Indigenous Affairs

Indigenous Affairs

Indigenous Affairs

Territorial context and Activities

The mission of the UPD is to support the cultural reintegration of indigenous communities and the recovery of territory of recognized sacred and cultural importance. The UPD recognizes the importance of indigenous management in their own territories and the need to develop shared strategies to achieve the objectives of communities in complex social and territorial contexts.

ColombiaSierra Nevada de Santa MartaActivitiesArticles

The Colombian population explicitly reflects what was its past history: the cultural context, the conquests and also the atrocities perpetrated are under the eyes of any attentive observer who goes through the country. The multiple somatic differences, languages ​​and dialects, traditions and customs draws the history of this country. However, only in recent times has the Colombian State “recognized and protected the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian nation” (Article 7 of 1991 Constitution).

1,392,623 people are identified under the indigenous ethnicity, which constitutes 3.4% of the total population. In some departments, the indigenous population represents a high proportion of the total population, as in the Department of Guajira (45%), Cauca (21.5%) and Nariño (10.8%) (Dane).

In the course of past centuries, indigenous peoples were greatly marginalized by political, economic, and social affairs (Jackson, 2011). However, it is quite impossible to consider the indigenous population as a static and marginal reality; it is very important, in fact, to consider it closely related to what indigenous people call “western Colombia.” Their awareness and active participation in the State affairs developed in the course of the twentieth century, growing exponentially in the last decades of the century.

Now-a-days there are multiple wars and conflicts that the indigenous communities have to face. In fact, together with the peasant and Afro-Colombian populations, they were the most vulnerable and involved social actors in the conflicts. Notwithstanding the good intentions of the 1991 Constitution, where indigenous peoples lived a period of optimism and positivity, in these years the indigenous communities continued, and still continue, to suffer human rights violations, looting and territorial spoils and of resources (Villa W. and Houghton J., 2005 pp.20).

Almost 30% of the Colombian territory is under the figure of collective territories with own management and governance systems. They are territories of great importance, for the extension and variety of ecosystems that they cover. About 53% of the continental territory is covered by forests and more than 50% is under collective management: indigenous reserves (45.4%), collective territories of communities of African descent (7.3%) and peasants (1.9%) .

In the last decades, the regions occupied by ethnic groups were considered as strategic zones causing disputes mainly between the public and private enterprises, national and international interests, since the territories conserve the majority of the natural resources of the country.

“The map of the country’s indigenous territories coincides with that of large infrastructure projects, thanks to its biodiversity and the richness of the land, as well as the problem of illicit cultivation and armed struggle” (H. Arcila, Suaréz Morales, 2003, pp. 1). The resources (minerals, oil and firewood), illegal crops and armed struggle are in fact the main causes of indigenous internal displacement. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) defined displacement as a phenomenon that “puts people at a high level of vulnerability” (UNHCR).

Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons do not cross international borders in search of security and protection, but remain in their own country. In certain circumstances, they may be forced to escape for the same reasons as refugees (armed conflict, widespread violence, human rights violations) with the difference that internally displaced persons remain under the protection of the Government (UNHCR).

According to the International Displacement Monitoring Center, the majority of the displaced people of the Latin American continent are in Colombia: the number has grown a lot in the last decade, reaching 5.7 million people (Global Overview 2014: people internally displaced by conflict and violence). The complexity of the political events that characterized the Colombian scenario in the last decades is characterized by the presence of armed groups, paramilitaries and FARC in struggle for control of strategic zones.

On these territories illicit cultivations of coca plants and laboratory facilities by drug traffickers also increased the in areas bordering indigenous communities. At first, and in some cases also today,  Colombian narcos used indigenous knowledge for territorial control rather than the use of indigenous labor in the production of cocaine.

The expansion areas of the Kogui-Malayo Resguardo in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta (SNSM) were object of massive colonization by colonists from the interior of the country, creating conflict situations between peasants and indigenous communities. During the second half of the 20th century and until the 1970s, the arrival of settlers intensified: logging and forest burnings  were frequent during four consecutive decades, with the aim of “civilizing” the forest to raise businesses, planting marijuana, or harnessing harvested timber. At present, there was the risk of land titling for agro-industrial megaprojects, miners, petrol, energy, tourism and pharmaceuticals, which would seriously undermine the cultural prerogatives of indigenous populations and the environmental balance of the SNSM.

The situation of the territorial economic underdevelopment affects all kinds of people, worsening relations between peasants and indigenous populations and compromising the possibility of dialogue and collaboration needed for a peaceful cohabitation in those places.

In this context, the low level of education and professional training of indigenous and peasant communities impede access to the economic resources that are being developed in the SNSM, effectively impeding the administration of the territory  by these communities and the protection of their social and cultural rights. However, the growth of the tourism sector in the SNSM could constitute a resource for these populations, simultaneously a threat to the environment and the cultural identity of the indigenous populations.

