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UN Says Some Indigenous Groups in Colombia Threatened With Extinction

The UN refugee agency reports thousands of indigenous people in Colombia continue to be displaced from their homes. The UNHCR warns ongoing fighting between illegal armed groups could cause some of the more vulnerable indigenous groups and their cultures to disappear.

In the latest incident, the U.N. refugee agency says about 2,000 indigenous Embera people have been displaced this month from their territories in different areas along the Baudo River in the Colombian department of Choco.

The UNHCR says they fled as a result of threats and conflict between two illegal armed groups.

This is not a new experience for the Embera people. They have been repeatedly displaced by fighting between the nation's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and a right-wing paramilitary group called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

The United States considers both terrorist groups.

UNHCR Spokesman, Ron Redmond, says the illegal armed groups use the Embera as pawns in their ongoing conflict. He says many of the Embera report they fled their homes after one or another of the groups tried to force them to collaborate in attacks against the rival group.
"There has been a swift humanitarian response by the government and other agencies to this," said Redmond. "We are concerned about the continuing protection of these communities. There are credible reports of abuses that need to be investigated including the murder of an indigenous woman and the rape of another two in one community."

Redmond says indigenous people throughout the region are under constant pressure from illegal armed groups, many involved in the drug trade. He says they are facing increasing restrictions on their ability to hunt or fish in their traditional homelands. This, he says, essentially strips them of their means of survival.

"There are at least 27 different indigenous groups in Colombia that are considered to be at risk of extinction largely as a result of armed conflict and forced displacement. Their survival depends greatly on being able to remain on their traditional lands," he added. "But, unfortunately, many have been driven from those lands and they have been dispersed throughout the country, sometimes in distant urban centers. And, we fear that many of them will never go home."

There are about one million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages.

These groups represent only two to three percent of Colombia's total population, but comprise about eight percent of the more than two million internally displaced people in the country.