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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Colombia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Colombia, May 2008, available at: [accessed 27 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: May 2008


Colombia is the fourth largest country in Latin America (1,141,748 square kilometres) and has the second largest population (over 44 million inhabitants). Colombia is bordered to the east by Venezuela and Brazil; to the south by Ecuador and Peru; to the North by the Atlantic Ocean, through the Caribbean Sea; and to the west by Panama and the Pacific Ocean.


Colombia's history has been characterized by frequent periods of political violence and protracted civil war dating back to as early as the second half of the 19th century. The historic origins of the conflict can be traced back to traditional power struggles for political dominance and control of natural resources (e.g. land) waged between ruling political elites of the conservative (PC) and liberal parties (PL). The periods of 1899-1903 and 1948-1953 (La Violencia) were marked by bloody civil war and enduring phases of high intensity violence resulting in at least 200,000 deaths. (International Crisis Group - ICG, 2006).

In 1958 the PL and the PC formed a power sharing arrangement which excluded other political parties, sparking the emergence of the left wing guerrilla movements: Ejercito de Liberation Nacional (ELN), Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejercito del Pueblo (FARC-EP), and into the 1970s the M-19 movement whose leaders eventually laid down their arms in 1989 and later became highly visible and influential in conventional politics.

The nature and roots of Colombia's conflict have evolved over time. Today the conflict is deemed to be less based on political ideology and much more rooted in territorial and natural resource control involving international private capital, drug traffickers, right wing paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, government forces, and military and economic interventions from powerful western governments such as the United States.

Initially the ELN and FARC declared their aims to be ridding the country of corrupt neo-imperialistic ruling elite whose power had always been based on patronage and exclusion (ICG, 2006). According to guerrilla propaganda such elites remain guilty of dispossessing the masses of their right and access to the land, and continue to exclude them from enjoying the benefits of the country's wealth.

But the conflict has persisted with both left wing and right wing armed groups becoming heavily involved in and reliant on the narcotics trade as a means of funding their war and amassing private wealth. Today the paramilitaries and drug traffickers are said to control over 40% of the nation's cultivable land and the FARC are currently recognized as being the most wealthy and powerful organized rebel group in Latin America, who now control a quarter of Colombian national territory (American Anthropological Association (AAA), 2003).

The greatest number of victims are civilians, and the majority of these are drawn from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, who as a result of the conflict have become victims of severe human rights violations, including forced displacements and disappearances, kidnappings, massacres, selected and systematic killings of their leaders, and the illegal usurpation of their lands, amongst other crimes. Such groups have become deeply marginalized and neglected by the state, and are worst affected by the violence. They also continue to suffer the highest levels of poverty and lack access to basic social services such as healthcare and education.

However, it must be stressed that this pattern of abuse did not start in the present round of conflict, but throughout their collective history, beginning in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the conquest of the Spanish colonists.

The indigenous peoples were known to have lived on their territories for hundreds of years before Columbus' arrival. The conquest led to the enslavement, and physical and cultural decimation of the indigenous peoples, forced displacement from their ancestral lands, and the plundering of the natural resources found within them. 100 years after the colonial invasion the indigenous population had been reduced by 90% and by the beginning of the sixteenth century the colonists were shipping in African slaves to replace them as manpower. (DANE, 2005).

By 1520 the colonists were shipping in 4000 African slaves every year, the majority of whom ended up working the plantations and mines. However by the end of the 16th century slave revolts and break-outs began to constitute a grave problem for the Spanish crown, as escaped slaves, who became known as Cimarrons began to organize politically and militarily in maroon or palenque communities which they protected with fences and arms (DANE 2005). The palenque community of San Basilio in the municipality of Mahates de Bolivar established in 1603 has been declared as the first free town of the Americas. It was able to survive through colonialism and its inhabitants have been able to preserve their culture until the present day, which is expressed through their language and traditional Afro-centric culture (DANE, 2005).

The Roma also constitute a significant ethnic minority in Colombia and their roots can be traced back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus who was said to have brought 4 gypsies to the Americas on his third expedition. These four were said to have been beneficiaries of a 'pardon' granted to them by the Spanish crown which gave them the opportunity to set up home and begin afresh in the newly discovered Americas (DANE 2005).

By the 1970s indigenous and Afro-Colombian political and social movements became more consolidated and coherent in their strategies for the defence of their cultures, identities, land rights, traditional knowledge systems, languages and autonomy. Such struggles were later to be brought to fruition in the Constitution of 1991 which made minorities more visible in national life and sought to guarantee their fundamental human, political, social, economic and cultural rights.


Main languages: Spanish, 64 official indigenous languages, Bande, Creole, Palanquero

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism, indigenous and Afro-Colombian religions.

