• 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.
  • Peoples

    3.4 per cent of Colombia’s total population are indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    2009: Colombia adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Challenges

    Along with many campesinos and Afro-Colombian, many indigenous peoples continue to be displaced and landless as a result of the long term armed conflict in Colombia.

The Indigenous World 2021: Colombia

In Colombia, both Indigenous Peoples and traditional black, Raizal and Palenquero communities are recognised as ethnically, historically and culturally differentiated groups, with human and territorial rights of a collective nature. 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.

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 retaking of many of the regions inhabited by these peoples intensified 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.

Indigenous Peoples and ethnic communities in an abysmal time of pandemic

During 2020, the full force of the hegemonic and criminal powers that are targeting the very heart of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic communities, their territories, resources and collective rights, was felt with particular severity in Colombia. In a widespread atmosphere of violence, a weakening of democracy and the pandemic, the current government and its parliamentary majority made firm progress in dismantling laws that enshrine constitutional principles of individual and collective rights in order to replace them with norms of lower hierarchy such as decrees, resolutions and circulars issued to suit them. This was due to the extraordinary powers granted to the President of the Republic to legislate during the State of Emergency declared under the COVID-19 pandemic, together with the weakness of the opposition forces in the Congress of the Republic, reduced to paralysis due to the transfer of its work online.

Throughout the year, declarative provisions and the legal scope of the principles set out in the Colombian Constitution, including the statement that it is a multiethnic and multicultural state, thus continued to succumb to the global trend that is extinguishing democratic life and, with it, the space for different societies and cultures to exist within our nation states.

Between the machinery of death and the dismantling of the Peace Agreement

It seems like déjà vu to be talking about the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia in the context of the armed conflict. The massive violations of human and collective rights caused by the internal armed conflict over past decades left millions of victims in the country – most of them from Indigenous Peoples and ethnic communities – but, between 2012 and 2016, a formal dialogue took place that resulted in the signing of a Peace Agreement with the guerrilla forces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There followed a gradual de-escalation of the conflict, a decrease in the number of victims, the return of some communities to their territories and a climate of relative peace.

Since this de-escalation, however, particularly in rural areas, a new cycle of violence has begun to occur with the arrival of Iván Duque and his party, the “Democratic Centre”, to power at the end of 2018. This sector has had a decisive influence on how the conflict has developed and on the re-taking of regions by armed actors, setting in motion its stated desire to “tear the peace process to shreds”, i.e., destroy the structure of the Peace Agreement, especially its components of traditional justice; comprehensive rural reform; truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition; the dismantling of paramilitarism; and plans for the substitution of illicit crops.[1]

In this context, as reported by the Ombudsman's Office in its most recent report on the post-agreement in ethnic territories, not only is the implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Agreement lagging but the humanitarian situation is dramatically worsening in the country's ethnic territories:

Threats, attacks, assassinations and displacements of leaders, authorities and ethnic communities for their activities in defence of human rights are on the rise. The Ombudsman's Office has verified the serious situation being experienced in departments such as Chocó, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Putumayo, Norte de Santander, Guajira and Magdalena by authorities and ethnic leaders. Their involvement in the processes of crop substitution, land restitution, reparation of victims and defence of environmental rights are some of the main factors that trigger threats, murders and accusations against ethnic communities, their authorities and leaders. [2]

One of the cruellest humanitarian casualties of this resurgence in violence in 2020 was the assassination, individually or in massacres, of hundreds of social leaders, human rights defenders, environmentalists, workers, journalists, activists of opposition parties and movements, as well as people demobilised within the framework of the Peace Agreement. Among these new victims in 2020 were 112 Indigenous people from different regions of the country, not including members of Afro-descendant communities, whose deaths are not fully differentiated in the records.[3]

The regions most affected include, in order, the departments of Cauca, Nariño and Chocó, areas involving phenomena such as illicit crops and, at the same time, voluntary substitution plans, a commitment under the Peace Agreement but which has been obstructed both by the current government – which prefers to impose a forced strategy of aerial spraying with glyphosate despite its ineffectiveness and serious environmental and social consequences –[4] and by the same armed actors who aspire to maintain control of production areas and drug trafficking routes. These territories are also threatened by land grabbing, extractive projects, the development of mega infrastructure projects and, more generally, the significant presence of legal and illegal armed actors: paramilitaries,[5] guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and groups of FARC dissidents who did not accept the Peace Agreement.

