• Indigenous peoples in Colombia

    Indigenous peoples in Colombia

    The indigenous population in Colombia is estimated at 1,500,000 inhabitants, or 3.4 per cent of the total population. Along with many campesinos and Afro-Colombian, many indigenous peoples in the country continue to struggle with forced displacement and landlessness as a result of the long term armed conflict in Colombia.
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The Arhuacos’ last stand in the heights of Sierra Nevada

Indigenous communities’ livelihood in Colombia is threatened as they are struggling to keep their ancestral territory. The Arhuaco peoples have organised themselves and are making a last stand to prevent more mining concessions in their territory and create sustainable development.

High up in the beautiful mountains of Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in the north of Colombia, the remaining settlements from the Arhuaco peoples are located. Having already had to flee once in their history. When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they chose to live in this remote and difficult to access location in the hope of being able to live undisturbed and in accordance with their cultural beliefs. However, external forces are once again threatening to destroy their ways of living, as the mountains are rich in minerals and the ecosystem is fragile to climate change.

“We don’t understand how people cannot see the damage they are doing to nature, and this won’t only affect us. The lack of life will also affect them, the non-indigenous peoples”, says the Council Leader Jose María Arroyo from the Arhuaco community.

To support their struggle and raise the awareness of the issues facing the Arhuaco peoples, IWGIA has helped produce this eye-opening documentary that you can watch here

Land rights are essential for Arhuaco’s survival

Together with three other indigenous peoples (Kogui, Wiwa and Kankwamo), the Arhuaco’s territory cover all the Sierra Nevada of Santa Maria mountain range and highlands. Today, part of this area is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and it covers three different climatic zones. Furthermore, the 32 mountain rivers make a vital contribution to Colombia’s economy and the surrounding areas.

When the Spanish conquerors arrived, most of the indigenous peoples fled from the low-land and chose to seek refuge in the upper parts of their territory, where they continued their lifestyle and their traditions. The Arhuaco peoples are highly spiritual and their understanding of the world is based upon the idea that the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world, surrounded by an invisible “black-line” (línea negra) that encompasses the sacred sites of their ancestors and demarcates their territory. Furthermore, the Arhuaco peoples consider themselves as the “older brothers” (hermanos mayores) of the world and they have a special responsibility for keeping the world in balance.

“For us the Arhuaco, our territory is the basis of our knowledge and it forms the setting in which our culture is able to develop”, says Rubiel Zalabata from the Arhuaco community.

Today, more than 50.000 indigenous persons live in 52 settlements in and they have formed their own government and received status as an indigenous reserve in 1974 and as a protected area in 1984. This was partly due to a strong organisational process started by the Arhuaco peoples based on ethnic demands and recognition from the State.

However, the protected area is only covering half of their initial territory estimated to be approximately 600.000 hectares (nearly the size of Puerto Rico). The Arhuaco peoples have since tried to control their recognised territory and started the process of claiming the whole territory, but new obstacles have continued to arise.

Growing pressure from extractive industries and climate change

The Sierra Nevada of Santa Maria is rich on precious minerals, and extractive industries have for several decades pushed for a license to operate in the area. Some have already succeeded in getting access by the government and, currently, 261 mining concessions have already been given and 244 concessions are pending the governments final decision. However, the Arhuacos have not been included in these decisions and processes. In 2017, it led to a massive protest against the mining projects and their destructive impact on their territories.

“The Sierra holds mineral wealth that dates back to the creation of the world, and these natural treasures, (…) now form a threat to us because environmental permits are being granted for mineral and hydrocarbon exploitation”, explains Leonor Zalabata, Human Rights Commissioner.

Furthermore, global climate change effects are already affecting their lives in the high altitudes where the wind and rain patterns have changed, affecting their harvest from small-scale crops that are their main source of income.

The Arhuaco peoples want a development that guarantees life

Arhuaco’s protests are, however, often rejected based on arguments stating that they are against all forms of development, but this argument is not giving the Arhuaco peoples full credit for their vision.

“Our peoples have stated that we are in no way against a vision of development, against a vision of well-being (..). We have said that we must reach co-existence agreements, in which we can discuss our survival as peoples. So that indigenous and non-indigenous alike can survive in the future.” Explains Arukin Torres from the Arhuaco community.

According to the Ahuarco peoples, the key for all humans to survive means a development that ensures the right to life:

“For us, development is that which guarantees life. Not only now, but for the future. But the way things are going using everything up, there will be no life. With neither air or water life is not possible.” Continues Arukin Torres.

You can read more about the situation of indigenous peoples in Colombia here >>


Tags: Land rights



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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