Not all lost for the Nukak Makú

Nukak Maku people in Guaviare
Nukak Maku people in Guaviare

Duki Maku wants to leave the jungle, embittered and glaring aggressively from behind dark sunglasses. While slumped in a low slung hammock he states the Nukak people’s claims to a life beyond the verdant tangle of the southern jungles of Colombia.

“The Nukak want out,” he says gesticulating angrily, “the Nukak no longer belong in the jungle.” Village elders look on, a collective concern flashing across their faces as they recognise Duki’s rant. Duki otherwise known as Esneider, his preferred non-Nukak name, and a few other younger Nukak unfamiliar with the jungle want modernity while the rest long to return to their ancestral tramping grounds.

Displaced Nukak Makú people

Displacement is particularly tough for the Nukak Makú, used to a nomadic lifestyle.

On the fringes of the departmental state capital of Guaviare, San José, some 280 km southeast from Bogotá, the Nukak Makú, a traditional nomadic hunter and gatherer tribe, are  dislocated from their historically impenetrable lands near the Caño Grande, a waterway flowing between the key rivers of the Inirida and Guaviare that eventually opens out and empties into the mighty Amazon, an area plagued by all the scourges found in contemporary Colombia.

Coca fumigation, increased pressure on the FARC-held areas by the Colombian military and the ongoing fallout from the strong arm politics of the Democratic Security doctrine of President Uribe has led to the long running conflict striking at the very heart of traditional Nukak Makú.

Theirs is a region of untold biodiversity and the Nukak possess a profound understanding of the jungle, the growth of its vegetables and the reproduction cycles of animals. They consume 83 types of vegetable of which only 43 are identified, an array of primates, mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects.

For now, Duki and his relatives live on the outskirts of San Jose del Guaviare, in Aguabonita, a displacement camp set up for the Nukak, just a stone’s throw from the military bases that offer a constant reminder of the unfolding conflict. While helicopter gunships whir into action and swoop overhead it is hard to fully enjoy the beauty of the immediate surroundings and the image of the Nukak children playing in the crystalline waters from which this spot gains its name. The scene strikes an incongruous chord.

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The increase in the armed battle to win back lands gained by the FARC guerrilla who have been waging a decades long fight against the state, has according to Nukak expert and anthropologist Dany Mahecha, “made the Nukak the clearest expression of the armed conflict in Colombia.”

Just one of many displaced indigenous peoples in Colombia, the Nukak now face additional environmental, technological, cultural and biological pressures exerted by modern society. Far beyond the crossroads in their existence evidenced by young members of the tribe like Duki, dressed in a dark T-shirt and jeans and struggling for identity in this displacement camp, family members still wear traditional loincloths leaving a younger generation feeling disenfranchised and confused.

Duki makes his points and his voice is heard above the rest here in Aguabonita since he has mastered Spanish. His claims and wishes are far removed from those of his relatives nearby, who could be considered to represent a purity found only in a perfectly preserved ancient culture.

It is estimated that during the decade from 1988 to 1998, the Nukak Maku population was reduced by a staggering 65 percent, from numbers close to two thousand. While in recent years, the plight of the Nukak has made headlines due to the Guaviare displacement, this community has managed to survive despite suffering for centuries at the hands of western civilization.

The first documented intrusions by Europeans in the region can be traced back to when Spanish and Portuguese traders pushed deeper into the jungles of the upper Orinoco on slave missions in the 18th Century and displacing many indigenous tribes. In the 20th century – in particular during World War II  – with the increase in demand for rubber, there were further forays onto Nukak land. During the early 1980s the coca bonanza began and brought with it a spontaneous, disordered, violent wave of colonization. Following the wealth and importance of the Guaviare as a significant trade passage for the transportation of cocaine, the FARC guerrillas upped their presence in the zone.


  1. Absolutely excellent article. Very well written, thoughtful and engaging. Thank you. My only question is, why did you name this piece “not all is lost…” in the end, this tribe feels like it’s on the brink of being exterminated by modernity and conflict, it seems that for them, all is indeed lost or very close to it.


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