Main minority groups: 1,378.884 (3,4%) people belonging to various indigenous groups, 4,261,996 (10,5%) Afro-Colombians and 4.832 (0.01%) Roma (gypsies), Mestizo 58%, White 20%, Mulatto 14% (DANE 2005, CIA Factbook 2006)

Colombia has more than eighty indigenous peoples living in a variety of ecological zones and the second largest African descendent population in Latin America after Brazil which includes palenqueros, the descendants of maroon communities, and raizales, the English speaking Caribbean communities, in San Andres and Providencia.


Before the 1991 constitution, indigenous peoples were not recognised as equal citizens within the Colombian state and were not granted individual or collective civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights under Colombian law. Until then, indigenous peoples were defined and treated by the terms laid down in the law 089 of November 1890 which determined that the government in agreement with the church would decide on the way in which the Salvajes (savages) should be governed. The same law reduced the indigenous peoples to the status of children or 'minors' specifically in regards to the management of the reservations 'resguardos' which had been created and granted to them under Spanish colonial rule (DANE, 2005).

Although the original resguardo system established by colonists represented a strategy for social control, exploitation and segregation of the indigenous peoples (DANE, 2005), it later became the legal entity in which indigenous land rights became vested, and for which indigenous groups fought as part of their struggle for the reclamation of their rights. The movement initiated by the Paez farmer Manuel Quintin Lame, between 1910 and 1940 became the leading model and source of inspiration for successive indigenous movements and activists during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

After much protest and organizing during the 1970s and 1980s there was large-scale titling of forest lands in indigenous communities. The government recognized the territorial rights of indigenous groups over some 1.8 million square kilometres of its Amazon area. Until the late 1980s it applied only to the lands of indigenous groups outside the forest areas who could base their claims on ancient title.

Colombia's constitution of 1991 drawn up by the National Constituent Assembly recognizes and protects the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian nation. It concedes to minorities, ethnic, cultural, and territorial rights, and the right to autonomy and participation. It also declares the equality and dignity of all cultures as fundamental to national identity. It recognizes the languages spoken in Colombia as being official in the territories in which they are spoken. The Constitution also enshrines the right to bilingual and ethno-education for all minority groups and proffers double nationality to indigenous communities living in border areas (DANE, 2005).

As a result, minority ethnic groups have gained greater access and representation within national government and actively participate in political life at both regional and local level. Such developments have also led to the creation and development of independent and state funded minority focused institutions which have offered minority issues greater visibility and led to the limited political empowerment of these communities. Such institutions, include the Department for Ethnic Affairs within the Ministry of the Interior, the National Commission on Indigenous Rights, the National Indigenous Policy Council, the Afro-Colombian Mayors Council (AMUNAFRO) and the Congressional Black Associates, amongst many others. Indigenous councils and organizations have also become legally recognized and in ancestral territories or resguardos indigenous systems of justice are also officially recognized as holding jurisdiction.

In 1993 the National Constituent Assembly passed the law 60 (ley 60) which stipulated that the indigenous reservations would benefit from a certain percentage of state resource allocation proportional to the population found in the designated territory. In the same year, as a result of intense political pressure and campaigning from Afro-Colombian communities, the Constituent Assembly passed the law 70 (ley 70), which granted land titles for the collective territories of Afro-Colombian communities.

In 1999 the Roma population was recognized for the first time as a national ethnic group through resolution 0222 of 2 September of that year (DANE, 2005).

Non-implementation of Laws

However, despite these important political advances, in reality, application of these laws has been somewhat inconsistent and patchy, and in the worst of cases simply disregarded. For example, in the same year of 1993 when the law 60 and 70 were passed, ONIC, the National Colombian Indigenous Organization, issued a region by region protest concerning government failure to provide land titles, and against continuing invasion by colonists. ONIC sees the granting of land to forest peoples under the resguardo system as an advantage, but this land is subsequently being declared 'empty' and therefore the property of the state.

Among Afro-Colombians, Federal Law 70 only applies to the Pacific communities, but while it limits the use these communities make of natural resources, no such limitations are set on the activities of private national and international logging, oil, mining and biofuel companies. Subsequent laws on mining and other forms of resources extraction have served only to undermine provisions outlined in the constitution of 1991 guaranteeing minorities territorial rights and the right to manage the resources found within those territories.

Laws to limit migration from the mainland of Colombia in order to protect the indigenous Afro-Colombian raizal community in San Andres and Providencia have been poorly enforced and the raizal language and way of life are threatened by the wholesale buying and appropriation of the islanders lands by the tourism industry and foreign and mainland Colombian colonists (OHCHR, 2004).

Military aid and coca production

After Israel and Egypt, Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid. Since the signing into law of Plan Colombia in 2000 under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Andres Pastrana, Colombia has received an estimated $US 600 million dollars annually in aid according to BBC reports 2003) and the large flow has continued during the Uribe administration.

