News 2003


Hit by disease, deforestation and war, Colombia's last nomadic tribe faces extinction

BARRANCON, Colombia, AP/

For thousands of years, the Nukak-Maku Indians roamed the jungles of southeast Colombia, hunting game with blow guns and gathering berries, as oblivious to the modern world as it was to them.

Then one day in 1988, the two worlds collided when a group of Nukak men ventured into a town carved out of the jungle. Townspeople stared in disbelief at the naked Nukak as the Indians _ astonished, too _ stared back.

That first encounter was peaceful, with the Nukak men feeling so trusting that they brought out their women and children who had been waiting in the bush. But the aftershocks of that meeting are now devastating the Nukak.

Cut down by diseases brought by settlers, lured by the conveniences of the modern world and caught in the crossfire of Colombia's civil war, the tribe is being driven along a path to extinction that more than 100 other Indian tribes across the Amazon region have walked before.

What is happening to the Nukak is especially worrisome; it is Colombia's last nomadic tribe.

At least 1,200 Nukak roamed the jungles in groups of about 30 when that first hesitant contact was made in the town of Calamar, according to missionaries' estimates. Just 15 years later, their number has plunged to about 380, the Health Ministry says.

"At this rate, in a very short time there will be no more Nukak," said Humberto Ruiz, an anthropologist who has studied the tribe. "They will be a vague memory."

The Nukak are a branch of the Maku family of nomadic Indians who have journeyed the northwest Amazon River basin of current-day Colombia, Peru and Brazil for thousands of years. The branches the Maku are tied together by language.

Since the first contact with settlers, influenza has obliterated most of the Nukak, which had no resistance to the disease. Deforestation has cut their food supply and led to malnutrition.

Anthropologists believe there are only a few dozen Nukak still living deep in the jungle, relatively untouched by civilization.

Added to the pressures on the tribe, leftist rebels and outlawed right-wing militias have been battling in the Indian's homelands for control of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, which flourishes naturally in the region and provides the warring groups with huge revenues.

No Nukak has been reported killed, but the clashes have terrified the Indians and caused some to flee ancestral grounds.

A Nukak clan of 10 families fled its camp, near a settlers' village on the edge of their reservation, in January because of the fighting.

"We were afraid, afraid of the explosions," said Yeuna, the clan's leader who goes by only one name.

The clan is now idled at a makeshift camp in a jungle clearing near the village of Barrancon, a half-hour boat ride upriver from San Jose del Guaviare, the provincial capital of Guaviare state.

Aid workers have been bringing rice, lentils and yucca every 15 days to the camp, where colorful hammocks swing from trees whose dense leaves filter the sun's burning rays. The aid has led to stomach ailments because of the change from the Indians' traditional fare, but moreover it is increasing their dependence on others.

Which points to the irony of helping nomadic tribes: while it may be well-meaning, it can lead to their destruction by eroding native ways.

Hugo Quijano, one of the workers, acknowledged the aid is "interfering with Nukak culture" but said it is needed because Yeuna's clan lacks the wide areas needed to hunt and fish.

"We are trying to limit our contact with them as much as possible, but the conditions of the area they are in make that difficult," Quijano said.

The United Nations estimates there are more than 300 indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin, but only about 60 remain in isolation, in Brazil and Peru.

Symbolizing what is happening across the Amazon region, Yeuna's clan is gradually trading nomadic ways for a more sedentary existence: They are learning Spanish, wearing T-shirts and baseball caps and drinking Coca-Cola.

Still, Yeuna's clan maintains many traditions. The women keep their eyebrows plucked and their hair very short. The men, who are lean and practically hairless, sometimes leave the camp to fish or to hunt monkeys.

The Indians also maintain strong ecological practices. As nomads, they plant seeds before abandoning a camp, and raise baby monkeys whose mothers have been hunted and eaten, even going so far as to breast-feed them. When they are grown, the Indians release the monkeys into the wild, symbolically replenishing the natural supply.

During a recent visit by a reporter, Nukak children _ ignoring a radio in the camp _ became mesmerized by a woman of the clan as she broke into song in the Nukak's native language. More than half of the 40 Indians in the camp are children, and they all speak Nukak.

There are no elders. They have all died. The oldest known living Nukak is estimated to be in her early 40's. Ruiz said the Nukak used to live into their 60s, but contact with diseases appears to have shortened their life span.

While everyone agrees that first contact with the modern world has forever changed the Nukak, there is little consensus on how to preserve their culture while still allowing those who want to integrate into modern society to do so.

"One cannot force a group to conserve itself, like an artifact in a museum," Ruiz noted.

Assimilation appears to be unstoppable, in any case.

Nukak clans _ like Yeuna's _ are drifting closer to towns and cities, where the settlers' lifestyle is seen as being easier and more attractive than living hand-to-mouth in the remote jungle. The Indians are still susceptible to the flu, but access to health care means it is less likely to turn into pneumonia and kill them.

Once they leave the old ways behind, it's hard to go back.

Manuel Garcia grew up with his Nukak clan, but after both his parents died when he was 8 years old, he was adopted by a settler in San Jose del Guaviare.

After turning 18, he reconnected with a group of Nukak.

"I tried to live with them in the jungle, but I only lasted six months. I had to leave. I just didn't have the same toughness that they did," said Garcia, who is now a health worker and is helping Yeuna's clan.

Yeuna, sitting in a hammock and surrounded by his five children and his pregnant wife, insisted that he eventually wants to lead the clan to their ancestral lands.

"We want to go back," Yeuna said in broken Spanish. "But we are waiting for them to stop fighting."

There is no sign, however, that the Colombian Army _ which is stretched thin as it battles the rebels across the nation _ will be able to oust the outlawed warring factions from Yeuna's homeland anytime soon.

In the meantime, the clan continues to wait, and adapt to life in the 21st century.