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Arhuacos in Colombia

  • The Arhuaco people, related to the Kogi and Arsario peoples, live in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta; they comprise about 34,711 people, according to the 2018 DANE census. The Sierra Nevada is the highest coastal region in the world with mountains reaching up to 5,700 metres. The region is almost 12,600 square kilometres and has an extremely varied climate with great biodiversity. As a result, part of the region has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Arhuaco are also known as Ika and their language is part of the Chibcha family. Arhuaco grow coffee and sugar for their own consumption and participate in small-scale animal husbandry (cattle, goats, pigs and chickens); they also produce coca leaf and use it for medicinal purposes. In order to marry, the man must live and work for his future father-in-law for one or two years. If the marriage does not take place after this period of time the man is given compensation for his labour. The spiritual leader, or mamu, is responsible for solving community legal problems and providing religious counselling. There are 42 separate Arhuaco communities that are consolidated under the Tayrona Indigenous Federation.

  • In 1982, Arhuacos took action to evict a Roman Catholic mission which attempted to prohibit the use of national dress and language. In 1990, the Colombian military tortured and killed Arhuaco leaders. This unprovoked violence seems to have been in response to the activities of the leftist guerilla group FARC.

    Arhuacos have been on the forefront of the indigenous peoples’ rights movement. In 1974, their region received recognition as an indigenous reserve; it was declared a protected area in 1984. Nevertheless, since the 1980’s, the lands of the Arhuaco people have become a battleground between growers of illicit crops and the Colombian government. In 2004, the community was the site of a vicious bomb attack by the army. Spiritual leader Mariano Suárez Chaparro was also assassinated the same year.

    In 2023, and in order to comply with an order from a judge of the Republic, the Colombian government delivered to the community a document for the expansion of the Kogui Malayo Arhuaco reserve, granting this indigenous community more than 490 hectares of land.

  • Colonialism and latterly land encroachment, both by official and corporate interests as well as drug-related activities, have pushed Arhuaco communities from much of their southernmost territories and up to higher ground. Their land rights continue to be threatened by mining. Hundreds of concessions have been granted by the Colombian government in their territory, with hundreds more pending approval – a situation that communities fear could threaten the survival of their culture and way of life.

    As with mountain communities elsewhere, the Arhuaco people are very vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis. Wind and rain patterns have been disrupted, affecting the small-scale agriculture upon which their livelihoods depend.

Updated June 2023

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