots, in addition to wanting to defend and preserve their culture. They do not bear arms but simply carry a baton of symbolic and moral value. This is because their peaceful values prevent them from using weapons against others; they do not believe in a system of violence. Their colours represent the red blood shed by their ancestors and the green Mother Earth from whom life comes. Life and territory are the defining concepts of the Indigenous Guard: it is this that the Guard was created to defend and this that sustains it to this day. And while the things from which they are defending life and territory may have changed, their defence has not and forms a constant in the life of the Indigenous Guard.4

There have been insufficient agreements with the national government regarding the joint production of strategies by which to safeguard the human rights of the country’s Indigenous population. Although 1,396 agreements have been reached through the Permanent Forum for Consultation with the Indigenous Peoples, 95% of these have not been fulfilled.

In light of the above, a mobilisation or minga was launched in March 2019, known as the “Minga for life and peace”, in which Indigenous people from all the country’s ethnic groups participated.

The protests lasted 27 days, during which time negotiations took place with the Ministry of the Interior addressing issues related to defence of their territory and asking that the requests made of the government be fulfilled. Finally, on 6 April, an agreement was reached and the Indigenous people removed the blockade from the highway. Although agreements around a common agenda were reached, however, there has been no effective implementation to date.

The minga in the south-west of the country, demanding territorial rights through mobilisations and blockades of the Pan-American Highway that links the south-west to the departments of Nariño and Valle, obtained an agreement that 17.5% of the 4.6 billion pesos required by the Indigenous communities could be assigned in the context of the National Development Plan, an amount previously contained in the investment plan for the Cauca region. However, to date this has not materialised.5

All Indigenous organisations affiliated to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) participated in the minga, with their meeting point being in the La Delfina Reserve, where the negotiations with the national government, represented by the Minister of the Interior, took place. A second set of negotiations were held in Cauca department, involving the departments of Cauca, Huila and Caldas, and their respective organisations. The Indigenous participants in the minga came either on foot (dancing, singing and playing instruments along the way) or from the different departments via the typical chiva or escalera bus. There may have been different negotiations but there was just one Indigenous minga.

2019 was supposed to be a year to commemorate the existence of native languages and yet events left the country’s Indigenous Peoples without any institutional guarantees for their physical and cultural survival; principles of unity, culture, territory and autonomy can nonetheless still be seen within the communities.


Notes and references

  1. National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE). Indigenous Population of Colombia. September 2019: https://www.dane.gov.co/files/ investigaciones/boletines/grupos-etnicos/presentacion-grupos-etnicos-2019. pdf
  2. “Asesinatos de indígenas en Colombia: ‘Es un genocidio’, 6 claves para entender los crímenes en el Cauca.” bbc.com, 14 November 2019: https://www. com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-50341874
  3. González, C. Indepaz. Boletín: ALERTA HUMANITARIA EN EL 30 October 2019.
  4. “La Guardia Indígena del Cauca y su relación con las FARC”. The Political Room, 5 September 2019: https://www.thepoliticalroom.com/analisis/la-guardia- indigena-del-cauca-y-su-relacion-con-las-farc/
  5. “Así quedó el acuerdo con la minga, punto por punto.” Semana, 4 June 2019: https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/como-quedo-el-acuerdo-con-la- minga-para-levantar-el-paro/608518

This report has been written by Beatriz Valencia Otova, advisor and consultant to the General Secretary of ONIC, a Master’s candidate in Human Rights and the International Law of Armed Conflicts, and an International Relations and Political Studies professional, and Higinio Obispo González. General Secretary of ONIC. Indigenous leader and ethnoeducator.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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