By Sara Mediavilla, Survival International

“Look! There are some Nukak!” said my guide and friend, Edilson, pointing through the window while we were having a warm and comforting fish soup for breakfast in a café in San José del Guaviare, Colombia. It was raining heavily and a group of around 10 women, children, babies and a few men were standing under a roof across the street. They seemed anxious, looking in all directions. We quickly finished our breakfast and crossed the street while Edilson waved his hand to them. As soon as they recognised their old friend their faces changed, looking happy and relieved, as we approached them. They had come to the city early in the morning to try to get some food, medicine and supplies- “Some to beg and get alcohol too.” Edilson added. They had been waiting for hours for the truck that was supposed to take them back to Aguabonita, one of the 14 temporary Nukak settlements outside San Jose del Guaviare, but the truck was yet to arrive. Edilson welcomed three mothers with their babies into his car; two babies were sick with fever and diarrhoea - “probably malaria he said”, We took them to Aguabonita and spent the rest of the day there, visiting the families in their malocas (big open, communal houses). The rest of the group arrived later in the day.

This is the daily reality of the Nukak tribe in Guaviare Department in Colombia- once covered with dense Amazon forest, now a cropped landscape with the trees destroyed by cattle ranchers and settlers.

The Nukak are the last Indigenous people to be contacted by mainstream Colombian society, and one of the last nomadic tribes in the country. They were first contacted in 1988, when a group of approximately 40 appeared unexpectedly at a recently founded settlers’ town called Calamar, in the Nukak’s territory. The consequences were dramatic. In the following years, partly as a result of loggers and coca plantation workers invading their land, more and more Nukak came into contact with outsiders. Many of them were devastated by diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and flu. Since 1988, more than half the tribe has died. In 2019, the Constitutional Court declared the Nukak to be one of at least 32 tribes in Colombia at “imminent risk of extinction”. Currently, only around 900 Nukak survive.

In 1988, the Nukak were considered one of the most mobile tribes in Latin America. Today, as a result of forced displacement by the invaders, the Nukak are confined to 14 settlements in Guaviare Department which lie outside their ancestral territory. Although they were prioritised in Colombia's recent Peace Agreement negotiations, the gravity of their situation has not improved. Largely ignored by the central government, there is no updated census of their population, and they lack access to basic healthcare, education, and job opportunities. Their precarious state and recent contact with mainstream society make them extremely vulnerable to common diseases like flu and measles to which they have no immunity. The young Nukak, are particularly exposed to alcohol and drug abuse, sexual exploitation, and recruitment as forced labour in the illegal coca plantations.

The Nukak Indigenous Reserve was created by the Colombian Government in 1993 and icovers 954,000 hectares. Today, it has been significantly deforested - about 25% has been cleared due to illegal crops (mainly coca cultivation), agribusiness, logging and wildlife trafficking, and it continues to be invaded by armed guerrillas and paramilitaries. There are reports of landmines inside their territory.

With the support of some NGOs, the Nukak have drafted a “Return Home Plan” for prospecting and to live in their ancestral territory. A decree approved in 2011 establishes

“measures of assistance, care, complete reparation and restitution of territorial rights to the victims [of the armed conflict] of Indigenous peoples and communities”.

However, returning is dangerous and the longer this plan takes to implement, the more conflict it will create within the communities, as the younger Nukak prefer to live closer to the cities rather than returning to the forest.

Time is running out - if the Nukak are to thrive as an independent and self-sufficient people the central government must act now and guarantee their safe return to their land. Now more than ever, the Nukak need their international allies like Survival International to support their fight.

“We want to return to our land. There we had clean water and there were no “zancudos” (the mosquito that transmits malaria). We are very abandoned here, but the Nukak always fight for their family” says Alex Nukak.

Sara Mediavilla works for Survival International and has recently returned from a fieldtrip in Colombia to complete her MSc in International Development