Friday, June 24, 2011

Colombia: Last Nomadic Tribe in the Amazon Faces Extinction

Photo: The Nukak are considered to be at risk. | Credit: David Hill - Survival

By Daniela Estrada

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

SAN FRANCISCO (IDN) - The movement for tribal peoples, Survival International, has raised the alarm that an outbreak of respiratory disease has struck one of the Amazon's last nomadic tribes – whose numbers have already been decimated by flu and malaria.

Some 35 Nukak-Maku, including nine children, have been admitted to San José del Guaviare hospital in the southern Colombian Amazon, Survival said in a media release on June 23, adding that health advisor Héctor Muñoz had told Colombian radio that the hospital was well over capacity, leaving some Nukak with only make-shift beds.

Many members of the tribe have been living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of San José since being pushed out of their rainforest home by guerrilla armies and drug barons. Since they first emerged from the forest in 1988, more than half the tribe has been wiped out, mostly by common diseases caused by contact with outsiders. The Indians are now struggling to adapt to a new sedentary way of life, living on the outskirts of towns and relying on government handouts to survive, informs Survival.

In December 2010 a leader of the Nukak tribe from the Colombian Amazon made a desperate appeal for his people's survival before the country's top human rights committee. "We want to return to our forest," said Joaquín Nuká, "from where the FARC guerrillas forced us out – why, we don’t know."

Unlike most Amazonian tribes, the Nukak-Maku are highly nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small temporary homes in the deep forest between larger rivers. But for many years the tribe's homeland has been occupied by coca-growers, and Colombia's violent civil war has engulfed their territory, leaving them unable to return home.

"[In the forest] we lived amongst all the food of the jungle," Joaquín told national radio station, Caracol. "The food that they give us here in San José is good, it is white people’s food, but it badly affects the children, we miss our forest foods."

Despite government efforts and an ongoing 'War on Drugs' that has received considerable funding from the United States, coca cultivation for cocaine continues to ravage the region, informs Survival International.

One of the most controversial methods employed to eradicate coca involves spraying deadly pesticides on the crops from planes. This has only served to push the farmers into ever-remote regions in the jungle, provoking violence against the indigenous communities who live there.

Survival has written to Colombia's Health Ministry asking it to act immediately to safeguard the Nukak's health. The organisation's director, Stephen Corry, said: "This is really tragic news. After all these years the Nukak's desperate situation remains the same, with no home, poor health, and little prospect for a better life. What's so frustrating is that this burden, both for the Nukak and the state, wouldn’t exist if only the Nukak could go back to their forest – as they desperately wish to do."

Vice-president of the committee, Senator Alexander López, said: "The forced displacement … especially of indigenous communities such as the Jiw and Nukak, poses a severe threat to their survival as peoples… The Indians should return to their territories immediately and their way of life should be protected with dignity."

The Nukak are one of more than 30 indigenous peoples who face extinction in Colombia according to national indigenous organization, ONIC, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Survival is campaigning for the Nukak's right to return to their reserve, on condition that it is made secure and that they receive proper health care.

At least 64 out of 102 Colombian tribes are facing 'extinction', says leading indigenous organisation ONIC. This was the conclusion of an ONIC report in April 2010 to mark the launch of its campaign to raise global awareness of the situation in Colombia and to save the threatened tribes from being wiped out.

ONIC’s own research found that 32 Colombian tribes face extinction, while the country's Constitutional Court has stated that 34 tribes face a similar fate. Only two, the Nukak and the Guayabero, are considered to be at risk by both ONIC and the court, bringing the total number to 64.

According to ONIC, eighteen tribes number less than 200 people and ten less than 100. One, the Makaguaje, numbers fewer than five people. The reasons given for this desperate situation include:

- Colombia's internal armed conflict which has been going on for more than 50 years and 'disproportionately' affects the indigenous population. Since 2002, more than 1,400 indigenous people have been killed and an estimated 74,000 have been forcibly evicted from their homes.

- A 'model of economic development' that ignores indigenous peoples' rights to free, prior and informed consent and leaves them "more threatened than ever, given the developed world’s appetite for natural resources and raw materials." The biggest threats listed are oil, hydroelectric dams and oil palm plantations.

- The report states that Colombia's indigenous people are the poorest in the country, and that they lack access to adequate health care, education and basic services.

The Nukak are cited as having some of "the most serious" health problems of all Colombian tribes. Since first regular contact just over twenty years ago, an estimated half of the tribe have died from respiratory problems, malaria, measles and other illnesses and infections.

ONIC's report ends with a series of recommendations to the Colombian and international authorities, and two maps listing the 64 tribes threatened with extinction. These include the Arhuaco, Kogui, Embera Katio, Awá, Kofán, U'wa, Huitoto and Cuiva.