This article is written by Tatiana Gómez Tibasosa on behalf of Icare Sustainably International. Editing done by Rianne Doller and Carolyne Nyarangi. Translation from Spanish done by Jessika Gutiérrez Montenegro.
The article is part of an ongoing series depicting the local reality of COVID-19 regulations, restrictions and adaption. Find other articles here: COVID-19 articles.
Our aim is that by publishing articles we can create awareness of the lived realities during the pandemic of groups that are often overlooked. In this case, the indigenous people of Colombia. Do you want to help us and contribute an article? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Introduction: How many indigenous people are there in Latin-America?
This article aims to show a bit of the atmosphere and recent difficulties of some of the indigenous communities that are in Colombia. This is timely now COVID-19 has changed the world and people’s realities, perhaps indefinitely.
However, before showing how the pandemic has impacted the life of indigenous people in Colombia, we first need to give some context. Who are the indigenous people? And how strong is their presence in Latin America in terms of the cultural and socio-economic environments they operate in.
1.1. General context on indigenous people in Colombia
It is known that Latin America stands out among many other things such as its variety of flora and fauna, the breadth of its crops, the extensive presence of natural resources and its deep-rooted and ancient customs. This is due to the high percentage of indigenous people among the population compared to other places in the world.
Countries such as Mexico (4.4 million indigenous), Peru (3.2 million indigenous) and Bolivia (1.5 million indigenous) are just some territories where the historical presence of this population is highlighted. This is because recognition and establishment of their rights have been part of the social construction of each group. But in Colombia the situation, although less visible, is quite extensive as well.
1.2. Who are the Colombian Indigenous people?
According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), the indigenous population in Colombia is 1,905,617. This information is obtained in the last census carried out in the country since 2018. This number is equivalent to 3.4% of the total population.
The indigenous communities are divided into 115 native towns throughout the country. Among them the Arhuacos, the Awa, the Barasana, the Cocama, the Emberá, the Kiwiyarí, the Muisca, the Nasa, the Nunak, the Pijao, the Senú, the Tule and the Wayuu stand out. Most indigenous communities live in dispersed settlements in different rural areas of Colombia. Their historicity, rootedness, customs and native language are directly related to the environment. For example, the use of natural resources, their habits for food planting and harvesting, making clothes and building artisanal houses (mostly malocas  ). Also, they have their own habits to establish their hierarchization, internal organization and make decisions that affect the individual and social development of each of the families that inhabit these groups.
2: Indigenous people are moving to the cities
Many changes have happened in the lives of the indigenous people that pre-date the pandemic.
2.1 Indigenous people’s move to the city caused by the violent conflict
Currently, a large number of indigenous families can be found in the most populated cities of Colombia. This is to search for economic opportunities, to arrange commercial agreements and product exchange. This has caused communication channels between rural towns and cities. Also, this has caused an uptake in learning Spanish as a second language among the indigenous. This has even gone so far as to displace the autochthonous languages generationally, and for Spanish to position itself more prominent in the study spaces of indigenous children. That is why some historical behaviours have been gradually modified and added to the cultural construct, thus forming new indigenous groups more linked to technology and the characteristic development of western cities.
However, the most relevant change to indigenous towns is caused by mobilization to cities because of the episodes of violence and armed internal conflicts. This has been carried out in Colombia for more than 50 years, and of which the indigenous population are one of the main victims. According to the Constitutional Court (by Order 004 of January 26, 2009),
“within the main thrusts of impact to individual and collective rights of indigenous towns, are forced recruiting of children and youth, sexual assault and gender-based violence, forced prostitution, armed confrontations, anti-personnel mines installation, targeted murders of traditional authorities, teachers and health promoters and confinement […].”
According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, in 2010, 122 indigenous were murdered, 10 disappeared and 1,146 were forced to displace ”(UNHCR, 2010). Nowadays, the numbers are terrifying.
2.2. Main issues facing indigenous people today
As shown in the chapter above, indigenous residents in Colombia are not protected from the actions of organized illegal groups. Add to this other social issues such as the lack of adequate roads to access food and transport handicrafts, no access to a decent health system and little contact with educational entities that respect maintaining their traditions. These issues give them extra challenges to adapt to the new issues caused by COVID-19.
The systematic absence of the state when it comes to providing security, public and social services and stable conditions for the development of their ancestry and traditions are just some of the inconveniences to overcome for this population. To which is added the imminent arrival of the COVID – 19, as one of the greatest social, economic and health challenges of humanity in recent years.