Plan Colombia represents the US' controversial anti-narcotics strategy in the country which provides both military assistance (80%) to the government (technical and economic) to fight the 'war on drugs' and assistance for the restructuring of the country's economy (20%) (AAA, 2003). To date the plan has largely failed to meet its stated objectives of eradicating or substantially reducing the area of coca crops growing in the region. In contrast studies have shown that since its implementation in 2000 the area of crops grown has actually increased by 27% (Guardian, 05/06/07) and the price of cocaine on US streets has largely remained intact (AAA, 2003) Moreover Colombia still accounts for nearly 60% of the world's supply, according to the US drug enforcement administration.

Aside from these failures the Plan has been associated with much controversy. It has been criticized by human rights and civil society organisations for the adverse effects of the aerial fumigation program on the country's environment and civilian populations. The Plan is also criticized for the countless human rights abuses committed by paramilitaries working in conjunction with the state military in receipt of US aid. In particular, indigenous and other minority groups have been detrimentally affected and consider Plan Colombia to be "the military arm of a repressive U.S. economic policy in Latin America" (AAA, 2003).

According to the U.N.-sponsored International Verification Mission on the Humanitarian and Human Rights - Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia, 45 percent of all of the indigenous deaths in the last 30 years occurred within the first Uribe term which coincided with the beginning of Plan Colombia. However despite such controversy and criticism, under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez, Colombia continues to push for the continuation of the Plan and is considered as one of Washington's closest allies in the wider 'war on terror' in South America.

President Alvaro Uribe Velez

Alvaro Uribe Velez whose father was assassinated in 1983 by the FARC, came to power in 2002 with a hard-line election promise of cracking down on the guerrillas through his policy of 'democratic security'. Uribe was formerly governor of the department of Antioquia (1995-1998) where he proactively pushed for the creation of the network of rural security co-operatives, known as CONVIVIR, which sewed the seeds for the later establishment of the powerful right-wing paramilitary organization: Autodefensas de Colombia (AUC) (BBC, 07/08/02).

In 2006 he was re-elected for a second term running. From 2004 Uribe worked towards securing the demobilization of the paramilitaries and pushed through the new and extremely controversial Justice and Peace Law of 2005 (ley 975/05) which forms the legal basis for the process of justice, reconciliation and reparation for victims of the crimes perpetrated by the illegal armed actors within the conflict.

These moves have been welcomed as advances and funded by certain sectors of the international community, but indigenous, civil society and human rights groups have been less satisfied believing that law 0975/05 in realty serves only to consolidate impunity, does not offer adequate justice or reparation to victims, and excludes the investigation or prosecution of crimes committed directly by the state. In response, civil society and indigenous communities have organized national and regional victims' coalition movements (Movimiento de Victimas de los Crimines del Estado) which call for greater justice and reparations for victims and their loved ones, including the return and/or information on the whereabouts of the disappeared. They also specifically work to expose the crimes committed by the state including those carried out jointly by the army and AUC.

During his time in office Uribe has pushed through radical economic neo-liberal reforms, which while pleasing to the US, the World Bank and IMF, have been strongly rejected by many sectors of civil society. In particular, and worst hit by far-reaching structural adjustments programmes, are small farmers and the wider rural population. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have been disproportionately affected due to the fact that the majority of these populations reside mainly in rural areas (AAA, 2003).

The government and the US Congress remain eager for the signing of a new TLC agreements which are due to be ratified later on this year. In response large scale protest marches in different parts of the country have been organized over the years which have been met on many occasions with violence and brutality from state-security services, blockades and the illegal detention of indigenous rights activists often accused of being collaborators with the FARC, who in turn have been seen as guilty of infiltrating such marches.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Amnesty International
Tel: +57-1-334-5632

Association of Afro-Descendent Municipalities (AMUNAFRO)
Tel: +57-552-3431

Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos
Tel: +57-1-288-0416, 288-4772

Colectivo de Abogados 'Jose Alvear Restrepo' (CAJAR)

Movimiento Nacional Afrocolombiano Cimarrón
Tel: +57-1-284-8431

Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia
Tel: +57-1-284-6815


Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN)

Asociación de Afrocolombianos Desplazados (AFRODES)

Association of Afro-Descendent Municipalities (AMUNAFRO)
Tel: +57-552-3431

Movimiento Nacional Afrocolombiano Cimarrón
Tel: +57-1-284-8431

Colombia: Paez and Guambiano
NASA KIWE Corporation


ASO U'wa - Autoridades Tradicionales Indígenas U'was del departamento de Boyacá
Tel: +57 883 8109/097 637 3354


Organización Indígena Kankuama (OIK)
Tel: +57-095 573 4221/570 7252


OREWA -Organización Regional Embera Wounan de Choco
Tel: 094 671 2340/094 671 9315

Cabildo Mayor Embera Katio del Alto Sinu (CAMAEMKA)
Tel: +57 094 777 1603
Fax: +57 094 768 9424

Sources and further reading


Bodley, John H. Victims of Progress. Mayfield. 1990.

