International Life News

Colombia’s last nomadic tribe in despair at loss of culture

Image: A Colombian Nukak Maku Indian child rests in a refugee camp at Agua Bonita near San Jose del Guaviare of Guaviare province September 3, 2015. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

By Anastasia Moloney

SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Born into the last known nomadic tribe in Colombia, Joaquin Niijbe spent his boyhood roaming the jungle and hunting monkeys.

His life changed dramatically 10 years ago when his tribe was forced off its rainforest reserve by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

Now 27 and a leader of the Nukak Maku tribe, he has seen the clash with the modern world and the loss of ancestral homelands that were his forefathers’ for thousands of years, drive many to alcoholism, drug abuse and even suicide.

Since emerging from the jungle in 2005, half naked and carrying blowpipes, the Nukak have lived in settlements near the frontier town of San Jose del Guaviare, a humid outpost in the Amazon 400 km (250 miles) southeast of the capital Bogota.

“We’re losing our culture. In our lands we have everything we need, fruit trees, fish, animals. Our territory is like our mother. The spirits who protect and defend us are there,” said Niijbe, standing near one of the seven settlements, Agua Bonita.

“In my heart there’s been a lot of sadness because our children don’t learn about our culture.”

The Nukak first made contact with the outside world in 1988 – one of the last of Colombia’s 102 tribes to do so. Disease has killed more than half of them since then, and they now number only about 500.

They are just one of 34 indigenous groups at risk of extinction in Colombia, forced to flee their lands by warring factions in the country’s 51-year conflict.

“I’ve seen the Nukak cry,” said local mayor Geovanny Gomez.
“I’ve seen them demand (a) return to their territory. Many of them see, and are aware, that they are losing the real Nukak.”

At Agua Bonita, an area of lush farmland set aside by the government for the 80 Nukak who live here, the collapse of the tribe’s traditional way of life is palpable.

Corrugated zinc has replaced palm-leaf roofs, the village is strewn with litter, music blaring from the radio has driven out Nukak songs, and fizzy drinks and government food aid have replaced the staple diet of forest berries and monkey meat.

Government medical missions to Nukak settlements to treat malnutrition and respiratory diseases are replacing traditional doctors.

Nukak men now face a two-week trek through rainforest to find monkeys, so they are hunting less.

These days they are more likely to play football or loll in their hammocks, while older women and children walk barefoot to town to sell the bracelets and baskets they weave.

The move to settlements has forced the Nukak to grapple with once alien concepts like borders, private property and money.

Such rapid change has produced anxiety and stress, along with a deep sense of loss they find hard to handle.

“When we live on our lands we get knowledge. Now we don’t. It’s getting lost,” said Niijbe, who now wears jeans, has a mobile phone and speaks Spanish.

Luis Fernando Arias, head of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), said mental illness stemmed from a lack of balance and harmony between heart and mind.

“When there’s a rupture, a disconnect, a break away from our spiritual lands, the heart is in one place and the mind in another. That’s the reality the Nukak face, which causes what you would call depression,” said Arias from the Kankuamo tribe.

The Nukak used to move on every 10 days or so, moving with the seasons, crossing vast stretches of jungle terrain and snaking rivers in search of food.

“The Nukak are now sedentary, which implies a different connection and relationship with the land and how they live. This causes uncertainty and emotional instability,” said Arias.

In extreme cases, the stress caused by displacement has driven members of the Nukak to suicide.

In 2006, the tribe’s then leader, Mow be, committed suicide using barbasco, a poisonous potion made from tropical plants.

“He hoped his people would be helped and they could return to the jungle. He spoke at the Constitutional Court about the Nukak’s plight. But nothing happened,” said Arias.

“Others like him feel impotent, powerless to solve the problems their people face, and have taken their own life,” he said, adding that at least eight more suicides have been reported among the Nukak since then.

Niijbe, however, said suicide was a feature of the Nukak way of life before the tribe was uprooted: “I think it’s in our culture that allows one to kill oneself. This existed before.”
The Nukak are polygamous and once lived in small groups in the jungle. But now in the settlements they are clustered in large groups of up to 100, straining community and family ties.

“We argue a lot. Couples and families fight,” said Mayerli Katua, a mother of two living in Agua Bonita.

Survival International says mental health is an issue for any indigenous tribe dispossessed of its lands.

“They are caught between two worlds. They have no connection to their past or their future. They are in limbo,” said Rebecca Spooner, a campaigner with the tribal rights group in London.

Among the Nukak, teenagers who have never known or can no longer recall life as hunter-gatherer nomads, suffer acutely.

Barely literate, speaking broken Spanish, and not in mainstream schools, many wrestle to find their identity.

“Young men have been consuming marijuana, drugs, and liquor. In our territory our life isn’t like that. Because they get drunk they get into fights quickly,” said Niijbe.

Whether the Nukak can return home depends largely on peace talks in Cuba that have gone on for nearly three years.

“We’re waiting for them to sign a peace deal. If they do, we’ll go back to our territory,” said Niijbe. “If we don’t go back to our territory, then that might be the end of us.”

Even if a peace deal is signed, some Nukak, especially the younger ones, do not want to return to the jungle.

“I don’t want to go back. I’m afraid of the bad men (FARC guerrillas) there. I feel safer here,” said Katua, 24. “Besides my children were born here. What do they know of the jungle?”

To watch the video of the Nukak tribe’s story please go to

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Alex Whiting. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.


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