Colombia: Wounaan indigenous people fleeing ancestral lands

Briefing Notes, 7 April 2006

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 April 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Hundreds of Wounaan indigenous people have now fled to the small town of Istmina in western Colombia after two of their leaders were killed in their ancestral territory last week by members of an irregular armed group. By yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, some 400 people had arrived and a boat carrying 200 people had to stop for the night in a small settlement further downriver after running out of gasoline. In the next few days, many more families are expected to make their way upstream from the Wounaan ancestral territories, some eight hours by boat on the San Juan River.

All five Wounaan communities in Medio San Juan, or a total of 1,748 people, have taken refuge or want to take refuge in Istmina, home to 12,000 people of mostly Afro-Colombian descent. The director of UNHCR's bureau for the Americas, who went to Istmina on Tuesday when informed of the crisis, met with local authorities to ask them to provide the displaced indigenous people with adequate assistance, including shelter, food and security. He also met with the displaced people, who stressed that it was extremely important that their community should not be split and asked to be able to remain as a group near the San Juan River. The river, they explained, is an integral part of their culture and key to their survival as a community.

Those arriving said some 1,000 people remain in Wounaan territory waiting to make the trip upriver. There are not enough boats and gasoline for them to travel together in one group, and Wounaan leaders say they are very worried for the safety of those families that will be last to leave. They are also extremely concerned about the community's long-term prospects, saying that they cannot go back as long as irregular armed groups continue to be present on their territory.

Colombia is home to some of the world's oldest and smallest indigenous groups. Like the Wounaan, many are at high risk not only of displacement, but even of extinction because of the Colombian conflict. All indigenous communities have close links to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends.

Further to the south in Colombia, in the department of Nariño, hundreds of people are also fleeing this week because of violent clashes between the army and an irregular armed group. By Thursday, up to 800 people had left the remote mountainous areas where they lived to seek safety in the villages of El Ejido and Madrigal, to the north of the department. UNHCR is coordinating with the local authorities and other partners to ensure that the displaced receive proper assistance.

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Struggling with the threat of extinction

Among Colombia's many indigenous groups threatened with extinction, few are in a riskier situation than the Tule. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia.

One group of 500 live in Choco's Unguia municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is rich in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

Many tribe members have sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Choco. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands and gave up their traditional way of life.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns, and the refugee agency has helped draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently.

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

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