Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2017, 12:58 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Colombia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Colombia, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 13 December 2017]
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.

Despite official pronouncements touting improved national security, the 44-year-long internal armed conflict in Colombia continues to simmer and is now taking an increasingly heavy toll on African descendant and indigenous communities. Apart from the continuous loss of lives and livelihoods, the greatest threat during 2009 was the ongoing apparent systematic dispossession of communities from large areas of land on which they have lived for scores of years and on which they depend for their subsistence, thereby guaranteeing significant food self-sufficiency. The Colombian NGO CODHES estimates that nearly 4.3 million people have been internally displaced in Colombia over the past two decades, between 200,000 and 300,000 per year. Displaced rural people have few skills beyond farming and few social support structures in the areas to which they are forced to flee.

As the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) grows, humanitarian assistance is becoming ever more costly and difficult to provide. Processing of claims can sometimes take weeks or months and assistance is only temporary, at best. The most IDPs can expect is transitory shelter for two to six months and, regardless of family size, a stipend of about US $500 to help them get re-established wherever they find themselves.

With a government allocation of just US $508 million for IDP relief, during 2009 many IDPs continued to live in unhygienic, desperate and uncertain conditions, with limited access to health care, education, employment or income opportunities. Many IDPs are forced to turn to begging or prostitution, and become particularly vulnerable to trafficking schemes for sexual exploitation or other organized illegal activities. While assistance is provided through government bodies such as Acción Social, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute and the Ministry of Social Protection, international humanitarian support from groups such as the International Organization for Migration, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Colombian Red Cross continue to play a major role.

Population removals

Afro-Colombian human rights groups indicate that of the more than 4 million IDPs in Colombia, over 30 per cent (nearly 1.3 million) are Afro-Colombians. Another 15 per cent (600,000) of the IDPs are from indigenous communities, despite the fact that those who self-identify as indigenous in Colombia make up only 2 per cent of the national population (43 million people). Moreover, the country's April 2009 decision to finally support the UNDRIP is not reflected in existing measures to safeguard the rights of Colombia's indigenous communities. Human rights defenders are concerned at the growing number of Colombia's indigenous communities that now seem threatened with imminent and complete disappearance as a result of violence and dispossession, especially given the close relationship between their lands on the one hand, and identity and culture on the other.

Among the groups particularly affected are Embera, Gauibos and the Siriri-Catleya indigenous communities, including those near the border with Venezuela. According to UNHCR, in early 2009 more than 2,000 indigenous Embera fled from their territory in the department of Choco, leaving 25 villages abandoned. In August 2009, human rights observers reported the massacre of 12 indigenous people, including 7 children in southern Colombia. There were also increasing reports of systematic sexual violence against indigenous women. There are 27 indigenous groups in Colombia that are considered to be at risk of disappearance. And the Colombian Indigenous Organization (CIO) estimates that one indigenous person is murdered every 72 hours.

Activists describe the events occurring in remote rural Colombia as a gradual but inexorable programme of ethnic cleansing. This is allegedly designed to remove indigenous and Afro-Colombian subsistence peasant farming populations from very fertile terrain, in order to usurp the land to grow illicit crops such as coca leaf and opium poppy, or to establish large-scale agro-business ventures, including palm oil plantations and beef cattle production.

New militia groups

In addition to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), there are growing numbers of illegal paramilitary groups operating in the Pacific region of Colombia, especially in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, Choco, Narino and Putumayo. Historically, these areas have had large African descendant populations that traditionally hold communal titles to large areas of fertile land.

The Organization of American States (OAS) estimates that there are approximately 23 new illegal armed groups operating in the country. In addition to operations such as kidnapping for ransom, extortion and cross-border smuggling, Colombia's outlaw militia groups systematically abuse and threaten indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, often giving them no more than 24 hours to vacate their holdings, taking only what they can carry. Consequently, indigenous people and African descendants in the zones of conflict no longer have any faith in the capacity of state security forces to protect them. Many see state operatives as ineffective or as acting in tandem with one or other of the illegal groups. The overwhelming percentage of the personnel in the state forces are conscripts undergoing compulsory military service, who are more interested in ending their terms of duty without being killed than in protecting the civilian population.

