WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Oct 2015 | Commentary | News

The Forgotten Indigenous Displacement Victims of Buenaventura, Colombia

International attention on the displacement crisis in the Colombian port city of Buenaventura has overlooked a vulnerable minority: the more than 300 displaced Wounaan indigenous people taking shelter in a sports complex there after fleeing violence in their nearby lands. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) visited Buenaventura in September 2015, and saw the plight of this community firsthand.

 SEE ALSO: WOLA’s Work Regarding Human Rights in Colombia

Buenaventura’s largely Afro-Colombian population lives in the urban center, and has exceptionally high levels of poverty and unemployment. Combined with high levels of crime, the city has witnessed a massive influx of displaced conflict victims to the urban center as well as the displacement of its own citizens, “bonaverenses,” to other Colombian cities. It has become known as an epicenter of Colombia’s internal displacement crisis.

During the visit, however, WOLA was particularly struck by the hardships faced by the forcibly displaced Wounaan indigenous community there. Over 300 Wounaan were forced to flee to Buenaventura in November of 2014 after clashes between paramilitary and guerilla groups erupted in their territory along the coast. Since then, the Wounaan community has sought shelter in Buenaventura’s El Cristal Sport Complex, which had previously accommodated displaced Afro-Colombians and campesinos.

While visiting the Wounaan, WOLA witnessed a complete lack of state presence, insecurity for indigenous leaders and their families, and lack of proper access to health and nutrition. Still, according to Wounaan leaders, the Mayor’s office has informed them that it lacks the resources to help them.

View of the El Cristal sports complex, where the Wounaan community is currently sheltered


Currently, 347 people including 168 children (newborn to age 17) are living in a public space that is unsuitable for inhabitation. Some of the most hard-hit by the crisis are the Wounaan children. WOLA saw firsthand that El Cristal lacks access to running water and basic sanitation services. Since the Wounaan community arrived, two children have died from illness and a lack of appropriate medical attention. One year-old Neiber Cárdenas Pirza died while suffering diarrhea and vomiting in December 2014, then in June the community lost a two day-old baby.

Displaced members of the Wounaan community take shelter in El Cristal sports complex 

Making matters worse is the fact that the city of Buenaventura continues to use El Cristal to as a sports complex and venue for public events. The refugees share the space with outsiders, and no efforts are made to shield the space from the groups and individuals that have threatened the Wounaan.

The safety situation for this community, and for the Wounaan community leaders in El Cristal, is rapidly deteriorating. Indigenous leaders there are under increasing threat from paramilitary groups in the surrounding areas, and one individual received several death threats on a cellphone during WOLA’s visit. As such, community leaders have devised a plan for authorities to secure their territory for their safe return to their territory, which up to this point has not been adapted by the government.

Death threat to Wounaan leaders

Death threats received by Wounaan on their phones

Despite calls for humanitarian assistance by Wounaan leadership throughout the Pacific coastal region, the Colombian government has been slow to act. Humanitarian agencies have responded with two insufficient aid packages that do not take into account cultural food traditions and provide little in the way of proper nutrition for the hundreds of civilians sheltered in El Cristal. More recently, Colombia’s Victims Unit provided the Wounaan community in Buenaventura with basic emergency kits, reportedly including tents and rations. But this effort also fell far short of providing a sustainable solution to address the humanitarian crisis the Wounaan are facing.

This deserves humanitarian attention from local, regional, and national government agencies to protect the rights of the Wounaan indigenous community taking shelter in El Cristal. For this to happen, Wounnan leaders need their demands to be taken seriously and are in dire need of both improved living conditions and plans for a safe return to their territories.