Regarding the armed conflict, the violations of territorial rights that took place in the Sierra Nevada area of ​​Santa Marta from the 1980s to the present day can be summarized as follows:

1) Incursions and presence of illegal armed groups in the indigenous territories, sometimes followed by a strong militarization of the territory by the Public Forces;

2) Armed clashes between illegal groups between, or around indigenous territories;

3) Occupation of sacred places;

4) Installation of military bases in indigenous territories;

5) Territorial looting by actors with economic interests on land and natural resources in the indigenous properties;

6) The development of legal and illegal economic activities;

7) Fumigation of illicit crops without discrimination, causing damages to crops fundamental for community subsistence.

Regarding human rights violations concerning indigenous communities, they can be summarized as follows:

1) Individual threats and to entire communities

2) Extortions, obligations to pay illegal groups

3) Homicides of indigenous leaders

4) Forced recruitment of indigenous youth into illegal groups

5) Individual and collective forced displacement

6) Homicides of entire indigenous families


The Wiwa indigenous population represents one of the four ethnic groups in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in northern Colombia. In this area there are 27 Wiwa communities located in the Resguardo Kogui- Malayo- Arhuaco (territory of 383,877 hectares), while others the communities moved to the department of La Guajira (in the north of the country ) and, in the department of César, representing nearly 14,000 members. According to information from the Wiwa Delegation of the Kogui – Malayo – Arhuaco (DW), the Wiwas in the SNSM are approximately 2,500 people, while the Colombian Ministry of Culture highlights the fact that “the bulk of the population corresponds young people and young adults (79% are under 30), while adults over 60 are just 2%. “Wiwas are located on the south-eastern slope and north of the SNSM, in the Kogui – Malayo – Arhuaco Resguard in collective properties recognized by the Colombian state in its national constitution. Each community has a local order of Mamos and Sagas, entitled to organize and direct the community to collectively maintain the territorial, spiritual and personal order. Through these authorities they have constant relations with the other three indigenous comunites of the Sierra: Kogui, Arhuaco and Kankuamo to coordinate the care of their territory.

The economy is largely agricultural and has been seriously hit by the continuous blockages they have been subjected to, preventing the trade of surplus products and the acquisition of basic products that are not produced in the community.

The peasant community is distributed around the indigenous reserve, in the lower part of the SNSM: they are approximately 3,000 people, especially from the interior of the country (Santander, Boyacá, Tolima and Antioquia). The community is agrocentric and suffers from occupational instability, poverty and poor scholar education. Part of the community is made up of internally displaced people who settled in that territory, driven by violent actions and threats by illegal armed groups.

The Wiwas of the SNSM have suffered in the last 50 years from a growing isolation caused by the disruption or absence of communications and infrastructures, causing displacement and food shortages. The food assistance programs implemented by the Colombian government did not solve the situation, but generated a situation of food dependency and acculturation. Nevertheless, in the last years thanks to the effort of the whole community, the Wiwas began to recover their traditions, language, crafts, culture and intangible traditions.

Part of the peasant community is composed of internally displaced people. Poverty and lack of professional training diminish the possibilities of equity vis-à-vis the rest of society, preventing them from accessing employment opportunities arising from economic growth.

The problems of other indigenous communities reflect the same situation.

The Wiwa community of the SNSM expressed in the following requirements to solve their needs: autonomy in the management of their natural territory and the generation of new occupational opportunities, guaranteeing their sustainability, security and their traditional lifestyles .


The UPD members started their supporting activities for the community in 2012 – before the company was even established – in collaboration with the Faculty of Anthropology of the University of Magdalena, Casa Indígena de Santa Marta and the Wiwa community represented by Ramon Gil.

The general objective of the activities is to promote the recovery of the ancestral traditions and the original territory of the Wiwa community in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. To achieve this, the first phase of activity focused on specific objectives:

1. Elaboration of a socio-economic characterization of the territory to analyse the problems and the needs of the Wiwa community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta;

2. Design of a strategy for cultural recovery and management of the ancestral territory, with community involvement;

3. Topographic elaboration to facilitate the recognition of the ancestral Wiwa locations in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta;

4. Organization of events and exhibitions to promote social awareness about indigenous issues in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

1. Socio-economic and territorial analysis

In the first phase of the program, the activities were directed towards the community involvement and the knowledge of the territory, in order to be able to analyse the problems and discuss the strategies with the community.

Anthropological and socio-economic studies were undertaken to establish the context in which our support actions will be implemented.

The expansion areas of the Kogui-Malayo Resguardo were the object of massive colonization by settlers from the interior of the country that generated conflict situations between peasants and indigenous communities. At present, there is the risk of land titling for agro-industrial megaprojects, miners, hydrocarbons, energy and pharmaceuticals, which would seriously undermine the cultural prerogatives of indigenous populations and the environmental balance of the SNSM.

The situation of economic underdevelopment present in the territory affects all kinds of people, worsening the relations between peasants and indigenous populations and disrupting the possibilities of dialogue and collaboration that are needed for a peaceful cohabitation in those places.

