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Colombia’s indigenous communities face extinction

Colombia’s indigenous communities face extinction, UN agency warns

A humanitarian emergency is looming among Colombia’s indigenous communities, with some threatened with extinction in the South American country’s decades-long civil conflict, as irregular armed groups encroach upon their land, even torturing and killing their leaders, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.

In the north-western region of Chocó, more than 1,700 Wounaan indigenous people are fleeing their traditional territory following the murder last week of two of their leaders, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in the latest of a long series of warnings it has issued over the past two years.

“We have repeatedly warned that some of the world’s oldest and smallest indigenous groups are at high risk not only of displacement, but even of extinction because of the Colombian conflict,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva. “All indigenous communities have close links to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends.”

More than 40 years of fighting between Government forces, leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries, as well as other violence, has already displaced 2 million Colombians, with the country’s 1 million indigenous people particularly affected.

Indigenous associations and local authorities in Chocó are calling for help from the Government and the international community, and the director of UNHCR’s bureau for the Americas is going to the regional town of Istmina tomorrow to meet with the newly displaced and with local authorities.

Panic spread among the Wounaan after an irregular armed group killed two of their leaders in the space of 24 hours last week. Last Thursday, armed men burst into a classroom in Unión Wounaan and left with the school’s 37-year-old teacher. He was found dead a few hours later, his body showing signs of torture.

The following day, the leader of the Wounaan community was also found dead after being taken away by members of the same irregular armed group. He too was a schoolteacher. There are fears that more assassinations could follow as other leaders have received threats.

On the other side of the country in the south-eastern department of Guaviare, 77 Nukak indigenous people arrived last week in the town of San José del Guaviare, having walked for four months after being forced to leave their ancestral territory.

The Nukak are an indigenous group of very limited numbers that until 1988 was unknown to the outside world and lived a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering. In recent years, they have become targets for irregular armed groups who have taken over large parts of their territory. They appeared to be in poor health and clearly malnourished. However, their long-term future remains uncertain. It is crucial to find a solution that will allow them to resume their way of life and preserve their culture.

“UNHCR is working closely with indigenous associations to help them defend the rights of their people and our focus is very much on preventing forced displacement through documentation, capacity-building and training,” Mr. Spindler said.

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