WASHINGTON - Over the past 50 years, Colombia has struggled to define itself as a democratic nation as it continues to wrestle with domestic conflict.
That conflict has manifested itself in a prolonged civil war through which many Colombians have lived their entire lives. The ongoing struggle resulted in more than 2 million refuges and nearly 600,000 dead because of political reasons. In the last 20 years there has been a 70 percent increase of these figures, leaving Colombia in a state of continuous instability.
Those who may have been most affected by the impacts of this conflict include Columbia's numerous groups of Indigenous people and the country's poorest peasants.
"The problems are common and people all over Colombia have the same problem,"said Luis Miguel Carmona, an Indigenous Colombian and Chimilia Project Coordinator. "But it has completely changed the Indigenous people. They live in constant fear. We don't even know if we are going to live or die."
The conflict which began as a fight between leftist guerillas and the Army has expanded to include all Colombians, including Indigenous communities throughout the country's Amazon region. All over the Amazon basin, tribal peoples are feeling the impacts of a tug-of-war between the guerillas, the army, and paramilitary groups originally established to protect large land owners from guerilla forces.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, arose in the mid 1960s to become the primary guerilla force in Colombia with an estimated number of 17,000 to 25,000 combat members. Between 1964 and 1999, the presence of the FARC guerilla forces has increased by more than 500 percent in all parts of Colombia. Many FARC groups infiltrate and occupy tribal communities, impose taxes, and recruit Indigenous people for service.
Paramilitary groups who were once created and sanctioned by the Colombian government to protect large land owners have now become a major military force as well, threatening tribal populations and supporting the shipment of narcotics. In one paramilitary group alone, called the Rural Self-Defense of Cordoba and Uraba, or ACCU, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 armed combatants and support personnel. Another large group, the United Self-Defense of Colombia, or AUC, headed by Cabs Castano, Colombia's most powerful paramilitary leader, is made up of 9 paramilitary organizations spread throughout the Amazon region.
"They have destroyed our infrastructure and our communities strength and spirit," Carmona said. "They come in whenever they want and go wherever they want."
But the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups are not the only threat the Indigenous people of Colombia face. The Colombian government has also ignored Indigenous communities and left many promises to Indigenous people unkept.
In 1991, a new constitution was signed which recognized Colombia as a multi-cultural society, including the self-governing Indigenous communities throughout Columbia. Although Indigenous people represent only 2 percent of Colombia's population, or about 700,000 people, the protected lands they live on comprise more than 28 percent of the national territory. Much of this land is rich in natural resources and of great interest to the government and developers.
Many tribal leaders say the Colombian government has failed to abide by the Constitution and to protect the rights of Indigenous people and their lands.
"The government wants to turn over our resources to the multinational corporations and we say no," says Emperatriz Cahuache, Cocama Tribe and president of the Organization of Indigenous People of the Columbian Amazon. "They need to consult with the Indigenous peoples. We sustained the bio-diversity of the area and should have a say in its future."
People from Indigenous communities from across Colombian have fled to places like Equador to escape the violence caused by the conflict between the guerrillas, the government, and the paramilitaries. During the last three years alone, the paramilitary have executed 10 indigenous leaders belonging to the Embera-Katio and Zenu peoples.
"Our people are stuck in the middle," Chauache said. "The government is preparing for war. The guerillas are preparing for war, but we are not and are left to suffer at the hands of both."
Editor's note: Luis Miguel Carmona attended sessions of the annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in St. Paul, Minn., last month, to bring the plight of his people to the attention of tribal delegates and the public.