Friedemann, N.S. de and Arocha, J., 'Colombia', in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995.

Gates, H.L. and Appiah, Africana, 2006.

Gray, Andrew. The Amerindians of South America. Minority Rights Group.1987.

Jackson, J, The Crisis in Colombia: Consequences for Indigenous Peoples, American Anthropological Association, March 2003

Kucharz, T, Ecología Social: Palma de muerte: un arrasamiento de tierras a sangre y fuego,, 15/01/07

Mosquera, J. de D., Las comunidades negras de Colombia, Bogotá, Movimiento Nacional Cimarrón, 1993.

ONIC, La ONIC Frente al Paramilitarismo en Colombia y el Proceso de Impunidad, June 2007

Pearce, J., Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth, London, Latin America Bureau, 1990.

Rappaport, J., The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.

Wade, Peter, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.


Friedemann, N.S. de and Arocha, J., 'Colombia', in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995.

Inter-Agency Consultation on Race in Latin America ( Black Americas, and meeting summaries.

Mosquera, J. de D., Las comunidades negras de Colombia, Bogotá, Movimiento Nacional Cimarrón, 1993.

Wade, Peter, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

González Camargo, M, Etnia Movimiento Social y Discriminación. Las dinámicas de reivindicación afro en Colombia.

Paez and Guambiano

Organización Nacional Indigena de Colombia ONIC,

Rappaport, J., The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.


Rappaport, J., The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.


Rappaport, J., The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.

Nukak and Tukano

Århem, Kaj 1981. Makuna social organization. A study in descent, alliance and the formation of corporate groups in the North- Western Amazon. USCA 4. Uppsala/Estocolmo: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Århem, Kaj 2002. Animals have culture too: Animism among the Tukanoans. Acta Americana, 10/2. Uppsala/Estocolmo: SAMS.

Brandhuber, Gabriele 1999. Why Tukanoans migrate? Some remarks on conflict on the Upper Rio Negro, (Brazil). JSAP 85.

Buchillet, Dominique 1983. Gender ideology and social relations in the Northwest Amazon. Working Papers on South American Indians, No 5.

Contreras Vásquez, Julián 1989. Marriage, language, and history among the Eastern Tukanoan speaking peoples of the Northwest Amazon. Latin American Anthropology Review 1/2: 36-42.

Jackson, Jean E. 1976. Vaupés marriage: a network system in the Northwest Amazon. En: C.A. Smith (comp.), Regional analysis, vol. 2, Social systems: 65-93. New York: Academic Press.

Jackson, Jean E. 1983. The Fish People. Linguistic exogamy and Tukanoann identity in Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge: CUP.

Jackson, Jean E. 1984. Vaupés marriage practices. En: K. Kensinger (ed.), Marriage practices in Lowland South America: 156- 179.

Jackson, Jean E. 1988. Gender relations in the central Northwest Amazon. Antropológica 70: 17-68. Caracas.

Jackson, Jean E. 1991a. Being and becoming an Indian in the Vaupés. En: G. Urban & J. Sherzer (comp.), Nation-States and Indians in Latin-America: 131-155. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Jackson, Jean E. 1991b. Hostile encounters between Nukak and Tukanoans: changing ethnic identity in the Vaupés. The Journal of Ethnic Studies 19/2: 17-39.

Jackson, Jean E. 1995. Culture, genuine and spurious: the politics of Indianness in the Vaupés, Colombia. AE 22/1: 3-27.

Rappaport, J., The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo 1996. The forest within: the world-view of the Tukano Amazonian Indians. Themis Books.

Urban, G. and Sherzer, J. (eds), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.


Fundación Hemera: Comunicación, vida y desarrollo, Tensa calma en la Sierra: Situación del Pueblo Kankuamo, Bogota, September 2006.


Resguardo Indígena Unido U'wa, Cubara, Boyacá, Comunicado a la Opinión Nacional e Internacional, Colombia, January 2007.

Informe especial: U'was Tienen Derecho A Seguir Siendo Lo Que Han Siendo, 2007

Osorio, C J, " Esa ley la tengo en el corazón y el casete, metido aquí en la cabeza" Dice máximo emblema U'wa", Actualidad Étnica, 06/07/2007.


Consejo de Autoridades Indígenas del Choco - OREWA, Comunicado a la Opinión Publica, June 1 2007.

ONIC, Alerta desde el Choco!!, Comunicado a la Opinión Publica, 23 April 2007,

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