Drug Wars Threaten to Wipe Out Amazon Nomads

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
April 27, 2007
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."

Protection Sought

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.

On August 11 Colombian officials did relocate the Nukak to a protected area in nearby Puerto Ospina.

But David Hill, of the London-based indigenous-culture advocacy group Survival International, said the relocation "backfired" and the Nukak have since moved back to San José del Guaviare.

"The new land was very small, threat of conflict remained, [and local rivers] lacked fish stock," among other shortcomings, said Hill, who recently visited the Nukak.

Lina Maria Arsitizábal Arias, a spokesperson for the government agency Social Action that has directed aid to the Nukak, said "the government has done much to help."

Arsitizábal Arias said Social Action worked with health and military officials to coordinate a considerable amount of aid from institutions and individuals. Officials established a small farm for the Nukak and later helped those who wanted to return to the jungle.

"Nearly 200 Nukak were transported initially to Puerto Ospina, … where they started a journey back into the forest, Arsitizábal Arias said in an email.

The Nukak, which she described as "the only nomadic tribe left in Colombia," were given nutritional supplements, school breakfasts, and fishing kits for their journey back home.

But rebel guerrillas blocked the Nukaks return, Arsitizábal Arias said, and officials are currently working on four alternative routes back into the jungle.

Meanwhile, she said, the 160 Nukak still living outside their jungle home are being cared for and supported by government institutions.

Survival International has called on the Colombian government to halt hostilities on the Nukak's land.

"Unless all sides agree to suspend their operations in this area and allow medical teams to work there, the effects on the Nukak could be catastrophic," the advocacy group said in a media statement.

"Gas on the Fire"

Many critics blame Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program that funds Colombia's coca-eradication efforts.

The program has fallen under intense criticism for its aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, which activists say also kills legal crops and causes health problems for residents of jungle communities.

Echoing human rights and environmental groups, Wade Davis, an explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, says Plan Colombia has been a devastating failure. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

U.S. military subsidies for Colombia's coca wars have been "gas on the fire" of a drawn-out civil war that would have otherwise "petered out due to sheer national exhaustion," Davis said.

The project has failed to diminish coca production but has managed to empower the Colombian military and "rationalize a continuation of the war. … ," he said.

"It has accomplished little except the idiocy of destroying the environment with herbicides."

The U.S. government's Office of National Drug Control Policy maintains that coca acreage under cultivation in Colombia fell between 2001—the year the program started—and 2005.

In addition to drug wars, the Nukak face other threats due to globalization in the region.

In recent years high world commodities prices have sparked an oil and natural gas boom along the eastern slopes of the Andes and the adjacent Amazon lowlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

"Whenever the Nukak have stood up to these multinational corporations, it has meant more threats, expulsions, and disappearances," ONIC's Andrade said.

"They don't have vaccines, proper food, or security."

Hill, of Survival International, said that many activists suspect "that the government's apparent inability or unwillingness to help the Nukak relocate to their territory is due to the fact that there are oil reserves."

Deep Isolation

The Nukak follow a relatively rare preference for living a nomadic life deep in the Amazon forests rather than along settled riverside villages. As a result, their distance from contemporary ways is immense.

When asked if they were concerned about the future, Mao-be—the only member who learned some Spanish—seemed to have no concept of the word, according to a March report by the New York Times.

Some Nukak asked if planes that flew over the jungle canopy traveled along invisible roads.

But the Nukak still seem keenly attuned to the problems caused by outsiders.

"We are few now, hardly any Nukak remain," Survival International quoted one Nukak man as saying. "The outsiders are many, and have big houses. They don't care that the Nukak are being wiped out."

For some Nukak, this attitude has led to irrecoverable despair: In October, Mao-be killed himself by drinking poison.

"From what we can tell, he felt the responsibility to get the Nukak back home," Andrade said. "He felt he had failed."

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