for National Geographic News
Civil strife and wars over the plant source of cocaine are pushing one of Colombia's last hunter-gather cultures into ruinous contact with modernity, rights groups say.
For millennia the Nukak Maku have lived a nomadic existence in the tropical forests of southern Colombia in a small swath of land below the Guaviare River (Colombia map). Tribe members still hunt game with blowguns, fish with bows and arrows, and gather berries.
But the Amazon lands that sustain the tribe are being overrun by Colombia's drug war. The tribe's troubles have even led one leader to commit suicide.
(Related: "Reporter Lisa Ling on Going Inside Colombia Drug War" [December 5, 2003].)
Clashes between coca-plant-growing colonists, right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, and Colombian antidrug troops—flush with U.S. military aid—are increasing in the tribe's territory.
The estimated 500 remaining members of the Nukak—who made first contact with modern society only in 1988—are caught in the crossfire.
"The guerilla groups think [the Nukak] are collaborators with the government, and the government troops think they are collaborating with the guerillas," said Luis Evelis Andrade of Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), a Bogotá, Colombia-based indigenous-rights group working with the tribe.
"This has meant murders, threats, kidnappings, and blockades of food and medicine that have nearly destroyed the Nukak."
Things have gotten so bad that last March some 120 Nukak walked half-naked out of the forest and into the stunned jungle community of San José del Guaviare.
A tribal leader named Mao-be was soon asking Colombian officials for protection, pledges to cease armed conflicts in their territories, and money for getting back home.
Colombia is widely known for its progressive legal stances on indigenous rights. But ONIC's Andrade said the government told the Nukak that it could not guarantee their security.
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