3. Indigenous people and COVID-19 in Colombia
Before making an outline about the impact of COVID – 19 on the Colombian indigenous population we first give a general overview. By 2021, almost 14 months after the report of the first case of this disease, around 160 million infections have been reported in the world, of which 3.4 million have resulted in deaths. To this day America is the continent with the largest number of infected people, with a figure amounting to 1.6 million.
In Colombia, the number of infections exceeds 3.18 million, while deaths register a total of 83,233 people, of which 1.425 are indigenous. The largest number of infected cases in this group (46.772 in total) are located in the departments of Amazonas, Antioquia, Arauca and the Atlantic, among others.
3.1. First cases of COVID-19 among the indigenous
The department of Amazonas, for example, stands out for being biodiverse with a high presence of fauna and flora which is protected by Colombian law. However, it is difficult to access the areas due to the specific landscape. Many indigenous communities there have little contact with the city of the department (Leticia, its capital) and prefer to stay isolated from what they call the <contamination of the world>. By which they refer to technology, automobiles and electrical appliances among others.
In this area, the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded directly among the indigenous population was recorded. By December 2020, more than 1,000 cases had been counted and 38 people had passed away from respiratory complications.
Hereafter, the spread occurred in a matter of weeks. Little by little, it became known that the affected peasant and indigenous populations had no access to specialized healthcare centres. Partly because of the remote locations, and partly because they lacked the economic resources to commute once a medical emergency has taken place.
3.1. Current situation COVID-19 and the indigenous
Currently, a total of 44 indigenous towns affected by COVID -19 are reported. Among them, the greatest impact has been on the Wayuu population. That is because the area they inhabit has water shortages due to the desert geography that characterizes it. The area also borders towns where there are large mobilizations of products and trade between Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, as well as indigenous people residing in cities “after being forcibly displaced because of the armed conflict […] and have to be exposed to seek alternative subsistence. “.
The National government maintains preventive measures such as isolation in rural areas recognized as indigenous. Also, the government has delved into efforts to reach as many as possible vaccines, presented through the “National Vaccination Plan to Permanent Board of Indigenous Concertation” in Colombia. It was intended since of March 2021,
“to contemplate the unification of phases and prioritization stages, according to the georeferencing of certain communities, in order to guarantee the vaccination of the entire population “.
The figures regarding the number of vaccines currently distributed and the indigenous peoples who have had access to them are not yet clear. That is partly due to the habitability conditions of residents who do not have a verified state census and who are mobilized by different areas to avoid new infections.
In this regard, some deep-rooted indigenous councils have opted for traditional medicines and characteristic rituals to control and prevent the spread of a virus that does not seem to have strong medical control. In addition, due to the different strains that have been found in various parts of the world, where Colombia is not the exception.
4. What can be done to improve the situation of COVID-19 and the indigenous?
The main conclusion to draw from this article is that COVID-19 is an additional risk for indigenous people whose rights are already violated in many different ways. The pandemic is another thing they must overcome with the little information they have about the disease.
Although the rights of indigenous communities are consecrated in the Political Constitution of Colombia in an extensive number of laws and regulations that seek their protection, the reality is far from what is written. The population is exposed to a number of risks and obstacles that inhibit their free development, the conservation of their territory and the teaching of their customs and socio-cultural organization in a society that little recognizes them and that ignores a large part of their political and economic structure.
Different from what might be thought in regards to the presence of illegal groups, mandatory militarization for some of the indigenous youth, and forced displacement outside their territory, the pandemic only adds challenges that must be practically settled in anonymity. For instance, some media outlets and the majority of the inhabitants of the most populated cities are unaware of the needs of indigenous towns regarding health, education, housing and transportation. This adds obstacles to avoid the spread of a virus that seems to be far from extinction.
4.1. What are the indigenous people doing themselves to stop the pandemic?
However, most indigenous councils and reservations ensure biosecurity actions and use the available environmental services to ensure constant hands washing, food disinfection, and to remain socially distancing by staying away from crowds and other possible sources of contagion.
Indigenous people in the Colombian territory are of high cultural importance since their actions in rural, forested, mountainous, desert and moorland territories ensure the conservation of the environment. Also, their values, traditions, languages and culture date back to the origin of the social development of Colombians.
It is concluded then, that the state’s challenge is to rethink the importance of this population and to generate tools and processes that improve their life quality.
In addition, measures need to be put in place to preserve the traditionality and ancestral upbringing patterns that have been overshadowed by a blunt and marked disease of which the indigenous people know little. But they still have to face the threat like many of the other challenges they are slowly aiming to overcome.
