Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Colombia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Colombia, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.

Education policy

African Colombians and indigenous peoples together constitute a sizeable minority of Colombia's nearly 44 million total population. Approximately 27 per cent of Colombia's population self-identifies as African Colombian and 2 per cent as indigenous.

Article 67 of Colombia's Constitution (1991) deviates from inter-American and international treaty obligations regarding the right to universal free primary education, by requiring payment by those who can afford to pay. This has a direct negative impact on Colombia's African descendant and indigenous populations. Being unable to afford matriculation fees and the costs of uniforms, school supplies and transportation, they are the least educated in the country. In 2008 they continued to make up a disproportionate number of the poorest of the poor.

In a country where the (former) UN Commission on Human Rights once noted that the wealthiest 10 per cent is responsible for 46.9 per cent of all consumer spending, nearly half of Colombia's total population lives below the poverty line. Fully 80 per cent of African Colombians live in extreme poverty.

African Colombians annually earn the equivalent of US $500 per person compared to the average non-African Colombian annual income of US $1,900. The majority of African Colombians are rural subsistence farmers and live in the Choco, the region of Colombia with the absolute lowest levels of health and education service delivery. Most indigenous people live in territorial entities or reservations which are defined as autonomous units in the Colombian Constitution, but their administrative integration has not yet been achieved.

Colombia's national education policies also limit the control the government can exercise in ensuring the quality of schools and teachers that serve these populations. This has led to the mushrooming of so-called 'garage schools' – poor-quality fee-charging private schools which generally lack quality teachers, curricula, learning materials or adequate infrastructure. Often such schools are all that is within the economic reach of African descendant and indigenous populations.

In 2008 African Colombian and indigenous populations had an illiteracy rate of 33 per cent and 31 per cent respectively – nearly three times that of the rest of the population.

Seventy-two per cent of Colombia's indigenous people and 87 per cent of African Colombians over 18 years of age have not completed primary education. At the postgraduate levels, less than 1 per cent (0.71) of enrolled students are indigenous and just 7.07 per cent are African Colombian.

Apart from issues related to adequate access, there were ongoing concerns over education content. In a December 2008 report the Observatory on Racial Discrimination pointed out that, although the Colombian government has adopted measures to implement ethno-education policies and guarantee the right to cultural diversity in education, so far this is limited to hiring teachers with ethno-education training.

There are no institutional measures allowing for the implementation of ethno-education and, in a country where the myth of egalitarian social relations between ethno-racial groups (social democracy) is deeply rooted, the state is yet to adopt measures to eradicate racist stereotypes that persist in the general education system. There are still no tools to educate against racism or promote values of acceptance, tolerance, diversity and respect for indigenous and African descendant cultures. Consequently long-standing practices of racial discrimination remain an integral part of the social, economic and educational structure.

Endless conflict

Despite negotiated ceasefire agreements, violence and territorial dispossession in Colombia continued during 2008.

The long-running internal conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced nearly 3 million people.

Some paramilitaries have refused to demobilize and others have returned to violence, including selected and systematic threats and killings of leaders and rights advocates, and illegal usurpation of community lands.

In 1993, under Federal Law 40, African Colombian communities were granted legal right to over 15 million acres of land (nearly 5 per cent of Colombia's territory). Much of it is now greatly desired by expansionists making all rural ADP a targeted population. Among African Colombians, the probability of being displaced is 84 per cent higher than for the majority mestizo population and African Colombians now represent 30 per cent of all Colombia's IDPs.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has noted that forced displacement has become a 'tool of dispossession' aimed at acquiring land for the benefit of large landowners, narcotraffickers, and private enterprise initiatives.

In 2008, female African Colombian Senator and rights campaigner Piedad Córdoba, who campaigned strongly for Law 40 and was herself once taken hostage, continued to play mediating role, helping broker the release of hostages and to advocate for a commitment by all factions involved to develop a political settlement.

War and education

The conflict continues to have a devastatingly disproportional effect on minorities and is another factor seriously hampering ADP and IP access to quality education. African Colombian and indigenous peoples have been forced into extreme poverty and driven into displaced person camps, and are now part of the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDP) in any country in the Western Hemisphere. The Colombian NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) estimated that during the first six months of 2008 alone, 270,675 persons were displaced – a 41 per cent increase compared to 2007.

Although collectively constituting under 30 per cent of Colombia's total population, African Colombians and indigenous people together make up 46 per cent of all IDPs. Significantly, indigenous people, who make up just 2 per cent of the national total, account for 16 per cent of all IDPs.

The government Social Solidarity Network found that housing quality, sanitation access, education levels and employment levels of IDPs are always lower than for poor people who are not displaced. Half of all displaced persons live in shantytown homes made of cloth, cardboard or wood scraps. Education is both economically and physically difficult.

Indigenous and African descendant children's schooling is disrupted or permanently abandoned by displacement. In addition, paramilitary groups enter low-income areas and refugee camps with cash offers and/or threats with the aim of recruiting children.

Minors are forced to drop out of school and thereafter fighting becomes their principal 'educational' experience. Minors now make up at least 15 per cent of paramilitary group members and in some areas as many as 50 per cent.

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