International Photographer Niels Van Iperen takes us on a journey into the Colombian rainforest for an encounter with its last remaining nomadic Tribe, now on the verge of extinction because of the consequences of guerrilla actions in the area and the 'War on Drugs'.



I’d always thought time travel was impossible. But I’m in Colombia, by far South America’s strangest country. It is the land of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Magical Realism, so just about anything is possible. Forty minutes after boarding a plane in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, it turns out I was wrong; suddenly, the clock has been turned back five hundred years.



I’ve landed in San José de Guaviare, a town bordering on the Amazon Basin. Twenty children’s faces are staring at me in absolute amazement. They’ve never seen white skin, or blue eyes or anything other than straight black hair. I stare back, equally amazed by their lack of eyebrows, their close-cropped hair with triangular bald patches and their faces painted with red dye, which is used along the Amazon River as mosquito repellant. They approach cautiously, some touching my skin as though I were a precious jewel.


Awoken by the fuss, several of the elders stir from their hammocks and come over to investigate. The coffee and rice I offer as a show of good will are accepted graciously, although I now realize they were unnecessary. This is a very peaceful tribe, friendly and hospitable, even though, or maybe because, their contact with “white man” has been extremely limited – until now. Even with the adults, communication is difficult as few of them speak Spanish. They talk amongst themselves in a high-pitched chatter, the entire group often laughing in unison. When I take out my tripod, the group falls silent. The children play with the tripod for hours afterwards and their amazement does not diminish.


Until recently, a meeting like this would have been impossible; the Nukak Maku were nomads – changing their whereabouts every couple of days in the extensive rain forests of the Amazon basin. Currently, most of them are located in refugee camps like the one I am visiting. I arrived here with Doctor Javier Maldonado, a general practitioner who arrived here to do an internship, and was so appalled by the living conditions that he decided to do something about it. He now gives basic medical care to Nukak Maku groups that have been arriving to this area over the last three years. As he introduces me to the various clan members, he starts telling me their sad story.


‘Less than fifty years ago the first colonists arrived to this area, driven here by violence in other parts of the country. In those times, people hunted Indians for sport, or caught them to use as slaves. So it is not surprising that the nomads of the Nukak Maku preferred to stay in the jungle where nobody bothered them. And then one day, about seventeen years ago, a group of around fifty sick and starving women and children came running into the village of Calamar, after a journey of two hundred kilometers on foot. What had happened to the men of this group never became clear. Naked and hungry they entered the gardens and houses of the locals, looking for food. Being nomads, they had no concept of private property, and communication with them was impossible because nobody could speak their language. The locals were dead scared of the naked ‘savages’ and sent them back into the woods as quickly as they could. But “the evil” had happened – this brief contact with Westerners had brought them in contact with influenza and tuberculosis. Within a few years the majority of the Nukak Maku were dead.’


Just as I am convinced that I am really in the sixteenth century, a noisy Black Hawk helicopter flies low over the camp. These choppers are part of the United States’ arsenal in the ‘War on Drugs’; they are used to protect fumigation planes spraying coca crops. But, put quite simply, it’s not working. At least not in this region. Here in the rainforest no other crop will grow except for bananas and potatoes, both of which can be produced far cheaper in other parts of the country that have better transport infrastructure. And as long as there is demand for cocaine, there will be coca plantations to supply. A more recent problem for the area is the discovery of underground oil reserves – an estimated 24 billion barrels - which makes the area attractive to both the illegal armed groups that have been waging war in the country for several decades. These two groups – the FARC Guerilla and the AUC paramilitaries - control just about everything that is illegal in Colombia – from massacres to kidnapping to the cocaine trade.


Javier: ‘After the first contact the Nukak Maku were world news for a couple of days. They were the last group of Indians to come in contact with the Western world. UNESCO put the Nukak Maku on their list of ‘human groups that need special treatment’ because of their high vulnerability. But after that they were largely abandoned. The government designated an area of a million hectares as a ‘resguardo’, a reservation where they were supposed to be able to live in peace. However this reservation appeared to be a fiction; parts of the assigned area had already been colonized and were being used as farmland, mainly for coca plantations.

