BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Colombia’s Indians from the Embera indigenous tribe have fled their rainforest reserves since last week to escape fighting between warring factions, the United Nations says, highlighting the plight tribes face in a country with one of the largest numbers of internally displaced people in the world.
Latest U.N. figures show 2,631 Embera Indians from 27 different communities living along the country’s Pacific coast in the remote western province of Choco have been caught in the middle of fighting between drug-running criminal gangs and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-biggest guerrilla group, forcing the Emberas to uproot since mid-May.
“We are concerned about the situation facing those people who could be confined, and their most urgent humanitarian needs,” Gerard Gomez, head of the U.N. humanitarian agency’s (OCHA) Colombia office, said in a recent joint statement with other U.N. agencies.
Another 2,000 people could be stuck in the area and are hard to reach because of ongoing fighting, while others have found refuge in nearby schools and jungle villages and face precarious conditions, OCHA said in its latest Colombia report.
With an outlet to the Pacific coast and near the border with Panama, armed groups fight to control coveted drug-smuggling routes out of the Choco province to transport cocaine through Central America north through Mexico and onto the United States. This places Embera tribes and other indigenous communities living in Choco in harm’s way and at risk from displacement.
Last week, rebels from Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), reached a landmark agreement with the government toward eliminating the illegal drug trade - giving a boost to peace talks that have been taking place Havana, Cuba, since November 2012, in a bid to end 50 years of war.
“This displacement shows once again the importance of reaching peace based on the respect for human rights,” Todd Howland, the head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia, said in a statement.
Since 2012, the 3,000-strong ELN has also been seeking a place at the negotiating table in Havana, but as yet the group has not been included in the ongoing FARC peace negotiations.
The ELN, along with the FARC rebels, has called a week-long ceasefire ahead of the presidential election on May 25.
With 5.7 million Colombians uprooted as a result of decades of fighting between the government, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, Colombia has the world’s second largest internally displaced population (IDPs) after Syria, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council published earlier this month.
“Despite the optimism surrounding the peace process in seeking to end a decades-old war, Colombia continues to suffer one of the world’s most dramatic humanitarian emergencies,” the report said.
While the peace process continues, Colombia saw an increase in the number of IDPs for the 10th year in succession, with 156,918 Colombians uprooted last year alone, the report said.
Colombia’s indigenous groups bear a disproportionate brunt of the displacement. While indigenous tribes make up some 3 percent of Colombia’s population of 47 million, they represent roughly 4 percent of the total number of displaced people.
Along with fleeing their homes to escape fighting between warring factions, indigenous groups also uproot because of direct death threats issued by armed groups and to stop their children from being recruited into rebel groups.
Colombia’s constitutional court warned in 2009 and 2010 that at least 35 of the country’s 87 officially recognised indigenous tribes were at risk of extinction because of the decades-long conflict and the displacement it causes.