Page last updated at 19:48 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 20:48 UK

The Awa: Colombia's tribal people

Awa children in village in Colombia
The Awa way of life in Colombia and Ecuador is under threat

The Awa tribal peoples of Colombia and Ecuador were first revealed to the wider world by the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, who named them "Kwaiker", derived from the name of the river by which they were first discovered.

The Awa - as they call themselves - literally means "people". They live in mountainous rainforest regions of the south-west of Colombia and the north-west of Ecuador.

The Awa population is put at about 21,000, according to the UN human rights agency UNHCR.

Guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups and the security forces all operate on their territory.

The latest deaths of 12 Awa, shot by hooded and uniformed attackers, in the Colombian province of Narino, highlights the ongoing problem.

Earlier this year 17 Awa people were killed in an attack blamed on left-wing Farc rebels, with 10 more murdered a week later.

Government reservation land in Narino sits on important transport routes, where coca and poppy crops are grown as part of the cocaine and heroin trade.

Awa indigenous organisations say that although their people wish to remain separate from the long-running civil conflict in Colombia, their region's rich natural resources and location mean that all the armed groups and drug-traffickers are present in their territory.

Hunter-gatherer people

The Awa were originally hunter-gatherers, although they also cultivated a type of maize, according to Benhur Ceron Solarte, author of The Awa Kwaiker.


Today, in addition to their maize crops, the Awa also grow plantains and sugarcane and keep pigs and chickens.

They originally roamed over large areas of south-western Colombia, but with the encroachment of people from the outside world, the area of land the Awa have access to has decreased and they have been forced to obtain legal documents proving their ownership of the land.

This issue has been more pronounced in more developed areas.

Because of unclear property rights and pressure from other farmers, the National Institute of Land Reform has granted three reservations to the Awa. More land could be allocated to them on a reservation basis in the future.

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