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Nukak and Tukano in Colombia

  • The Nukak branch of the Makú people are one of Colombia’s last nomadic populations, with only a few hundred individuals remaining. They spend several months a year working for another indigenous people, the Tukano.

    Tukano are among the most politically active of lowland groups, although not all are members of the Regional Council of Vaupés Indians (CRIVA), a federation founded in 1973 with members from some 35 different ethnic groups. Many Tukano are hostile to CRIVA, considering it an organization created by whites and one which has had little influence. The Tukano language was formerly known as Betoya; today Middle Tukano is called Kubeo; Western Tukano is known as Korebaju, Makaguaje, Siona and Tama; and Eastern Tukano is known as Bará, Baraasana, Desano, Karapana, Makúna, Piratapuyo, Pisamira, Siriano, Tanimuka, Tatuyo, Tukano, Tuyuka, Wananao, and Yuruti. The Tukano live in towns like Acaricuara, Montfort and Piracuara on the Colombian and Brazilian border.

    There are several programmes to try to unite the Nukak with other indigenous peoples in order to protect their culture and provide them with additional advocates for their rights and land. The Tukano is a large well-known group in the Amazon region, and many Tukano in Brazil and Colombia are actively involved in arts and crafts production.

  • Subjected to lethal attacks by settlers during the rubber boom, 20 Nukak were killed by settlers in 1987. Survivors of the attack who were taken to the New Tribes Mission Station were subsequently returned to the forest with no medication against the diseases they carried with them. Between 1988 and 1991 Nukak were decimated by imported diseases such as influenza.

    In April 2008 the UNHCR deemed it necessary to organize a humanitarian mission to provide emergency aid to Guyabero and Nukak-Makú communities living along the Guaviare River in south-central Colombia. Fourteen tons of food were provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) and delivered by boat to some 1,000 people in the riverside villages of Mocuare, Puerto Alvira and Barranco Colorado, as well as the municipal centre of Mapiripán in which they were all facing an extremely difficult humanitarian situation involving critical food shortages. Reports suggested that most had been forced to flee their lands as a result of the armed conflict, further putting at risk their survival as a unique ethnic group.

    Hundreds of people fled the area from the beginning of 2008 with some locations losing nearly 75 per cent of an estimated 3,000-strong population. In the village of Barranco Colorado, only about 40 families (around 200 people) from two indigenous communities were left, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

  • The Nukak-Makú, Guyabero, Sikuani and Tukano peoples continue to be the victims of deep discrimination and marginalization. Challenges include the detrimental impacts of various free trade agreements, the protracted civil conflict and subsequent unrest, issues relating to intellectual property which threaten to deny them access to the biological diversity and natural resources found within their territories, and foreign diseases brought by settlers to which their communities have no immunity.

    In 1985 there were approximately 1,200 people belonging to these indigenous peoples and since then their numbers have drastically dwindled. There are now currently only 255 surviving Nukak-Makú in Colombia, although the 2018 Census estimated them at 744 people. Mass displacement caused by the occupation of their ancestral lands by illegal armed groups, drug traffickers, indiscriminate aerial fumigations funded by Plan Colombia, state and private capital-led development and mega-projects, together with violence and murders against their leaders and communities, committed mainly by the same illegal armed actors, are additional factors behind their pending disappearance. This is especially the case since these activities have destroyed the local economy which was focused mainly on fishing, hunting and bartering.

    In particular, occupation of their territory by FARC guerillas forced the community out of their territory and displaced them to a small area outside where they were reliant on aid rations and unable to practice many of their established traditions. The effects of this displacement have undermined the community’s cultural identity and reportedly led to widespread despair, anxiety and related problems such as alcoholism.

    Nukak are also caught up in the violence surrounding the Colombian drug trade. They are attacked both by coca growers and by the military, whose pilots apparently mistake them for coca growers or left-wing guerillas.

Updated June 2023

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