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Kankuamos in Colombia

  • Kankuamos are one of four indigenous peoples that live in the region of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. Their population is estimated at around 16.986 people who constitute one of the indigenous communities which historically had the least contact with outsiders due to their adopted survival strategy of isolation. Today however, along with the Kogui, Arhuaco and Wiwa peoples, Kankuamos are subject to a process of cultural assimilation and are facing a substantial loss of their unique culture and identity. It is thought that at some point in the foreseeable future with this continuing trend Kankuamos will eventually become extinct as a people.  At present, only 5 per cent of the population speaks the Kankui language. Although the Colombian government has made efforts to preserve the language, today it is in serious danger of extinction.

    Just like the majority of Colombia’s indigenous peoples Kankuamos are a highly spiritual people who pay great reverence to the forces of nature. They are guided by the law of origin or ley de origen which they regard as being the traditional ancestral science of wisdom and knowledge which manages all that is material and spiritual. The adherence to this law is what guarantees the order and permanence of life, of the universe, and Kankuamos as an indigenous people. The law of origin regulates the relationships between all living beings from the stones of the earth to humankind itself and tells them that Umunukunu or Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the sacred place given to the tribes of Iku, Kaggaba, Sanka and Kankuama. The orders received from the first fathers stated that from the Sierra Nevada they will be the guardians of the world with the responsibility to guard the permanence of all forms of life so that there will be continuing equilibrium and harmony between nature and humankind.

    In November 2022, UNESCO recognized the ancestral knowledge system of the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

  • Since the middle of the 1980s, Kankuamos have been engaged in a process social and political organization which resulted in the creation of the OIK (Indigenous Organization of Kankuamos) in 1993. Ten years later, in 2003, through resolution number 12 of the INCORA (Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform), the first Kankuamo reserve was created on the southeastern slopes of Sierra Nevada in the State of Cesar.

    For 20 years, as a result of the absence of the Colombian state, Kankuamo territory was invaded and occupied by both leftist and right-wing armed groups which established systems of social and judicial control in the 1980s and 1990s which damaged and undermined traditional indigenous authorities and systems of governance. In addition, as a result of disputes for territorial control intermingled with the trade in narcotics, Kankuamos found themselves frequently caught up in the midst of the crossfire between warring parties.

    With the retreat of the leftist guerillas from Sierra Nevada and the consolidation of paramilitary gains and occupation in 1999, Kankuamos became subject to unfounded accusations of involvement in or collaboration with the guerilla insurgency. Such politically and economically motivated accusations were often accompanied by alarming acts of violence with the calculated intention of planting terror and pushing the indigenous communities off their lawfully recognized lands.

    During this illegal occupation by the various paramilitary groups of the AUC (United Self-Defense Units of Colombia), which at times acted in collusion with the Colombian army, communities became victims of forced displacement, selective assassinations, massacres, forced disappearances, threats, confinement and forced recruitment into illegal armed groups. Such grievous violations of Kankuamos’ collective and individual human rights wrought negatives consequences in virtually all spheres of their lives. These included the loss of sacred sites and places of worship, the significant weakening of traditional indigenous authorities, the breakdown of processes of cultural recuperation and economic self-sufficiency, together with the destruction of the fragile ecosystems of Sierra Nevada, declared by UNESCO in 1979 as a world biosphere reserve.

    The gravity of such violence perpetrated against Kankuamos especially by the armed forces, which included extrajudicial executions of indigenous civilians whose bodies were later discovered dressed in military uniform and deaths presented as being killed in combat, led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) in 2003 and 2004 to urge the Colombian government to adopt specific measures to defend the lives and personal integrity of the Kankuamo community. Such measures were also required to guarantee the respect of the Kankuamo cultural identity and the special relationship with their ancestral territories. The state was also urged to deliver the necessary humanitarian aid to the victims of forced displacement and to carry out an investigation into the violence and threats waged against the community.