In this context, the low level of education and professional training of indigenous and peasant communities prevent their access to the economic opportunities that are being developed in the SNSM, excluding these communities from the administration of their territory and preventing the protection of their social and cultural rights. However, the growth of the tourism sector in the SNSM could constitute a resource for these communities, although simultaneously representing a threat to the environment and the cultural identity of the indigenous populations.

2. Strategy elaboration

During the second phase, several meetings and contacts with the Wiwas authorities allowed establishing community priorities and terms of collaboration with the UPD and other institutions involved. In this sense, the Wiwa authorities indicated their priority objective in the recovery of their ancestral territory, with priority in those territories adjacent to their settlements, especially those recognized of high sacred and cultural importance.

In order to acquire the territories, three possible solutions were identified:

1. Application to the Victims and Land Restitution Act for territories where the Wiwa community suffered land depletion during the armed conflict;

2. Creation of income generation strategies to allow the acquisition of ancestral territories: identification of a sustainable community tourism strategy that can guarantee economic income to the community within a framework of cultural and environmental respect for the territory involved;

3. Application to international organizations programs for granting cultural and territorial reintegration funds for indigenous communities .

Regarding the first point, the entity in charge of managing the practices for land restitution is the Land Restitution Unit, belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The restitution process provides for 3 phases: during the first phase, which can last for a maximum of 4 months, data and evidence on violent offense during the conflict period are collected; in the second phase a judicial process for the integral reparation of the victims is elaborated; finally, the trial is established and the reasons and compensations are defined.

The land restitution process so far has not produced positive results for the Wiwa community, mainly due to 2 different problems:

1. The territories that the Wiwa community lost by dispossession during the armed conflict are limited, because the community had already been evicted previously and was returning to their ancestral territories;

2. The high number of cases of land dispossession and the limited professional resources of the state did not yet allow the beginning of studies for the characterization of the territory for the Wiwa community.

The Planning and Development Unit proceeded on its own with the community characterization and made the studies available for the Land Restitution Unit in order to prepare the reports.

Regarding the second point, together with the Faculty of Anthropology of the University of Magdalena and the Wiwa community, the UPD established guidelines for the development of a shared strategy of sustainable tourism.

1: To create new occupational and labor insertion opportunities for indigenous populations and peasant communities, ensuring a gender approach in all phases of project design, organization and management;

2: Promote knowledge of the mechanisms and professional training in the tourism sector to indigenous populations and peasant communities;

3: Involve the other local actors by encouraging the collaboration of different sectors of civil society in Magdalena to value environmental resources, historical and cultural heritage according to a sustainable approach;

4: To implement new forms of sustainable tourism use of the environment that favor at the same time its conservation and security;

5: To develop processes of transmission and replicability of good practices through workshops and citizen participation;

6: To help the recovery of the cultural identity of the Wiwa community and to promote the knowledge of the indigenous culture outside its territory.

Finally, with respect to the third point, the UPD elaborated a report on the possibilities of financing for land reclamation through international support; the studies have been carried out and established collaborations to form the basis of the proposals to be submitted in the future.

3. Topographic Elaboration of the territory

The organization of the Wiwa community established the need to map their territories in order to identify territorial prerogatives in the processes of land restitution, enabling the sustainable planning of the activities that they will decide to establish in their territories.

In this task the Wiwas have being supported by the Amazon Conservation Team, which collaborates with the community to establish the boundaries of the indigenous territory for the territorial extension, and the Planning and Development Unit, which is mapping sites of cultural interest and old trails, especially in the areas of Bonda and in the vicinity of the Wiwa community of Charm – Gotshezhi.

The topographic work – which is also being developed thanks to the cooperation of volunteers from the University of Magdalena’s Anthropology faculty and to international students in their field practice experiences – has allowed us to identify long traditional roads that connect many areas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, for example from Minca to Valledupar.

4. Promotion of Indigenous issues

Within the awareness-raising framework, the Planning and Development Unit has organized activities at national and international levels.

At the international level, the context of the Wiwa community and its cultural reintegration was discussed at the University of Cagliari (Italy) on 7 July 2016 during a seminar on the international cooperation experiences of the UPD. In that event, the director Matteo Bellinzas explained the context of the post-conflict and development activities, while the participation of Alexandra D’Angelo as an anthropologist of the UPD facilitated the understanding of indigenous prerogatives in the management of the ancestral territory and its culture .

Fieldwork for the characterization of the Wiwa community was the subject of a photographic exhibition by Alexandra D’Angelo, which was exhibited in Lombardy and Sardegna (Italy), contributing to the promotion of indigenous themes abroad.

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Indigenous communities in the Colombian Caribbean Region

Departaments of Atlantico, Bolivar, La Guajira, Magdalena


Arhuaco (Magdalena, La Guajira, Atlantico)
Kankuamo (Magdalena, La Guajira)
Kogui (Magdalena, La Guajira)
Wiwa (Magdalena, La Guajira)
Chimila (Magdalena, Bolivar)
Wayúu (La Guajira)
Mokana (Atlantico)
Inga (Atlantico)
Zenú (Atlantico, Bolivar)
Embará Chamí (Bolivar)