This is important because the indigenous people are an important and integral part of Colombian society. And the non-indigenous Colombians treat them as just another compatriot and friend.
 According to the NGO “Help in action”, the indigenous populations in the American continent have a large territorial presence that is often economically and politically unknown . ” (Help in action 2018). The 102 indigenous communities in Colombia. Taken from: https://ayudaenaccion.org/ong/blog/derechos-humanos/comunidades-indigenas-colombia/
 DANE is an entity of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia founded in October 1951, whose mission is to plan, implement and evaluate rigorous processes of production and communication of statistical information at the national level, which comply with international standards and make use of innovation and technology that support the understanding and solution of the country’s social, economic and environmental problems. Taken from: https://www.dane.gov.co/index.php/acerca-del-dane/informacion-institucional/generalidades
 According to the National Planning Department (NPD), the malocas are a type of traditional infrastructure used as a dwelling or meeting place for the indigenous population “made of wood and thatched roof, currently built and inhabited by the chiefs and / or elders of indigenous communities ”in Colombia. (Acosta, et, al, 2006), (DPN, 2016.). 23 guidelines for the construction of traditional infrastructure. Taken from: https://proyectostipo.dnp.gov.co/images/pdf/traditional/PTtraditional.pdf
 The indigenous towns in Colombia each have different forms of political organization. However, they highlight as a common pattern the existence of a Governor at the head of the councils, a Shaman, a Captain, a Police or Sheriff and a traditional doctor as some of the most important positions. (Ministry of Culture, 2017). Characterizations of the indigenous towns of Colombia. Taken from: https://www.mincultura.gov.co/prensa/noticias/Documents/Poblaciones/PUEBLO%20UCOMAJA.pdf
 “In Colombia 70 languages are spoken: Spanish and 69 native languages. Among them, 65 are indigenous languages, 2 Creole languages, 2 Romani languages and the Colombian sign language […] for indigenous towns, inhabitants in 30 of the 32 departments of Colombia, the mother language is more than an instrument for communication; Language structures thought, creates links, articulates social relationships and with the cosmos, transmits the essence, tradition and wisdom from generation to generation. The language creates, advises, accompanies, transforms and heals” (National Authority of Indigenous Government – ONIC, 2015). 65 of the 69 native languages in Colombia are indigenous. Taken from: https://www.onic.org.co/noticias/636-65-lenguas-nativas-de-las-69-en-colombia-son-indigenas
 United Nations Refugee Agency – UNHCR (2015). Colombia Situation (Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela: Indigenous. Taken from: https://www.acnur.org/fileadmin/Documentos/RefugiadosAmericas/Colombia/Situacion_Colombia_-_Pueblos_indigenas_2011.pdf
 “ Since 2016, 569 indigenous leaders have been murdered, of which 242 after the signing of the Peace Agreement (November 24th, 2016, Teatro Colón) and 167 during the presidency of Iván Duque (as of June 8th, 2016). 2020). 47 Indians have been murdered during 2020, 14 leaders have been killed in 2020, during the first pandemic quarantine Covid – 19 “(Perafán, 2020). Assassinated indigenous leaders. Taken from: http://www.indepaz.org.co/lideres-indigenas-asesinados/
 Statista (2021). Number of people who died as a result of the coronavirus worldwide as of May 16, 2021, by continent. Taken from: https://es.statista.com/estadisticas/1107719/covid19-numero-de-muertes-a-nivel-mundial-por-region/
 Data from the National Institute of Health (2021). Report of May 20th, 2021. Taken from: https://www.ins.gov.co/Noticias/paginas/coronavirus.aspx
 Deaths only in the department of Amazonas represent 6.6% of the total deaths from Covid – 19 in the country (Ortiz, González and Licht, 2020). Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Amazon, Colombia. Taken from: www.revistas.ius.edu.co
 Reliefweb (2020). Situation of indigenous towns in Colombia in the context of COVID – July 19th, 2020. Taken from: https://reliefweb.int/report/colombia/situaci-n-de-los-pueblos-ind-genas-en- Colombia-in-the-context-of-covid-19-july-de
 Ministry of Health (2021). National Vaccination Plan for the Permanent Board of Indigenous Concertation. Taken from: https://www.minsalud.gov.co/Paginas/Se-presento-Plan-Nacional-de-Vacunacion-a-Mesa-Permanente-de-Concertacion-Indigena.aspx