Only a decade ago, the Nukak Maku, a Colombian indigenous community, lived a peaceful life disconnected from the modern world.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers, they roamed a chunk of the Amazon three times the size of London, spending days trekking to one corner just to fish, then weeks to another to hunt.
Now driven out of their territory by the Farc left-wing guerillas, the tribe occupies a shabby glade half the size of a football field on the outskirts of a frontier town, San José del Guaviare.
“We fled day and night through the jungle,” a young woman, Monica, says. “Finally we arrived in this place, no one is happy here.”
The Nukak say their new home is poor for hunting and fishing. Local farmers get angry when they hunt in the forests.
To make up for the loss of food, Acción Social, the government’s aid organisation, delivers rations. However, the women say it is not sufficient. “They often forget to bring us the rations, and sometimes it is not enough,” says Sandra, a young Nukak mother. “We do not like some of the things they give us, our bodies are not used to it.”
The change in diet has harmed the Nukaks’ health. Many of the children and adults are visibly malnourished. At the time of this reporter’s visit, Sandra’s daughter, Kelly, was in hospital with severe malnutrition. “She is a one-year-old, but has the body of a six-month-old baby,” says Luza Marina, who is in charge of monitoring the Nukak community’s health.
The community suffers from skin infections, respiratory diseases, diarrhoea and other common illnesses. “We never had these diseases before,” says Monica. As a result of daily difficulties and the inability to hunt, many are depressed and have other mental health problems.
Since the Nukak were first “contacted” in 1988, the illnesses of the modern world have had devastating effects. Anthropologists estimate they used to number more than 2,000 but the population has fallen to fewer than 600, bringing fears of extinction.
“For thousands of years the Nukak lived peacefully in their forest. Then the white man arrived. In the 20-odd years since, half their population has been wiped out, their territory has been invaded, and they’ve been driven out of the forest,” says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International in the UK.
“There’s little doubt that if the authorities allow this to continue, the Nukak stand little chance of survival.”
Another concern is the Nukak’s loss of culture. Since leaving the jungle, they have almost lost their traditional ways. Missionaries have taught them to wear clothes and eat modern food.
Whereas previously they had no sense of money, the Nukak people now spend their days begging in the town.
“It is very sad to see our people change their ways so much,” says Fellipe, a man in his 50s. “Now I’m not sure we could even survive in the jungle, it feels like we are doomed to the modern world.”
Responding to the threatened extinction of indigenous communities such as the Nukak, and the nearby Jiw and Sicuani, the Colombian government has started a national safeguard plan. This aims to legally enforce protecting these communities. Few of the Nukak have faith in the government, and many are concerned it is already too late.
“The idea is to guarantee their survival,” says Javier Sanchez, who is coordinating the plan. “If the state does not act quickly, they will be responsible for the disappearing of an indigenous community in our country.”
In the meantime, the Nukak continue to languish in hammocks, longing to return to their nomadic life.
“If we stay here much longer, our people will completely lose our ways, and we will just die off, far from the land where we belong,” says Monica.