In recent years the area has increasingly become a war zone in which the AUC and the FARC battle over territory. They do not care about indigenous’ rights; there have even been cases where they were captured as slaves to serve in their army units.’




Of course indigenous tribes are not the only victims of the conflicts between paramilitary and guerilla groups, or the ‘War on Drugs’. Every day across Colombia dozens of families are forced to flee their houses and homelands. In Bogotá alone, an estimated 400.000 displaced persons arrive from the countryside every year. And a metropolis like Bogotá is the least appropriate place for a farmer’s family to remake their lives. It is estimated that even more are trying to find a new home in other parts of the country, mainly in uncolonized parts of the jungle (such as the Nukak Maku reservation). Little by little, this forced displacement is destroying Colombia’s remaining tropical forests. According to the United Nations, the problem of internal displacement is the world’s biggest ongoing humanitarian crisis outside of Africa. Unofficial estimates put the number of internally displaced persons at around two million.



Javier: ‘At the time of their “discovery”, the Nukak Maku’s population was estimated to be about 1500. At present, about 380 are thought to be alive, of whom the eldest are around 40 years old. Over the last 15 years all the elders have died, mainly from flu and killing. Of these 380 persons, over 40% are now living in refugee camps like this one, on land with a very different vegetation to what they are used to, making it almost impossible for them to feed themselves. Also, it is impossible for them to move around in this area. Usually the Nukak Maku ‘move’ every 3 to 10 days, but the first refugees arrived here over 3 years ago and have not been able to change location once. The piece of land they have been allocated does not have flowing water; instead they use two nearby ponds – one for drinking, one for bathing. This is why all children have parasite-infections. But the problem is worsening; the drinking water pond has dried out, and the washing water basin is too dirty to be drunk. The rainy season probably won’t start for 2 months.

Even among the extremely friendly and positive Nukak families, hunger and thirst are starting to cause rifts; last night there was a fight, and this morning two families left the camp, looking for a better place to live. That will not be easy as the entire surroundings of San José de Guaviare are colonized; the farmers do not tolerate Indians on their land, and nobody will offer them an airplane ride back to their territory.

Private property and money are not concepts the Nukak Maku traditionally understood. The survival of the Nukak is based on moving frequently from site to site, using the few products the rain forest offers for survival.  When they discover a tree with berries, or a palm tree that has edible maggots in its bark, they tear it down immediately. They leave the seeds on the ground so that when they come back to the same site, new trees will have grown. When they arrived here they did the same thing on farms, but to the farmers the palm trees are a status symbol. As a consequence the farmers do not hesitate to shoot when the Indians set foot on their lands.’


When he hears I am from Bogotá, one of the older members of the group approaches me. He introduces himself as Hweby. I estimate he’s about 35 years old. In poor Spanish he asks me whether I can tell him where his son is. He was transferred from the local hospital three months ago with tuberculosis. They said he would be transferred to Bogotá. Since then the family has had no news of him. As I live in Bogotá, Hweby asks me whether I have seen him. Whether he is doing well? Whether he is still alive? Explaining to him that Bogotá has 11 million inhabitants is useless. His culture does not have numbers: no ages; no distance; and no money. He can’t relate to a society where everything is counted in quantities.

General practitioner Javier says that the only good news he can give Hweby is that the local hospital would have given him notice if his son had died. But even he can’t get any more information - an indigenous child is not high priority.



Exactly where the Nukak Maku came from, or from whom they descended, is still unclear. It is assumed that they have lived in this area for thousands of years, which would make them one of the most ancient peoples in South America. According to their own mythology the world has three layers: one beneath the earth, one on the earth, and one above the earth. The Nukak (literal translation: people) used to live in the underground world. Through a hole in the earth some of them came out to the world on the ground, where trees and animals were already living. The world above belongs to the Thunder. The spirits of the animals also reside there. An earthquake or similar event caused the passage to the underground world to disappear, and since that time the Nukak have been locked up in the earthly word without being able to contact the rest of humanity that stayed behind underground. Western people are seen as a sort of half-beings - half human and half devil. This conviction is not only based on their experience of Western man as the purveyors of death and displacement, but also on the fact that Westerners have no respect for food. Westerners eat more than they need, and do not maintain harmony with the surrounding world. They look down on the beings that they feed on. Only a demonic being can live like that.


