BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Violence by armed groups has killed at least 58 indigenous Colombians and the number of people from indigenous communities forced to flee their homes has doubled over the past year, the country’s leading indigenous organisation has said.
In its latest report, the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) blames fighting between government troops, left-wing rebels and other drug smuggling groups, on and near their ancestral lands for the growing violence and displacement indigenous communities face.
Colombia's main left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), fuelled by its large stake in the cocaine trade, has waged a nearly five decade war against the Colombian army in a bid to topple successive governments and take power.
Over the last decade, as the Colombian military has stepped up its fight against FARC rebels, particularly in the southern provinces and jungle borders where indigenous communities live, they have found themselves increasingly caught in the middle of the conflict.
During the first nine months of this year, over 10,500 indigenous people were uprooted from their homes, up from a total of 5,100 Indians registered as uprooted last year, ONIC said.
“The increase in mass displacements is due to constant fighting in indigenous territory between legal and illegal armed groups,” said the ONIC report, published last week.
The organisation said FARC rebels were responsible for killing nine indigenous people and accused the Colombian army of killing seven indigenous people so far this year. Other known groups carried out the rest of the killings.
Both sides in the conflict put pressure on the indigenous tribes to get involved, and the tribes struggle to remain neutral.
The rebels often target Indians who they accuse of acting as informants for the military, and demand food and shelter from them, while the army sometimes interrogates them about rebel movements and restricts their movements, indigenous leaders say.
MILLIONS OF COLOMBIANS DISPLACED
Colombia is home to one of the world's largest internally displaced populations, estimated at up to four million people out of 46 million Colombians. Indigenous groups, 3.4 percent of the population, account for two percent of the internal refugees, around 80,000 people, but the sharp rise in recent months may quickly alter this proportion.
Many indigenous tribes live in isolated and far-flung jungle regions where the conflict is most intense, and where rebels tend to have more power because the state military's presence is weak and sporadic.
Indigenous tribes also tend to live in strategic areas used by rebels and other criminal groups for the production and transport of cocaine, which bring indigenous communities into close contact with armed groups and drug smugglers.
Of Colombia’s 102 different indigenous tribes, the Nasa Indians living in the southwestern province of Cauca and the Embera Indians of the rainforests of the western Choco province have been hardest hit by the conflict over the past year, ONIC's report said.
Indigenous leaders say families are also fleeing their jungle reserves because they fear their children may be taken away as fighters by the FARC rebels trying to prop up their dwindling ranks. The rebels are known to use indigenous children as guides, tapping into their knowledge of the jungle terrain.
CONFINED IN THEIR OWN LANDS
Fighting between armed groups is also preventing some indigenous communities from moving around freely, to hunt and fish, and grow enough subsistence crops, such as maize and beans, on their lands.
“The confinement of indigenous communities inside their own territories limits the supply of food and other products the community can eat and sell at markets. This has led to an increase in infant mortality and rates of malnutrition among children and the community at large during recent years,” the report said.
Indigenous leaders have called on both government troops and FARC rebels to withdraw from their lands and leave them in peace.
They are also demanding the withdrawal of local and multinational mining, oil, timber and palm oil companies, which indigenous groups say are operating illegally on their resource-rich lands.