Guaviare (2) – The security situation Maps of detected trafficking routes
Apr 282008

The Nukak Makú are an indigenous group of perhaps 600 nomadic hunter-gatherers who were first “contacted” by the outside world in 1988. Deep in the jungles of eastern Guaviare department, they have their own language and intricate set of customs. The men hunt monkeys and other prey with blowguns, the women weave intricate armbands and baskets. They have only a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture.

The Nukak somehow missed out on the Spanish conquest and all that came after it. This has meant no access to even the most basic technology – not even light bulbs or radios – and no knowledge of what the rest of Homo sapiens has gone through. (Imagine gazing upon the moon and not knowing that people had been there.)

On the other hand, it also meant no enslavement, no theft of their lands, and no involvement in the frequent armed conflicts that have marked Colombia’s history. But their luck is quickly running out.

Increased contact with the outside world has meant death by unfamiliar diseases for perhaps half the Nukak since the early 1990s. It has meant murder at the hands of landowners on whose property Nukak hunters have unwittingly strayed. It has meant coca growers encroaching on the land that the Colombian government “reserved” for the Nukak, cutting down old-growth rainforest in order to grow the lucrative crop used to make cocaine.

And now, perhaps inevitably, it has meant combat between the military and the FARC guerrillas in the territory where the Nukak Makú have ranged for generations. Many of the remaining Nukak, a peaceful people, have fled.

Now about sixty are in a settlement about ten minutes’ drive outside San José del Guaviare, a patch of land called Aguabonita that is the property of the mayor’s office. A shifting, leaderless group of displaced Nukak (they go in and out of the jungle, and in and out of the town of San José) has been in Aguabonita since 2006.

Journalist Juan Forero, then writing for the New York Times, visited the site in 2006, shortly after their arrival. He compared them to a second group of Nukak that had previously arrived at a settlement in Barrancón, to the east of San José del Guaviare.

What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in a clearing called Barrancón.

Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They also have no plans to return to the forest.

That, unfortunately, is a fair description of what I saw in Aguabonita in April 2008.

After driving through an expanse of cattle ranches, one arrives at a stand of trees, which opens up into a clearing of perhaps an acre. The ground is well-worn dirt, and dust coats everything. The Nukak live in a cluster of six or seven open-sided thatch-roofed huts strung with hammocks, an arrangement similar to what they would have in the middle of the jungle.

In the huts, cooking fires are always burning; instead of set mealtimes, a Nukak eats small amounts all day long. As hunter-gatherers, they do not work if food stocks are sufficient; they spend much of the hot day reclining in hammocks. Donated food supplies – most bearing the seal of the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, some with the USAID logo – are stacked overhead, on planks laid just below each hut’s roof. Despite the food deliveries, I saw at least two children with the light hair and swollen bellies typical of severe malnutrition.


(This basket, I was told, holds aid items for which the Nukak have no use, like lentils, pasta and toothpaste.)

When they want something other than the donated food, Nukak go back into the jungle to hunt. Monkeys in particular are a preferred food. When a hunter kills a monkey carrying offspring, the baby monkey is kept as a pet. Several young monkeys were living alongside the Nukak at Aguabonita, some adopted by children on whose shoulders they inseparably sat. Monkey and child even eat from the same bowl.

Though it was hard to get definitive information from a few linguistically difficult conversations, I gathered that the violence the Nukak have suffered has been principally at the hands of guerrillas. As “Plan Patriota” and similar military offensives have brought periodic sweeps into increasingly remote parts of Guaviare, the FARC, fleeing frontal combat, has moved into the Nukak Makú reserve.

Guerrillas have dealt harshly with Nukak whom they believe are helping the military, whether by providing them with food, serving as guides, or showing them where coca has been planted. Though I did not hear about this, the UK-based indigenous-rights group Survival International reports that the Colombian military has recently confronted the guerrillas by carrying out aerial bombings in Nukak lands.

One Nukak man told me that the FARC had killed a member of their group, apparently for helping the military. “Everyone was crying, fathers, mothers, wives, everyone crying.” When I asked how long ago this happened – it seemed like he was talking about something recent, so I asked “how many days ago” – he could not answer. An aid worker from the mayor’s office explained that the Nukak do not keep count of time that way.

