GRANADA, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 18: Colombian indigenous travel on the highway between Fusagasugá and Bogotá demanding meeting with President Iván Duque October 18, 2020 in Granada, Colombia. Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images.

In Colombia, Translating Words into Action is Tough Ask

Inequality for indigenous people and Afro-Colombians is striking in a country with a progressive constitution built on multi-ethnic, multicultural principles.


  • Article
  • 26 Jan 2021
  • 8 min read


When 10,000 indigenous peoples, joined by Afro-Colombians and campesinos, reached the Colombian capital of Bogotá on 20 October 2020 after a ten-day march, they hoped to meet with President Iván Duque Márquez – but he refused to see them.

Although primarily a reaction to sustained violence and killings of indigenous and Afro-Colombian community leaders, the march was also to express long-standing grievances at a lack of inclusion, and discontent at the Duque government’s delayed implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement negotiated with the FARC guerrillas by previous president Juan Manuel Santos.

Since Duque’s inauguration in 2018, the implementation of several commitments from the peace plan have slowed, leading to complaints over unmet promises and a rise in violence. New guerrilla movements of disgruntled FARC combatants have formed, as they continue to participate in drugs and illicit goods trade – far more lucrative activities than the occupations proposed for them by the peace agreement, such as running a farm or a bakery.

The protest march started predominantly from the south-western region of Cauca but then drew protesters from all over the country, walking or driving in overcrowded trucks and buses to Bogotá. Indigenous peoples are predominantly victims of illicit land appropriation while Afro-Colombians are chiefly affected by racial discrimination – but both suffer from similar marginalization and displacement.

Uniting under the name of Minga Indigenaminga means ‘shared effort for the collective good’ in the indigenous language Quechua – this is certainly not the first time indigenous and Afro-Colombians have mobilized for their rights, but ethnic, racial, political, economic, and social inclusion, and access to social safety nets remain difficult to achieve, despite the country’s progressive Constitution.

Drafted in 1991, Article 7 declares that ‘the State recognises and protects the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian Nation’ and Article 8 says ‘it is the obligation of the State and of individuals to protect the cultural and natural assets of the nation’. But 30 years on, Afro-Colombians and indigenous are still more likely to be employed in the informal sector than the rest of the population, and healthcare systems in the proximity of their main settlements are heavily underfunded.

Research in 2017 by Colombian research and advocacy organization Dejusticia shows Afro-Colombians have double the rate of infant mortality and hunger compared to the mestizo population, and that Afro-Colombian women live on average 11 years less than the national average, with men about six years less.

Meanwhile the most recent national nutritional government survey from 2015 found that 77 per cent of the Wayúu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group, are food insecure. In addition, the Wayúu mostly live in the state of La Guajira where the official death rate for children under the age of five was almost six times the national rate in 2019.

Colombia’s new rise in violence

An increased – and now more localized – conflict has now further worsened conditions for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities caught between the government and the new illegal armed groups. The Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) claims that 300 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed in 2020, and it was reported there were 61 incidents in which three or more civilians were killed by armed groups, compared to 35 in 2019.

This surge in massacres stems from both ex-FARC and new guerrilla combatants’ efforts to maintain access to illicit markets and from the new mano-dura strategies adopted by the government, which includes a ‘New Plan Colombia’ – a risky militarized approach to deal with increased crimes.

Both the 1991 Constitution and the 2016 Peace Agreement emerged out of progressive, honest intentions and have yielded positive outcomes, such as the 2018 elections being the most peaceful in the last 60 years. Many ex-FARC combatants have laid down their arms and are collaborating with the government, and 76 per cent of them report being optimistic about their future following the government's actions to provide them with access to essential services such as healthcare and financial, employment, and educational support.

But Colombia is still far from achieving inclusion, peace and security – by the end of 2019, more than 7.9 million victims of forced displacement since 1985 had been recorded, with 25.4 per cent of them indigenous people and 21 per cent Afro-Colombians. And in 2019 alone more than 16,500 indigenous and Afro-Colombians were forced into confinement by guerrilla groups.

Despite the inclusive messages of the Constitution, new forms of discrimination continue to be justified. As Mauro Chipiaje, indigenous community leader from the Meta region explained: ‘Colombia is a country of paradoxes. On the one hand, it has some of the highest standards and the most protocols and institutions protecting human rights defenders, but at the same time more people are killed there than anywhere else for trying to protect the land and environment’.

The situation deteriorated so much between 1998 and 2008 that the country failed to report to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). So, although the 2009 report presented to the CERD showed a slight shift towards recognizing that Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities still suffer from discrimination, this comes after ten years of neglect. And in 2019, CERD raised new concerns over violence against Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, especially community leaders.

Inequality remains too high

The World Bank continues to rank Colombia as one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the 2016 Peace Agreement represents another instance of a governmental commitment to peace and security – especially for marginalized groups – which has been mostly unsuccessful in delivering on noble goals.

Resistance to the ambitious deal was already in evidence when it was initially rejected in a popular referendum only later to be approved by Congress anyway. In the 2018 presidential elections, Duque openly opposed the deal and promised to dismantle it.

This failure of the government to translate high ideals – enshrined in the 1991 Constitution and the 2016 Peace Agreement – into tangible improvements to address long-standing inequalities afflicting indigenous and Afro-Colombians has all led to the October 2020 march to Bogotá.

The key now is to focus on building from the ground up, developing tailored programs to tackle specific ‘binding constraints’ in communities – this can increase access to healthcare, provide protection to local communities, and build jobs and critical infrastructure at the local level.

Only by creating such concrete, localized efforts which are founded on the high-minded ideals of the 1991 Constitution and the 2016 Peace Agreement, can inclusion and justice finally be achieved after such a long journey.