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.

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

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

Colombia: Indigenous People Under ThreatPlay video

Colombia: Indigenous People Under Threat

Violence in parts of Colombia is threatening the existence of the country's indigenous people. This is the tale of one such group, the Tule.
Colombia: Giving women strengthPlay video

Colombia: Giving women strength

In the volatile southern Colombian region of Putumayo, forced displacement remains a real and daily threat. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable. A project by UNHCR focuses on helping women to adapt and learn about their rights while they are displaced.
Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.