solid black line
dotted black line
  About MAR
dotted black line
  MAR Data
dotted black line
  AMAR Project
dotted black line
solid black line
Contact Us     


Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Colombia

View Group Chronology

Colombia Facts
Area:    1,138,910 sq. km.
Capital:    Bogota
Total Population:    38,581,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Four factors increase the likelihood of future indigenous protest and rebellion in Colombia: persistent protest in past decade; territorial concentration; high levels of group organization and cohesion; and government repression. Three factors favor the containment of rebellion: a recent history of democratic government and elections; transnational support for settlement; and lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring countries.

Indigenous groups in Colombia remain overwhelmingly the victims and not the antagonists of the nation’s bloody civil war. However, the government’s failure to secure militarized indigenous regions and to protect indigenous lands from corporate exploitation has kept the indigenous community in a state of high risk. Coupled with recent episodes of violent protest, repression and the presidential veto of the law requiring government soldiers to be tried in regular courts for human rights abuses, these failures to address indigenous demands have greatly increased the probability of future indigenous participation in violent protest and guerrilla activity. The largely ideological support expressed by external parties specifically for indigenous issues, the lack of armed conflicts across the country’s five borders and the recent succession of democratic elections are not sufficient to mitigate the risk of future rebellion.


Analytic Summary

Colombia’s indigenous population inhabits 27 of the 32 departments of the country, with large concentrations in the regions of the Amazon, Orinoquia, Pacific coast, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Perija mountains, Guajira Peninsula, and the Andean range (GROUPCON = 1). The 80 to 90 different ethnolinguistic indigenous groups in Colombia are distinguished by language (LANG = 1) but are identified largely by the cabildo (reservation) or department (state) in which they live, and by the group-specific demands of their long-standing local organizations. Substantial constitutional rights have also enabled them to organize on the national level around an overall "indigenous" identity. Efforts by indigenous groups to lobby for agrarian reform or reclaim ancestral lands lost throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods have historically been met with both legislative resistance and violence from military and paramilitary groups. The adoption of a new constitution in 1991, however, included provisions for indigenous cultural, linguistic, political and territorial rights that have served as the basis for subsequent indigenous mobilization throughout Colombia’s ongoing civil war.

Indigenous Colombians experience demographic stress in the form of deteriorating public health conditions, dispossession of land and migration abroad due to militarization and guerrilla activity in indigenous regions. Social exclusion perpetuates economic and political practices that limit free movement; access to the military, civil service, and high office; and the fulfillment of government commitments to social programs and security (ECDIS06 = 3, POLDIS06 = 3).

Indigenous Colombians’ principal demands are: regional autonomy with limited powers; greater political rights in their own regions; equal civil rights and status; a greater share of public funds and services; protection of land and resources being used for the advantage of foreign oil companies and other interests; and protection from attacks and occupation by militant groups (POLGR06 = 3; ECGR06 = 1).

Colombia’s indigenous groups maintain a strong national identity and have experienced no significant intra-group factional conflict (INTRACON04-06 = 0,). Their rights are represented chiefly by conventional organizations including the Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), founded in the Amazon region in 1982 to represent about 34 regional and local indigenous groups to the National Assembly; the National Peasant Association of Colombia (ANUC), which promotes direct peasant involvement in the agrarian reform process; and a number of organizations representing the concerns of regional groups, most notably, the Indigenous Council of the Cauca Region (CRIC), the Organization of Antioquia (OIA), and the Regional Indigenous Organization of Putamayo (GOJPA06 = 2).

Transnational support has come largely in the form of ideological encouragement, political statements, and protest. Examples include Amnesty International reports condemning the civil war’s victimization of indigenous peoples; petitions from the League of Indigenous Sovereign Nations to end oil drilling in indigenous territory and investigate the 1999 murders of two pro-indigenous activists from the U.S.; the opposition of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) to a U.S. patent granted protecting use of a plant used in sacred ceremonies by indigenous people in Colombia; and protests by Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America (ACERCA), Amazon Watch, Native Forest Network, Rainforest Action Network, and international trade coalitions from Boston and Vermont at Al Gore’s presidential campaign headquarters to halt oil drilling in indigenous territory by a company in which he was heavily invested.

Indigenous agrarian reform protests in the 1960s turned militant in 1971 when an ANUC-organized land invasion, led mostly by non-indigenous actors, to reclaim tradition lands prompted severe police repression of indigenous organization and mobilization (REBEL71 = 4). A growing number of indigenous groups, however, continued to protest the government’s indigenous policies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though with few concessions. Thousands of indigenous deaths and displacements resulting from Colombia’s escalating civil war between the government and the non-indigenous Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), led to the formation in the 1980s of indigenous guerilla groups, such as M-19 and Quintin Lame, who sought to defend indigenous land and lives from the hostilities (REBEL80-89 = 4). Since the early 1990s, indigenous protests (PROT90-99 = 4; PROT00-03 = 3; PROT04-05 = 4; PROT06 = 3) have focused on the fulfillment of land rights and other provisions outlined in the constitution of 1991; cessation of foreign exploitation of land and resources in indigenous territories; and security from the militarization of indigenous regions by military, paramilitary and guerilla forces, which continues to result in the mass killing and displacement of indigenous peoples (DISPLACE05-06 = 2). Continued mobilization by indigenous organizations have led to tension and some repression (REPGENCIV04 = 2; REPGENCIV0405 = 5; REPGENCIV0406 = 3; REPNVIOL05 = 5; REPVIOL05 = 3).



Avirama, Jesus and Rayda Marquez. "The Indigenous Movement in Colombia." In D. VanCott. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York. ST. Martin's Press. 1994.

CIA World Factbook. “Colombia,” 2004-2006.

Espinosa, Manuel Jose Cepeda. "Ethnic Minorities and Constitutional Reform in Colombia." Woodrow Wilson Center Latin American Program. Paper presented on November 15, 1994.

Findji, Maria Teresa. 1989. "From Resistance to Social Movement: The Indigenous Authorities Movement in Colombia." In A. Escobar and S.E. Alvarez. The Making of Social Movements in Latin America. Boulder. Westview Press.

LexisNexis. Various reports.2004-2006.

Padilla, Guillermo. 11/15/1994. "Lo Que Contempla el Bien. La Ley y Los Pueblos Indigenas en Colombia." Woodrow Wilson Center Latin American Program.

Indigenous Affairs Ministry of Government. 1990. Policy of the National Government in Defense of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Ecological Conservation of the Amazon Basin. The Republic of Colombia.

Rappaport, Joanne. 1994. Cumbe Reborn. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

"Taking Responsibility." Cultural Survival Quarterly. 16:2. 49.

U.S. Library of Congress. 2007. "Country Profile: Colombia."

U.S State Department. “Country Reports on Human Rights: Colombia,” 2004-2006.

Zamosc, Leon. 1989. "Peasant Struggles of the 1970s in Colombia." In S. Eckstein,ed. Power and Popular Protest. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zuluaga, Felipe and Lindsey Michelle Jones. 2006. "Protecting Indigenous Rights in Colombia." Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice .18. 55-61.


© 2004 - 2023 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006