    Despite such demands on CIDH’s behalf, the 2004 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, denounced the continuing ethnic cleansing, genocide and ethnocide being perpetrated against the Kankuamo community notwithstanding appeals to the Colombian state by the CIDH and the Human Rights Ombudsman to adopt urgent measures to the protect them.

    Militarization of ancestral lands

    Despite a decline in the number of reported individual human rights violations committed against Kankuamos in the mid-2000s, some members of the community pointed out that other forms of human rights violations had been omitted from the statistics. These included an increase in the human rights violations committed against the communities by the Colombian army itself, attributed by state officials as being the result of the lack of understanding among soldiers on issues relating to human rights and the special laws governing indigenous peoples, ancestral lands, authorities and sacred sites.

    Fundación Hemera, a local Colombian human rights organization, denounced the army’s flagrant flouting of international humanitarian law through the setting up of ‘home and camp’ directly within or on sacred sites. The network of informants set up to gather intelligence on guerilla movements and activities was similarly denounced as being a vehicle through which the military involved the civilian population in the conflict, often through the use of coercive means, including the levelling of accusations against leaders and individuals of being in collaboration with the guerilla forces, or the use of emotional blackmail urging individuals to join the network as a demonstration of ‘social solidarity’ within their communities. The militarization of the reserves also saw an increase in sexual violence committed against indigenous women by army personnel as well as forced displacement.

    Despite this increased military presence, newly demobilized ex-paramilitary splinter groups in the region continued to carry out criminal acts in the areas. In August 2007, the leader of the ‘Mártires de César‘, the paramilitary wing of the AUC operating in the department of César was captured by the special forces of the Colombian Technical Investigation Body (CTI). Infamously known as ‘El Paisa’, Leonardo Enrique Sanchez Barbosa, was accused of being responsible for the killings of up to 200 Kankuamos during the paramilitary reign of terror he oversaw for 10 years. In 2010 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

  • Just like many other indigenous communities in Colombia, Kankuamos see the preservation of their ancestral territories as being under threat from proposals for large scale state-led development projects which have the potential of seriously disrupting their traditional ways of life and destroying the spiritual basis of their identity and existence.

    The government has taken steps to introduce multiple infrastructure development projects which will include the exploitation of Sierra Nevada’s natural resources and the building of hydroelectric plants and dams. Implementation of these plans will involve the re-canalization of rivers and the flooding of hundreds of acres of indigenous lands, as well as the exploitation of natural resources. Other projects included within this plan include the construction of huge complexes and cable car systems for the benefits of ‘eco–‘ and ‘ethno–‘ tourism.

    However, Kankuamos have stated their categorical opposition to all proposed development activities in their ancestral territories due to their belief that Sierra Nevada is the heart and beginning of all existence, and that its destruction would not only cause irremediable damage to the natural equilibrium of the region but would also have dire repercussions for their autonomy and authority. In early 2016, after community leaders refused to attend consultations with the government in protest against hundreds of mining operations in their territory, two community spiritual sites in Valledupar were subjected to separate arson attacks. Such attacks have continued; in October 2018, a kankurwa, or Kankuamo ceremonial house, in Atanquez was burned to the ground.

    Other serious issues currently affecting Kankuamos relate to their treatment within the criminal justice system once they have been taken into custody or imprisoned. There are reports of mass detentions which often lead to the release of indigenous detainees after a few days for the lack of any evidence found against them. Those who remain detained are said to be held in prisons in poor conditions, and many incarcerated indigenous persons develop illnesses due to the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to provide them with food which meets their traditional dietary requirements. Indigenous people are also denied the right while in detention to keep symbolic items which are imbued with cultural and spiritual meaning.

    In 2023, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) presented a report of its findings to the indigenous Kankuano and Wiwa people regarding its investigation into cases of extrajudicial executions targeting them between 2002 and 2005.

Updated June 2023

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