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Colombia: Humanitarian emergency looms for indigenous communities

Briefing notes

Colombia: Humanitarian emergency looms for indigenous communities

4 April 2006

Following a series of very serious incidents in recent days, UNHCR wants to warn of a looming humanitarian emergency among Colombia's indigenous communities. We have repeatedly warned that some of the world's oldest and smallest indigenous groups 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.

In the north-western region of Chocó, more than 1,700 Wounaan indigenous people are fleeing their traditional territory following the murder last week of two of their leaders. Already, residents of four river communities have fled, with some 1,100 people arriving in Unión Wounaan, the group's biggest settlement. Along with Unión Wounaan's 640 inhabitants, the displaced Wounaan now want to flee further downriver to the small town of Istmina. On Monday evening, a first group of 30 people arrived in Istmina saying those still in Unión Wounaan are afraid of coming under attack while fleeing and do not have enough boats to make the trip downriver; their only means of transport through the jungle.

Indigenous associations and local authorities in the area are calling for help from the Colombian government and the international community. The director of UNHCR's bureau for the Americas, who is in Colombia this week, is going to Istmina tomorrow (Wednesday) to meet with the newly displaced and with local authorities.

Panic spread among the Wounaan communities after members of an irregular armed group killed two of their leaders in the space of 24 hours last week. On Thursday, armed men burst into a classroom in Unión Wounaan and left with the school's 37-year-old teacher. The schoolteacher was found dead a few hours later. His body showed signs of torture. The following day, the leader of the Wounaan community was also found dead after being taken away by members of the same irregular armed group. He too was a schoolteacher. There are fears that more assassinations could follow as other leaders have received threats.

On the other side of the country in the south-eastern department of Guaviare, 77 Nukak indigenous people arrived last week in the town of San José del Guaviare. The Nukak are an indigenous group of very limited numbers that until 1988 was unknown to the outside world and lived a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering. In recent years, they have become targets for irregular armed groups who have taken over large parts of their territory.

The 77 people who arrived in San José last week had been walking for four months after being forced to leave their ancestral territory. They appeared to be in poor health and obviously malnourished. They are now staying at a farm just outside San José with another group that arrived in November. They are getting emergency assistance from the Colombian authorities. However, their long-term future remains uncertain. It is crucial to find a solution that will allow them to resume their way of life and preserve their culture.

This new displacement is the third since 2003 and brings to over 220 the number of Nukaks forcibly displaced. This means that about half of the total Nukak population, which is estimated at around 500 people, has been forced out of its ancestral territory.

UNHCR is working closely with indigenous associations to help them defend the rights of their people and our focus is very much on preventing forced displacement through documentation, capacity-building and training.