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Colombia’s indigenous: death, survival, and resistance

Despite the state of impoverishment and tension that characterises their lives due to acts of violence in their territories, more than one million indigenous people are fighting for their identity in multi-ethnic and multicultural Colombia.


Indigenas Colombianos - Foto Wikipedia
Photo Wikipedia

Tania Peña


86 different indigenous groups, speaking 65 different languages, have been recognised in the South America country. According to expert studies, the most numerous of these groups is the Nasa, who live either side of the central Andes, in Cauca Department, in the southwest of the country.

And it’s precisely in this part of the country that the first modern-day organisation for the recognition of indigenous peoples emerged, in 1972 when Nasas, Guambianos, and Yanaconas came together to form the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca. The next most numerous group is the Wayú, a society of shepherds who inhabit the semi-arid lands of La Guajira Peninsula.

A third important demographic group is the Emberaes, who populate the humid rainforests in the west of the country.

Indigenas Colombianos - Foto Wikipedia 2
Photo Wikipedia

The Nasa, Wayú, Emberaes, and Nariñenses make up nearly 60% of Colombia’s indigenous population.

The indigenous populations in the Amazonian south of the country are estimated to number 50,000, spread over about 50 different ethnic groups and 10 linguistic families.

Carl Henrik Langebaek, anthropologist and vice chancellor of the Universidad de los Andes, claims that the native population numbered around 7 million in 1492, which, even if it were slightly exaggerated, would debunk the idea of a land uninhabited upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

The original indigenous settlers first moved from north to south, but later also migrated south to north, from the lowlands to the Andes, and vice-versa.

This, the renowned academic told the Colombian magazine Semana, explains why the indigenous population was already mixed upon the arrival of the Spanish, owing to different genetic and cultural mixing.

Sizeable groups inhabited certain parts of the country, including the Central Andes, Alto Magdalena, the Bogotá savannah, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. There was a smaller presence in other regions such as the Amazon, the western plains, and the Caribbean coast.

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Photo Wikipedia

In spite of the extermination of the native population carried out by the conquistadors, Colombia’s indigenous population survived, not only in biological terms but also through miscegenation and culturally, Langebaek pointed out.

Nowadays the indigenous population is concentrated in the departments of Vaupés (66%), Guainía (64%), La Guajira (45%), Vichada (45%), and Amazonas (43%). Also, to a lesser extent, in Cauca (22%) and Putumayo (21%).

From an economic point of view, some of the indigenous groups could be classified as peasant farmers, while others live in urban areas and some are traders. Some 75% of Colombia’s indigenous population live in rural areas.

Among the indigenous groups with a strong presence in Colombia is the Embera-Chamí (“mountain people”). It is estimated that there are around 30,000 Embera-Chamí in Colombia, spread across the departments of Risaralda, Caldas, Antioquia, Caquetá, and Valle del Cauca.

 Killings and struggles

A study carried out by the National Indigenous Organisation (Organización Nacional Indígena, ONIC) revealed that “25 indigenous leaders and traditional indigenous authorities and 24 members of Community Action Boards” were murdered in Colombia over the course of 2016 and the first part of 2017.

Indigenas Colombianos Arhuacos - Foto Wikimedia Commons
Arhuacos – Photo Wikimedia Commons

Paradoxically, several of the crimes were committed in regions of the country that have been prioritised for the implementation of the peace deal signed between the government and the ex-guerrilla fighters of FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the ONIC highlighted in their report.

The ONIC themselves have denounced the murder of Cauca’s indigenous governor Oscar Tenorio Sunscue, the perpetrators of which remain unknown. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said they are monitoring the incident.

The ONIC also drew attention to the attack suffered by  another governor, Pete Vivas, who was attacked by unknown assailants when he stated his intention to meet the commitments of the exercise of traditional power.

The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca and the ONIC urged the public prosecutor, the attorney general and the ombudsman to investigate the evidence and identify the perpetrators of the attacks.

Three days after the massacre of peasant farmers in Tumaco, Department of Nariño, an indigenous journalist was shot at as she covered a confrontation between community landholders and the police in the municipality of Coconuco, in the west of Cauca.

Indigenas Colombianos Policía e indigenas Wayuu, una sola cultura Foto Flickr
Policía e indigenas Wayuu, una sola cultura – Photo Flickr

What happened in Coconuco, according to experts, related to an age-old conflict between community landholders, landowners, and businessmen.

The large majority of land in Colombia that favours the sowing and cultivation of crops is owned by large agro-industrial businessmen.

Just 12% of the land that makes up indigenous reservations is suitable for livestock production and farming, and the remaining 82% covers lands suitable for forestry activities, of which 18% are wastelands, the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Cauca stated. (PL)

(Translated by Matthew Rose – Email:

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