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Zenú in Colombia

  • The Zenú people are an indigenous community located in the departments of Sucre and Córdoba, in northern Colombia. They are the second largest indigenous people in the country, with a population of 307,091 individuals. Their traditional crafts include goldsmithing, pottery and ceramics. Additionally, they engage in agricultural activities, cultivating crops such as corn, chili peppers, cassava, beans, pumpkin, yams, as well as fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe, mango, corozo, guava and soursop. The Zenú people are renowned for their craftsmanship, particularly for their intricate woven hats known as sombrero vueltiao, which are emblematic of the Colombian Caribbean coast.

    Zenúes spoke the Guajiba or Guamacó language, but this disappeared during the Spanish conquest. Currently, only a few native expressions survive, since the population communicates in Spanish. Zenúes have nevertheless held on to their ancestral knowledge that has allowed them to use natural medicine to treat diseases. This practice is carried out by rezanderos or parteras, spiritual leaders who make use of plants such as tobacco, mint, oregano, yerbasanta, lemon balm, sesame and matarratón.

  • The Spanish conquest and colonization marked the beginning of a systematic and violent process of land dispossession against the Zenú indigenous people. This process had profound effects on the cultural and organizational practices of the community, as institutions like the encomienda (a right granted to colonizers to demand tribute and forced labour) disrupted their way of life.

    Nevertheless, the ancient organization of the Zenú people was highly structured. Each province centralized its power under the authority of a cacique or leader, enabling them to undertake impressive hydraulic projects, as seen in the construction of irrigation canal systems. Zenúes gained renown for their exceptional mastery of hydraulic engineering, a skill they honed due to their proximity to the San Jorge, Sinú, Cauca and Magdalena rivers.

  • The Zenú people have been badly affected by the actions of armed groups. In 2022, the territories traditionally inhabited by Zenúes were targeted by an ‘armed strike’ perpetrated by the Clan del Golfo criminal gang. Many indigenous people have been victims of confinement and displacement, which has forced them to migrate to the cities, in search of security conditions that could guarantee some level of protection of their lives and personal integrity.

    The human rights violations suffered by the indigenous community are related to the strategic location of their territories, which makes it an attractive area for illegal mining and provides key routes for drug trafficking organizations, which can use a variety of outlets to the sea. In addition to extreme right-wing groups, the ELN and FARC-EP dissidents are also present in the territory.

Updated June 2023

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