At times, my attempts to communicate with the Nukak felt like talking to extraterrestrials. Few of them have any command of Spanish. Even greetings and goodbyes made little sense. Unable to communicate with the kids who gathered around me, I resorted to drawing little cartoon faces in my notebook. I offered them my pen and some paper; within a few minutes several children had black ink drawn on their cheeks and foreheads, resembling the reddish-orange facial paint that some adults wore.


(On the chair in this picture’s foreground are newly made blowgun darts.)

I noted a desire to fit in with the new world on display a few miles away in San José del Guaviare. All adults had opted to wear clothing, though in the jungle they wear little more than loincloths. Baseball hats and sunglasses were popular items. Some had allowed their traditional close-cropped haircuts to grow in. One teenage girl wore earbuds connected to a pocket-sized radio. What was she listening to? “Reggaetón.” Some Nukak, municipal authorities told me, had developed a fondness for alcohol, and could be found sleeping off benders on the park benches in Guaviare’s main square.

Those in Augabonita had clearly grasped the concept of cash. Several women were busily weaving armbands and baskets to sell in town. When offered some armbands to buy, I pulled my pesos out of my pocket, and discovered a U.S. dollar among them.

I then made the mistake of showing them the first dollar they had ever seen. A crowd of Nukak quickly assembled around me, passing the bill from hand to hand. I explained that it was worth about 2,000 pesos. A few minutes later, one of the Nukak tapped me on the shoulder and made me take the dollar back. He made clear that it had been decided that they would rather have 2,000 pesos instead.

The Nukak life I briefly observed in Aguablanca appeared as a bewildering series of contradictions. A path from the clearing leads to the river, where they bathe a customary four times a day – but they live in a littered, highly unsanitary space that surely taxes their immune systems. They fear the increased violence in the Guaviare wilderness, but wander into the jungle for weeks at a time. They have no traditional definition of property or money, but have begun to want the material goods on offer in town. They may wish to opt out of Colombian society and be left alone, but they also exhibit a strong desire to be near, or in, the main town (as evidenced by the nine or ten Nukak who rode back into town with us, hitching a ride in the back of our pickup truck – twice as many had wanted to come).

This is a group of people caught between several bad options. The countryside is unsafe. Integration into Colombian society or economy would be very hard after an unschooled lifetime in the jungle. The status quo, meanwhile, is a squalid camp and an increasingly dependent relationship on the state and others who provide handouts.

It is hard to make a policy recommendation. Keeping the displaced Nukak alive and healthy has to be the priority, of course, and the Colombian government and international donors should ensure that the small amount of resources necessary to do that is in place. But while it may keep them alive, supporting the Nukak on the outskirts of San José may kill their culture.

Ultimately, the Nukak Makú will have to choose. The security situation in rural Guaviare may make their sojourn an indefinitely long one, but their current arrangement is a miserable limbo, not a long-term solution.

Those who wish to return to the forest will not have their security guaranteed as long as Colombia’s government is unable to keep guerrillas and coca-growers out of the remote zone that has been reserved for them. All indications are that the FARC will be in this area, as well as many other parts of Guaviare, for some time to come. If they cannot protect the Nukak, the Colombian security forces must avoid involving them in activities – even requesting food or information – that may mean death at the hands of cruel, paranoid guerrillas.

Those who choose to make the leap into modern Colombia will need help doing so. They will need assistance with everything from learning Spanish, to learning a marketable skill, to learning how to manage whatever resources they earn. Many, particularly the older generation, may fail to prosper.

Anthropologists and historians of the Americas remind us that what has befallen the Nukak Makú is an old story, one that has been repeated with hundreds of indigenous ethnicities since the conquest. Still, there is the faint, perhaps foolish hope that maybe this time, in the 21st century, perhaps we could “get it right.”

Hundreds of years after the holocaust Latin America’s indigenous communities suffered at the hands of the Spanish crown, the Inquisition, and the encomienda system, haven’t we learned anything? Aren’t we now able to abolish the short timespan that, for so many indigenous groups, has separated first contact and extinction? With a relatively small investment from the Colombian and other governments, isn’t there a way to preserve an indigenous culture, traditions and language while reaping the benefits of modernity – everything from sanitation to medicine to agriculture to written language?

