Northern groups face extinction



NABUSIMAKE, CESAR—About 500 Arhuaco indigenous people gathered in this northern Colombian village for a five-day meeting in December. The purposes included assessing recent armed attacks against Arhuacos, one of four indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which straddle the provinces of César, La Guajira and Magdalena.

From the meeting emerged this statement: “We’re in the middle of a conflict that doesn’t belong to us. We ask the armed groups to leave our territory, which has belonged to us for generations. We ask the Colombian Army to stop its bombardments. The government should seek solutions through dialogue, not military action.”

The statement seems to have gone ignored. Two U.N. reports since March have confirmed that the four groups—the Arhuacos, Kankuamos, Koguis and Wiwas, with a combined population of 40,000—are verging on extinction.

It wouldn’t be the first genocide of indigenous people in the Sierra Nevadas. The Spanish conquest exterminated the Tayronas, who rivaled Mayans and Incas for their cultural cohesion and their accomplishments in astronomy, water technology and architecture, evidenced in ruins such as the “Lost City.”

The surviving indigenous groups have maintained their traditions and languages and lived in harmony with the area’s wildlife, a diverse array that begins at sea level and rises more than 18,000 feet. But these groups have suffered immensely from colonization by outsiders, including illegal armed groups.
In the 1970s, drug traffickers started appropriating the land for marijuana cultivation. The 1980s brought coca cultivation and processing as well as leftist guerrilla groups. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) used the mountains as a refuge, a food source and a place to hide hostages.

Drug traffickers, government security forces and their paramilitary allies have tended to view the indigenous groups as guerrilla supporters. Units of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the nation’s main paramilitary federation, began arriving in 1997. They have plundered and burned down indigenous homes, schools, health clinics and communal shops.

Between 1998 and 2002, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsperson, the four indigenous groups suffered 166 extralegal executions, 44 forced disappearances, 92 cases of torture and 52 abductions.

Indigenous leaders have received little protection from the government. The Kankuamos resorted to filing a suit in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which led to an October order for the government to take steps against the genocide. Since then, at least 10 Kankuamos have been murdered.

The first significant international media coverage of genocide in the Sierra Nevada came last September, when the ELN kidnapped eight foreign backpackers who were hiking to the Lost City. The guerrillas said the abduction aimed to expose an AUC blockade that was cutting off indigenous groups from food and medical care. As a condition of the hostages’ release, a commission including the ombudsperson and U.N. representatives investigated the Sierra Nevada conditions in November. But little has come of their work.

All citizens of the world have a responsibility to end the attacks and help these indigenous groups survive.

© 2004 Colombia Week. Lucía Vásquez Celis, a biologist, works with indigenous and farmer organizations across Colombia for the Bogotá-based network Ecofondo. Faustino Torres Ramos is an Arhuaco in the village of Nabusímake. Find previous installments of “First Nations,” a Colombia Week series edited by Vásquez and translated from Spanish, at Link to this one at