• 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.

The Indigenous World 2023: Colombia

Colombia is noted for its geographic, biological and cultural diversity. Vast coastal and Andean regions, tropical rainforests along the Pacific Coast and in the north-west Amazon, the Orinoco plains, extensive desert areas and islands are all home to 115 Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities. These communities are all recognized as collective rights-holders by the Constitution and the law.

According to the 2018 national census, ethnic populations accounted for 13.6% of the country's population (48,258,494 people), being a total of 1,905,617 individuals who self-identify as different Indigenous Peoples, plus 4,671,160 Afro-descendants, Raizal, Palenquero and Rrom. Some 58.3% of the Indigenous population live in 827 legally-constituted collectively-owned reserves covering an area of 29,917,516 hectares,[1] while the remaining 41.7% of the population has, over the past few decades, migrated to urban areas. For their part, 7.3% of people who consider themselves Afro-descendants form part of rural community structures and live in 178 collectively-owned territories, organized around Community Councils.

With the exception of the Amazon region, lands legalized as ethnic collective property are becoming increasingly scarce, and the administrative and judicial processes of recognition, extension, regulation and restitution have been at a virtual halt for more than a decade due to previous governments.


Conquering change for life

After a 2021 marked by the longest and most massive social protests in the country's history, 2022 was characterized by the dynamic nature of an electoral process that was to culminate in a change in the national government and in the Congress of the Republic. Although not without some shocks due to violence, electoral fraud and even attempted coups on the part of extreme right-wing sectors, Colombia’s popular majorities managed to elect a president and a vice-president who do not come from the traditional ruling elites or their political parties. The triumph of Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla fighter, and Francia Márquez, an environmental and feminist leader from the Afro-descendant movement, marks a milestone in the history of Colombia’s precarious democracy.

In this electoral process, most of the ethnic peoples, communities and organizations from the different regions, who were also major protagonists in the social uprising of 2021, became actively involved in Petro's campaign and turned out en masse to vote for the Historic Pact, a coalition formed with the aim of bringing Petro to power. This active ethnic participation in the elections was a result of agreements reached by which a popular government represented by Petro and Francia would work towards removing the discrimination and structural violence suffered by Indigenous Peoples; effectively guaranteeing the collective rights enshrined in the 1991 Constitution and international treaties; protecting the territories and resources of the peoples; resolving serious situations of violence, poverty, food insecurity, humanitarian and environmental crisis, and loss of autonomy; and, above all, towards making peace a reality in the territories. The commitments made to the ethnic peoples and communities were summed up in Petro and Francia’s government programme under these general principles:

Peasant, Indigenous, Afro-descendant, black, Raizal, Palenquero and Rrom men and women, organized in villages, reservations and collective territories in rural and urban communities in their diversities, their cosmovisions, their laws of origin, territories, authorities, economic models, ancestral knowledge, their own educational projects, languages, in short, their interculturality, with their peasant, Indigenous and Cimarrona guards, will govern from their territories and will contribute by guiding and defining the future of the nation and the planet as ancestral wise men and women, as the foundation of the productive economy and food sovereignty and as guardians of life, territory and peace.[2]


Once in office, towards the end of 2022, the new government attended meetings and gatherings with the communities and their organizations, one of them being the “Weaving Unity” Indigenous Peoples’ Summit at which previous commitments were ratified and some criteria were established so that dialogue could take place on the basis of equals: government to government.

Within the framework of this Summit, we reaffirm that we are native peoples, prior to the formation of nation states, with our own governments, supported by Indigenous guards and other forms of spiritual and cultural protection for our territory, and we will participate in this era of transition and Change for Life under a government-to-government relationship, with structural proposals that allow for the affirmation of our rights and the transformation of the country.[3]

Against this backdrop of mutual recognition and shared interests, a period of transition aimed at a change for life was welcomed. In addition, with the prompt appointment of Indigenous and Afro-descendant individuals to high government positions,[4] a first step was taken to prevent any attempt to roll-back on origin, ethnicity and social class in a clear message of inclusion, vindication of capacities, and recognition of the historic debt to the country’s original populations.


No respite from the humanitarian crisis

Despite the arrival of a new government committed to building a “Total Peace” that includes real implementation of the Final Peace Agreement with the FARC guerrilla, the resumption of dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN), and even the opening of negotiations in order to bring groups linked to paramilitarism, drug trafficking and organized crime to justice, acts of violence were still continuing in some of the country’s ethnic territories at the end of 2022. According to data collected by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC),[5] Indepaz and other analysts, the Indigenous Peoples most affected by murders of their leaders in 2022 were the Awá, Nasa and Embera in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Chocó and Antioquia. The death toll totalled 42, and this does not take into account the hundreds of Indigenous people displaced, contained or threatened, minors recruited, women and girls raped and the victims of other crimes in these and other regions.


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As has been documented for years, the violations suffered by Colombia’s ethnic peoples and communities can be explained by multiple factors and power logics rooted in colonialism, which have been reproduced and taken root in all spheres of hegemonic society. The forces currently causing the greatest tension and direct violence on ethnic territories are organized crime groups, closely linked to drug trafficking mafias and corrupt political sectors related to local, regional and national power sectors. These groups, often associated with members of the security forces, are not only involved in drug and arms trafficking but in extortion, human trafficking and other high-impact crimes, working out of the constantly disputed ethnic territories.