I think the answer to all of these questions is “yes” – we do have the knowledge, the ability, and the resources. Whether these are available for the Nukak, though, is less clear. Faced with violent death on one side and cultural death on the other, their time is running out quickly.

Next: non-military aid in Guaviare

7 Responses to “The Nukak Makú, caught in between”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Adam, great pieces so far about Guaviare in general; I still wonder if the lack of comments is indicative, but that is besides the point. I had wondered what had happened with regards to the Nukak Maku, because, well, in 2006 more appeared from the jungle; in 2007, the vice-president’s human rights program did a piece about them (probably because the guerrillas are to blame mostly for their displacement) and since then, their status had lingered (in my mind) and I couldn’t find much about them. Now there is another update, and things remain unclear for them, probably as unclear as anything in Colombia these days.
    One thing though I still wonder is whether the suicide of their main leader (his name escapes me) which was unheard of ever in the Maku’s culture has left the lingering effect on their society? I imagine many things have compounded that and left them in the place where they are now. Like you side, violent death on one side and cultural death on the other probably has done that the most. Great piece overall though.

  2. jcg Says:

    The only thing I can say is I haven’t had enough time to comment as much as I’d wish lately, but this is certainly some great coverage so far.

    I hate being somewhat pessimistic about the Nukak’s future…yet I find it difficult to imagine that their culture will survive, even if their lives could well be improved. At the very least, they’d have to adapt to the modern world by becoming sedentary and not nomadic. That alone raises several questions, and perhaps leaving them alone was probably the best solution after all. But it’s not really viable right now, given the continuing conflict.

  3. Kyle Says:

    I agree as well jcg; at some point they have to adapt, at least temporarily, to the modern world, and some press coverage from 2006 demonstrated that they were ok with that (I believe it was Juan Forero in the NY Times with the article entitled (more or less) “Out of the jungle and rather liking the change.” Of course, that was two years ago; now is a different story.
    I’m not sure about leaving them alone; of course now it is not viable, but the future may present the opportunity (at some point). The key is, will they want to then? Will (possibly) the next generation want to be left alone if their culture is dying, i.e. will they choose to assimilate? To make this decision of course should be left to the Nukak and not anyone else.

  4. Kyle Says:

    Anyone else see this, I know it’s Scoop but still at least relevant?

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO0804/S00290.htm

  5. Tambopaxi Says:

    Tragic. The narrative and photos depict a small, fragile culture on the verge of extinction.

    With numbers as small as the 600 quoted in post, plus the uprooting from their home territory, dependence on local authorities, etc. All of these factors do not bode well for the survival of this little cultural/linguistic group….

    I’m reminded of the Ishi story from northern Californian in the late 19th century where you ended up with one person speaking a language no one else understood. Looks like history could very well repeat itself on a different continent…..

  6. lfm Says:

    Grim, grim, grim. This is out of my depth entirely but it occurs to me a stop-gap measure. Based on the “first do no harm” principle, wouldn’t it be possible to get the government and the FARC to agree on a DMZ that would leave the Nukak-Maku as undisturbed as possible? Yeah, pretty naive, but I think it’s worth a shot. It could be something modeled along the lines of the “peace communities” tried (and often failed) in other parts of the country. But at least it could buy some time until the situation improves and then the people with better knowledge can step in. Incidentally, Adam deserves kudos for saying the honest thing here: it is hard to come up with a policy prescription. Sometimes acknowledging what we don’t know is the best. My suggestion tries to follow that spirit. Since we don’t know what to do, since any long term solution requires major changes in the situation, changes that are nowhere in sight, then at least let’s buy some time.

  7. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This kind of made me laugh.

    Adam describes this culture as sluggish misfit slackers, and then seems worried about their preservation :-)

    Nukak Makuks are not missing anything when they stare at the moon and know not humans were supposedly there. This knowledge is useless for them as well as for any other homo sapiens, even more if they know the Apollo mission was a hoax.

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