Consultation and consent on the road to insignificance

2020 was also not a favourable year in terms of guaranteeing the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consultation and Consent, despite the government boasting of having achieved 14,242 prior consultations in 1,838 projects involving Indigenous, Afro-descendant and Raizal peoples.[6]

This unusual proliferation of prior consultations, far from representing a true guarantee of the protection of the rights of peoples and communities in Colombia, has reduced this right to a mere procedural requirement, automated and redesigned so as to smooth the way for infrastructure works and extractive projects.[7]

In 2020, as soon as the measures for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic were imposed nationally, the Ministry of the Interior – without conducting any consultation – issued a circular giving the green light to the holding of prior consultations virtually. This decision later had to be revoked by the same ministry due to pressure from Indigenous organisations, different social and environmental actors and the Attorney General's Office, who pointed out that this mechanism for consultation did not meet the minimum international standards for guaranteeing this right.[8]

And yet this was not the end of the national government’s efforts to make consultation and consent an insignificant right with no effect on infrastructure works or extractive projects when there is a supposed sense of urgency and “national priority”. The path was opened up for a “Proportionality Test” in 2020 (already applied in 66 cases), designed by the national government to replace consultation in those cases where ethnic communities decide not to attend the consultative processes convened by the government and companies, or when their consent is not achieved. This instrument, also implemented with no consultation, violates the very essence of Indigenous Peoples’ right to participate in decisions affecting them and has been rejected by the organisations and questioned by the Ombudsman's Office itself in the following terms:

It should be noted that a mechanism implemented in line with a regulation such as Presidential Directive 10 of 2013, which has not been agreed upon or consulted with the ethnic peoples and community rights holders, and through compliance with which it seeks to achieve efficiency and good practice, cannot be considered completely random (...) It is therefore the role of the Ombudsman's Office to warn of the risks of applying the proportionality test in the terms established in Directive 10 of 2013. This is in order to prevent a mechanism for guaranteeing rights such as this from being confused with a procedural tool (...).

The setback of the century in the right to collective territory

Another event that began to call into question the legal security of the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic communities in the country in 2020 was the unprecedented declaration of retroactive nullity issued by the Bolívar Administrative Disputes Court with regard to the collective property title previously granted by the state to the Black Community of La Boquilla in recognition of its historic debt to this Afro-descendant community, which has for centuries inhabited an area that is now being absorbed into the urban development of Cartagena de Indias.

The overturning of this property title, the result of a problematic judicial decision in several ways, demonstrates that “fundamental rights in our country are not permanent victories” as stated by Professor Pablo Ruiz,[9] and that it is possible for the state itself to act in violation of the collective territories of Indigenous Peoples and black communities, constitutionally recognised as unseizable, imprescriptible and inalienable even if they have not been granted a property title by the state.[10]

Regarding guarantees of black or Afro-descendant communities right to territory specifically, the Colombian Constitutional Court has repeatedly stated that the Constitution recognises the right of black communities to collective territory under similar conditions to those of Indigenous Peoples and that, consequently, enjoyment of this right also means that other collective rights such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent and Consultation are guaranteed.[11]

Unfortunately, by determining that this title was null and void with the veiled aim of gentrifying the area and meeting the needs of hoteliers and developers, this court ruling is not simply an example of an infringement of an Afro-descendant community’s right to collective territory. It also opens the door to a review of other titles previously administratively granted to Black Community Councils, with the aim of making spurious legal arguments that will further enable other peoples’ and ethnic communities’ right to collective territory to be ignored.

The Minga in the eye of the hurricane

To close this brief review of some of the significant events involving Indigenous Peoples and ethnic communities in Colombia in 2020, one final event should be mentioned. It caused a national stir due to its force and magnitude but, in fact, for other reasons, it also raises questions about the status of the relationship between the peoples and their organisations and the state.

I am referring to the Indigenous Minga that took place in October 2020, a large mobilisation of peoples and communities the name of which derives from the Quechua term “minka”, a traditional form of collective work for the common good that has spread to various peoples from the Indigenous regions of the Colombian Andes. This movement, which brought together thousands of Indigenous and Afro-descendant people from the centre and south-west of the country, was organised by a number of Indigenous and black organisations from Cauca department and was linked to the national strike called by various social and workers’ sectors demanding national government compliance with previous agreements, as well as guarantees for the protection of life, territories, work, health, education, plus national measures to mitigate the serious social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After an insistent request for direct dialogue and President Iván Duque's refusal to agree to this, the Minga decided to mobilise en masse in Bogotá,[12] where the President still refused to meet them. Instead, he went on a trip and delegated the task to emissaries prepared to consider the technical rather than the “political” issues in the regions, and with other leaders, an attitude interpreted as making a mockery of the communities and organisations that legitimately represent them.

