Colombia: Indians Neither Museum Exhibits Nor Tourist Attractions

(IPS) – Indigenous people in Colombia today are elected to office as legislators, governors, mayors and city councillors. But their communities continue to be seen as marginal, ignorant or mired in the deepest poverty.

Many are actually professionals in a wide range of disciplines and others are renowned painters, writers or poets.

Nevertheless, the majority live under the tyranny of not only "the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes" — as Irish writer Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) described poverty — but also marginalisation, racism and virtual invisibility.

According to figures from the National Department of Statistics, there are currently around 800,000 indigenous people living in the 32 departments (provinces) of Colombia, mainly in the country’s tropical rainforest region.

Like the other 43 million inhabitants of Colombia, the members of the 84 existing indigenous communities, who speak 64 languages and 300 dialects, are represented in the Colombian Congress.

Senators Jesús Piñacué, of the southern Nasa people, and Ramiro Estacio, of the southwestern Pasto people, were elected to office as candidates of the Indigenous Social Alliance and Indigenous People for Colombia, respectively.

Orsinia Polanco, a Wayúu indigenous woman and member of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole, represents indigenous Colombians in the Chamber of Deputies.

Indigenous people also have a prominent presence in Colombian arts and literature. Painter Kindi Llajtu is from Manoy in the southern department of Putumayo and speaks Inga, a Quechua dialect. She is a fine arts graduate of the National University of Colombia and has received numerous national and international prizes.

Poet Fredy Chicangana, of the Yanacona people of southwest Colombia, won the National University Poetry Prize in 1995, in addition to a number of other prestigious awards.

"We have excelled in many sectors of Colombian life, but we continue to be treated as ignorant, marginal or victims of ‘absolute poverty’, as we were defined in Law 89 of 1890, which is still in force," said Rafael Epiayú, a member of the executive committee of the Colombian National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC).


The 1991 constitution allowed for more active participation by indigenous people in Colombian political life, but it merely opened up a crack in the barriers they face. Many of the landmark gains achieved through the new constitution "have never amounted to more than paper," Epiayú told IPS.

With the incorporation of indigenous representatives in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1991 constitution and their subsequent constitutional recognition, indigenous ethnic groups obtained a number of historic victories.

They were able to gain access to the national Congress, departmental assemblies, mayor’s offices and municipal councils through public elections.

They were granted recognition of the ownership of their lands, the establishment of indigenous reservations, and the right to exercise their traditional forms of self-government in their own territories. In addition, they won recognition of their ethnic and cultural rights and the right to autonomy and participation.

Other achievements included the designation of indigenous languages and dialects as official languages in the territories where they are spoken, respect for the right to bilingual and intercultural education, and dual citizenship for those who live in border regions.

Nevertheless, "serious problems persist in health and education, and the state funds earmarked to maintain the 567 indigenous reservations in Colombia grow smaller every day," maintained Epiayú.

"While state funding amounted to eight billion pesos annually (just over four million dollars) 10 years ago, today it has been reduced to one eighth of that," he said.

Moreover, indigenous representation in Congress has had little impact because "most of the bills put forward to benefit indigenous communities have not been passed," he added.

In Epiayú’s opinion, the government has progressively undermined the victories achieved in the constitution. "It has adopted reforms to the law on land, forests and the environment that in most cases have benefited multinational corporations that exploit the country’s resources," he said.

Meanwhile, the ongoing armed conflict has forced indigenous populations into a corner and made them targets for right-wing paramilitary groups, left-wing rebel forces and the army.

"Forced displacement puts them in danger, not only as individuals, but also as communities," IPS was told by a source from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who asked to remain anonymous.

Culturally, contact with outsiders "also challenges the customs of these communities." A prime example is that of the Nukak Makú, considered one of the last surviving nomadic peoples in the world, who live in the southern jungles of Guaviare.

The growing colonisation of their territory by farmers seeking to cash in on the coca boom has had a devastating impact on their communities, according to the Human Genetics Institute at the Javeriana University of Bogotá.


The quality of life of indigenous people today does not reflect the rights they have achieved on paper. Their territories continue to be usurped by settlers, large landholders and drug traffickers; the land they have ownership over is largely of poor quality; and basic needs such as health care, education, food and housing are not met, according to the multidisciplinary Hemera Foundation.

The also live under "constant physical and cultural attack from the state, the Catholic Church and international religious missions," it adds.

In Colombia, the most critical rates of poverty are found in black and indigenous communities, yet there is no awareness of the fact that this constitutes racial discrimination, says African-Colombian community leader Juan de Dios Mosquera. In his view, there are two forms of segregation: one is concrete and objective, while the other is ideological and subjective.

The first is practiced by the state and the ruling classes, who have kept the country’s black and indigenous communities in a state of physical isolation, backwardness and inequality since the abolition of slavery, he said.

The second resides in the attitudes of Colombians and the persistence of prejudice and verbal racism against African descendants and indigenous people, added Mosquera.


Colombia’s indigenous peoples refuse to be viewed as museum exhibits or archaeological, historical or tourist attractions.

"We are not descendants of forgotten legends. We are alive and our culture has never perished despite centuries of attack," Alfonso Fonseca, head of the Muisca town council in Cota, located half an hour north of Bogotá, told IPS.

For his part, Luis Evelis Andrade, president of ONIC, told IPS: "We are waging a fierce battle to keep from being absorbed by mainstream society and to keep our territories from becoming a pie to be sliced up and shared around."

ONIC, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, reaffirmed its call for an "inclusive and multicultural country" at a meeting of more than 2,000 delegates in early December.

Indigenous Colombians are seeking "multiethnic and multicultural coexistence, in solidarity with the construction of an autonomous national project," according to an official ONIC statement.

A number of indigenous leaders told IPS that they want to strengthen self-government based on their own laws.

"The whites have their laws, and we need laws that do not destroy our cultures, that strengthen them and respect our millennia-old history," stressed Epiayú.