To other indigenous peoples, and according to the current anthropological classification of indigenous peoples, the Nukak Maku are seen as the ‘lowest’ sort. According to this division, the “highest” developed indigenous tribes are the ones with the clearest hierarchy – the more centralized the authority, the more developed the tribe. Incas and Mayas are the highest developed peoples, nomadic groups the lowest. The Nukak have no leaders at all, and move around in groups of different sizes of one or more families, none of which is superior to another, and make all decisions as a group. There are no shamen or medicine men, and all knowledge is completely transparent and accessible to the entire group. A 14-year-old child already knows everything there is to know.  This is the reason not all knowledge has been lost with the death of the elders, and that they could still survive in the rainforest, given the opportunity.

For other Indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin, the peace-loving nomads were easily caught and used as slaves. Hence, the second part of their name,“Maku” which means “slave”.




Javier continues his story. Over a year ago he teamed up with Jorge Restrepo, an anthropologist who has had contact with clans since 1989 and has lived in the jungle with a clan of Nukak for over a month. Together they are trying to bring the clans’ plight to Colombia’s attention as well as to international aid organizations.


‘This is harder than you might expect – even the urgent installation of a manual water pump (costing US$150) has so far been impossible.

The Red Cross recognizes there is a serious problem, and said they would send someone to evaluate the situation. Nobody ever arrived. The government’s department of public defense sent an observer to this very same refugee camp, where people have been living for 8 to 14 months. When the observer asked the Nukak whether they were going to live here permanently or whether they were planning to leave. The Nukak answered that they were ‘just passing through”. As a result, the observer concluded that they did not qualify for refugee status or funding as they were still nomadic.

Ironically, the Nukak Maku are not poor monetarily. Since 1996, the Colombian government has put aside a yearly budget to help various indigenous groups, including Nukak Maku. By now this fund is in the order of US$200.000. However, owing to a bureaucratic technicality, they are unable to access their share:the Nukak do not have a leader, which means nobody can claim this money on their behalf. For a couple of months the government has been paying various Nukak families US$150 per month to survive on. However, as a nomadic tribe, they have no concept of money management. They go the supermarket in the city, spend 150 dollars on food and drinks, eat and drink all they can for 3 days, and then have nothing left for the rest of the month.’



We are ready to call it a day. I can go back to an air-conditioned hotel room and a hot meal. The 20x50 meter piece of land, granted to this group of about 70, is situated 12 km from San José city. Owing to a military curfew, we have to be back in the village before 6pm. On our way, we pass a huge infantry army base as well as a big antinarcotics army base.

That night I discuss the Nukak Maku with Jorge Restrepo, the anthropologist who first encountered them 17 years ago.


‘It is not entirely true that the Nukak Maku had their first contact with the Western world in 1988. After they arrived at the village, they were returned to the Amazon where other groups of nomadic ‘Maku’ live. But they could not communicate with those tribes either; the languages were completely unrelated. Suddenly, a most unexpected reaction came from the New Tribes Mission (NTM), a fundamentalist US missionary organization, infamous for their aggressive methods of conversion and banned from most Latin American countries. The NTM appeared to have had a secret mission post in the Nukak Maku territory for years. They had studied the language extensively and several of their missionaries could speak it. With their help the question of the Nukak Maku’s origin was quickly solved, and they were returned to where they came from. Shortly afterwards the government sent me to the mission post to study the Nukak. It was a strange experience - flying over an endless, dense jungle, and suddenly there was this hole, a landing strip that the missionaries had built! Even though the New Tribe Missionaries allowed me into their camp (under obligation), they made it difficult. The first contact with the groups of Nukak that passed the mission post for food and medicine was friendly, but after that they became suspicious and even aggressive towards me, up to the point where I was afraid they would try to kill me with one of their poison arrows. It turned out that the missionaries had scared the Nukak saying things like: ‘We do not know what that man carries in his heart’. Finally, I became so desperate that I actually wanted to leave. But they told me this was impossible; it would be about 3 more months before the next plane would arrive. Out of desperation I just started following a group as they made their way out of the mission post. Within 15 minutes there was no way I would ever find my way back by myself. For a Westerner, there is no way to find food in the rainforest, so when the Nukak knew I was following them, they also knew leaving me behind would be my death. I told them that I wanted to earn my right to stay with them, that I did not want to be a burden, but as I had absolutely no ability that was of value to them, they named me their ‘Maku’ (slave). I became the “slave of the slaves”.