Beyond this particular tale, however, this response from the national government highlights the divisive strategy that continued to be promoted in 2020 by state institutions themselves because, while the peoples and some of their organisations are working to preserve and defend their rights and collective territories, new organisations and leaderships have been formed and co-opted by the government and companies with the aim of legitimising public and private interventions that violate the life project and interests of the communities, their members and legitimate organisations (see also the case of the Arhuaco People of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta).[13]

During 2020, an attempt was thus made, using the principle of “divide and rule”, to weaken the unity that lies at the very heart of the peoples and communities and, although the power of the majority, their authorities and organisations still prevails, there are real forces attempting to fragment the peoples that will require additional efforts at resistance in the years to come.



Diana Mendoza is a Colombian anthropologist with a Master's in Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law; she is a specialist in Cultural Management. She is associated with INDEPAZ and IWGIA as an independent researcher. She has extensive experience in individual and collective rights, environment and culture.

This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here

Notes and references 

[1] Noticias Uno. “Fernando Londoño y Alejandro Ordóñez prometen volver trizas el acuerdo de paz” [Fernando Londoño and Alejandro Ordóñez promise to tear the peace agreement to shreds]. YouTube video, 7 May 2017. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIRJK2d84-8

[2] Ombudsman of the People. “Informe defensorial. El posacuerdo en los Territorios Étnicos”. 2020. Available at www.defensoria.gov.co

[3] Indepaz. “Líderes sociales y Defensores de Derechos Humanos asesinados en 2020”. 2020. Available at http://www.indepaz.org.co/lideres/

[4] See timeline in “Colombia: pese a evidencias científicas sobre daños a la salud y la baja efectividad de la aspersión de cultivos ilícitos, el Gobierno busca reanudar uso del glifosato”. Available at https://www.business-humanrights.org/es

[5] The paramilitaries, formerly identified as Criminal Gangs (Bacrim) are now referred to by the government as Organised Criminal Groups (GDO) and Organised Armed Groups (GAO).

[6] Ombudsman of the People. “Informe defensorial: Garantía y Protección del Derecho Fundamental a la Consulta Previa y el Consentimiento Libre, Previo e Informado de los Pueblos y Comunidades Étnicas en Colombia”. 2020.

[7] Diana Mendoza. “Protocolos Autonómicos de Consulta Previa en Colombia: restablecimiento de los derechos a la autonomía y la autodeterminación en pueblos y comunidades étnicas de Colombia”. In: Protocolos Autonómicos de Consulta Previa Indígena en América Latina. IWGIA, 2020. Available at www.iwgia.org/images/documentos/Protocolos_Autonmicos_de_Consulta_Previa_Indgena_en_Amrica_Latina.pdf

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Pablo Ruiz Sáiz. “La sentencia que anuló el título colectivo de La Boquilla y la precariedad de los derechos fundamentales” [The judgement that overturned the collective title of La Boquilla and the vulnerability of fundamental rights]. Ámbito Jurídico, 13 October 2020. Available at https://www.ambitojuridico.com/noticias/analisis/constitucional-y-derechos-humanos/la-sentencia-que-anulo-el-titulo-colectivo-de

[10] Constitutional Court, Ruling T-661-15. Available at https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/relatoria/2015/t-661-15.htm

[11] Constitutional Court, Judgment T-680-12. Available at https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/relatoria/2012/T-680-12.htm

[12] “Siete cosas ejemplares que dejó el paso de la minga indígena” [Seven ways in which the Indigenous minga set an exemplary example]. Diario El Tiempo, 22 October 2020. Available at https://www.eltiempo.com/politica/cosas-ejemplares-que-dejo-la-minga-indigena-2020-544659

“Pueblo Arhuaco rechaza nombramiento de gobernador sin su participación” [Arhuaco people reject appointment of governor without their involvement]. [13] El campesino.co, 14 December 2020. Available at https://www.elcampesino.co/pueblo-arhuaco-rechaza-nombramiento-de-gobernador-sin-su-participacion/



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

Indigenous World

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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