Extractivist interest in the strategic natural resources located on Indigenous and Afro-descendant lands also continues to be intertwined with the conflict and its actors. This situation has resulted not only in environmental damage but also in displacement, containment, militarization and a general undermining of territorial governance and autonomy.


Resistance is not endurance: the Final Report of the Truth Commission

In mid-2022, the delivery and dissemination of the Final Report of the Truth Commission – a body created in the context of the Peace Agreement signed between the Colombian State and the FARC guerrillas in 2016 – generated huge shock waves. This shock was felt not only by the victims, organizations, communities and civil society sectors that had corroborated the horrors of the war and by some of its perpetrators but also by a number of public and private sectors, politicians, media outlets and individuals who expressed their outright rejection of the report, either because it revealed their direct or indirect links with actors in the conflict, or because the truth threatened their power base, which is dependent upon the existence of a State intertwined with mafias and corruption, or because they were profiting or benefiting from the reign of war.

The special section of the report devoted to ethnic peoples is entitled Resistance is not endurance. Violence and damage against ethnic peoples in Colombia.[6] In this volume, the Truth Commission steps back and analyses the violence suffered by these peoples in the present while not losing sight of the threads that explain it from the past:

[The report] gathers the memories of historical violence – the invasion, the slave trade and colonialization – as well as the memories of violence against territory and nature, that have jeopardized the collective future project of the Indigenous, black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, Palenquero and Rrom peoples. Through the multiple testimonies, reports, experiences and reflections received, the Commission was able to build a broad story, narrated from the pain that has marked bodies and territories, and also to account for the terror that shook the collective being of these peoples and the links that have allowed each community to forge a vision of the universe and of life.[7]

In its reconstruction of the individual and collective violations to which these peoples have been victim, the report not only presents figures on the disproportionate damage caused to ethnic peoples and communities but also documents some cases with new testimonies that demonstrate the ongoing institutionalized racism and classism that lie at the root of “(...) multiple forms of violence and exclusion that survive today. These exclusions have dehumanized ethnic peoples, normalized the atrocious practices of the armed conflict and aggravated its impacts”.[8]

In its final recommendations,[9] the report emphasizes: “(...) ethnic peoples, women from popular sectors and children and youth in rural or marginalized urban areas” have been most affected by the armed conflict. In turn, it proposes a series of actions and approaches (ethnic, territorial, gender) that could make a transition to peace possible, settling the historic debt with ethnic peoples and communities, guaranteeing their constitutional rights and their rights to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition as victims of the armed conflict and of the structural violence they continue to suffer.



Diana Alexandra Mendoza is a Colombian anthropologist with a Master's in Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, and a specialist in Cultural Management. She works 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 37th 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] National Land Agency. 2022. Open Data Portal. Available at https://data-agenciadetierras.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/agenciadetierras::resguardos-ind%C3%ADgenas-1/explore?location=4.101836%2C-72.792174%2C5.78&showTable=true

[2] Historic Pact. Colombia: potencia mundial de la vida. Programa de Gobierno [Colombia: world power of life. Government Programme]. Historic Pact, 2022, p. 33. Available at https://gustavopetro.co/descarga-programa-de-gobierno/

[3] CRIC. Declaratoria Cumbre de Pueblos Originarios, Tejiendo la Unidad [Declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Summit, Weaving Unity]. Silvia, Cauca: CRIC, 2022. Available at https://www.cric-colombia.org/portal/declaratoria-cumbre-de-pueblos-originarios-tejiendo-la-unidad/

[4] “Petro nombra a tres líderes indígenas en cargos de gobierno, ¿por qué?” [Petro appoints three Indigenous leaders to government positions, why?] El Tiempo, 20 July 2022. Available at https://www.eltiempo.com/politica/gobierno/gustavo-petro-por-que-se-la-jugo-con-tres-indigenas-para-los-nuevos-cargos-688409

[5] National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). Informe final 2022 sobre afectaciones a los derechos humanos en los pueblos indígenas de Colombia y situación de los pueblos indígenas en frontera Colombia-Venezuela [Final report 2022 on human rights impacts on Indigenous Peoples in Colombia and the situation of Indigenous Peoples on the Colombia-Venezuela border]. Colombia: ONIC, 2022. Available at https://onic.org.co/images/CO-INFO-20230102-informe_final_afectaciones_DDHH_pueblos_indigenas_ONIC.pdf

[6] Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition. Hay futuro si hay verdad. Informe Final, Tomo 9. Resistir no es aguantar: violencias y daños contra los pueblos étnicos de Colombia [There is a future if there is truth. Final Report, Volume 9. Resistance is not endurance. Violence and damage against ethnic peoples in Colombia]. Colombia: Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, 2022. Available at https://babel.banrepcultural.org/digital/collection/comision-col/id/11

[7] Op. Cit., 2022.

[8] Op. Cit., 2022.

[9] Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition. Hay futuro si hay verdad. Informe final. Hallazgos y recomendaciones de la Comisión de la Verdad de Colombia [There is a future if there is truth. Final Report. Findings and recommendations of the Colombian Truth Commission]. Colombia: Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, 2022. Available at https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/hallazgos-y-recomendaciones

Tags: Global governance



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