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Colombia: Wounaan indigenous people fleeing ancestral lands

Briefing notes

Colombia: Wounaan indigenous people fleeing ancestral lands

7 April 2006

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.