One especially disquieting random threat, according to African descendant human rights defenders, is the tendency of security forces to try to produce so-called 'false positives'. There are a number of reports of senior-level military personnel who pay illegal paramilitary groups to forcibly acquire young men, who are turned over to local government brigades which then kill them, dress them up in combat fatigues and present them as guerrillas supposedly killed in successful encounters. Army brigades have also reportedly entered educational institutions and killed young men who were then also dressed up in guerrilla uniforms and presented as dead combatants.

Corruption and impunity

Of great significance to observers who seek an end to the conflict is that those who stand to benefit the most economically from the ongoing dispossession and lawlessness in the country can be found at the very highest levels of the national society. As reported in State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009, investigations by the Supreme Court and prosecutor-general's office established links between politicians and paramilitary groups, and succeeded in implicating 15 governors, 31 mayors and 70 congressional representatives who continued to serve time in jail during 2009. However, activists point out this has done little to improve the situation. During 2009, displacement and violence with impunity have continued to escalate, indicating that the collusion and corruption are pervasive, and that maintaining the conflict continues to enjoy high-level political and economic support.

According to human rights organizations working in the dense forests of the Pacific coast, paramilitary gangs are continuing to seize Afro-Colombian land to facilitate agro-business conglomerates. The land is then transformed by deforestation and elaborate infrastructure, such as highways, drainage canals and agro-business plantations. Moreover, government officials have expressed a desire to see a tenfold increase over the coming decade of areas planted with crops such as African Palm and soybeans. This would mean total crop areas of some 7 million acres, if implemented.

Human rights defenders at risk

The task of bringing the issue to public attention rests largely in the hands of rights defenders. But Afro-Colombian and indigenous human rights defenders continued to be under threat during 2009, both from old militia groups as well as from the increasing number of new armed groups, especially when they openly criticized attacks on the community or voiced concerns about perceived corruption and collusion by official authorities.

During 2009, African descendant and indigenous human rights defenders continued to be subject to harassment by paramilitary groups as well as by the state, with government agents asserting that human rights activists are engaging in activities supporting terrorism and the militia groups just as easily accusing them of working for the government. During 2009, according to UN observers, harassment of indigenous human rights defenders and Afro-Colombian activists included surveillance and wiretapping, forced entry, destruction of human rights defenders' offices, threats by phone and email to individuals and their families, arbitrary arrests and sometimes detention of human rights defenders with unfounded criminal charges being brought against them.

Conflict and the environment

The conflict also has an environmental dimension. Those who are able to remain on their lands were faced with another debilitating problem during 2009. This arose from ongoing international attempts to eradicate illicit crops such as coca by aerial spraying. In April 2009, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime reported that Colombia sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 515 square miles (133,496 hectares) of coca bush cultivation. The chemical also affects regular food crops and livestock in the general vicinity.

In addition to contaminating the food supply, the toxic runoff from the land also kills fish and other aquatic life in the rivers or along the shore, putting these already vulnerable populations at even greater risk. During 2009, African descendant organizations in the Cauca Valley reported that there is now a higher incidence of eye and skin irritation, which the communities attribute to aerial glyphosate dispersal.

Another threat to young Afro-Colombians and indigenous people continues to be the forced recruitment of young males and females to swell the ranks of the guerrillas or outlaw paramilitary groups. A history of official neglect and almost no social investment in predominantly Afro-Colombian and indigenous areas has helped to constrain income-generation and earning opportunities. According to community development activists in the Cauca Valley, offers of combat-pay incentives by the various armed groups now represent the main available income-earning opportunity in these areas; especially since the conflict also severely constrains other traditional survival activities, such as farming and fishing. This all but ensures that another generation of rural Colombians will be drawn into the country's long-running violent, bloody, and increasingly dehumanizing conflict.

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