Every night I had to find wood to keep the campfires of 5 families going for the night. The nights with the Nukak Maku were the most special experiences of my life. When they set up camp, within 5 minutes every family builds a hut of branches and banana leaves. With a kind of twine they get from a plant, hammocks are made which are placed in a triangle around a fire. As the nights in the jungle are quite cold and everybody is naked, every time the fire starts going out someone wakes up and adds more wood. Usually someone else wakes up, tells a story, and the entire clan bursts out laughing again. Even better are the times when they happen to meet another clan of Nukak Maku in the jungle. Stories are told and the groups party for days on end.’


The next day we travel 12 kilometers in the opposite direction, along the border of the Guaviare River. Again we pass a huge military base, this time belonging to the Government commandos. The army base bears the name ‘Nukak’, and I remember Jorge telling me that he and other anthropologists have been protesting about this to the government for years, without success. According to International Law, army installations are not allowed to carry names belonging to parts of the civil population as this can put those people in danger. So, whilst the Nukak want no part in the Colombian armed conflict, both paramilitaries and guerilla groups now associate their tribal name with army commandos, instead of with the peaceful indigenous people they are. To make matters worse, the government placed the base partially in territory that had been assigned to a different group of displaced nomadic Indians, the Guayaberos. They arrived here 2 years ago with about 180 families who had been violently forced from their own territory. Currently, the Guayaberos also have to share this area with about 80 displaced families of Nukak Maku that have nowhere else to go.



The Guayaberos name comes from their habitat along the Guayabero River, which joins downstream with the Guaviare River. Part of the area in which they used to live is the Macarena National Park, where the Colombian Government is now experimenting with a new tactic in its War on Drugs. A traditional FARC stronghold, the national park contains some of the country’s biggest coca plantations. Where previously US-assisted fumigations using the herbicide glyphosate - were the main method for destroying crops, in recent months the government has commenced manual eradication of the coca plants. The FARC have fought back which has resulted in daily killings on both army and FARC sides. Even though peasants and nomadic indians live in the area, the government has now started bombing the Macarena..The Guayaberos are descendants of the Caribé, an indigenous tribe that gave their name to the Caribbean in the time of the Spanish conquest. The tribe was so violent that in many indigenous languages(and even in Spanish) the word Caribé is synonymous with the word cannibal.

The main difference between the Nukak and the Guayaberos is that the latter, even though basically nomadic, harvest their own plantations (mainly of yucca, a local potato species), and live mainly from fishing. Unlike the Nukak, the Guayabero clans do have leaders. The government does not consider the Guayaberos as ‘displaced persons’, as the area they currently inhabit is not far enough from their original habitat.

Despite the proximity to the Guaviare River, nearly all of their children suffer parasite infections. The nearest water source is just downstream from San José city, and too polluted for drinking. 




After meeting one of the Guayabero-clans, we continue to the very first Nukak Maku refugees, which have been away from their reservation for over 3 years, and who have lived in the Guayabero refugee camp since then.  They all speak good Spanish, ride bicycles, and have a wind-powered water pump. One of the mothers even has long hair. Suddenly we hear someone cursing in Colombian slang. ‘Holy shit, how my feet smell! -  Those fucking rubber boots!’ One of the women calls: ‘Hey, Mauricio, want a cup of coffee?’ He answers that he does not feel like drinking coffee but would prefer guarapo (an indigenous alcoholic drink made of fermented fruit, in this case pineapple). [Following introductions, he tells me how he fled from the hands of the FARC, who forcibly recruited him into their army. He now works on a coca plantation in order to provide for his clan. But the clan is expanding just a little too quickly, with over 100 people on a piece of land not even half the size of a football field. Of course, he would prefer to return to his tribal lands and lifestyle, but that is becoming more and more difficult.

“We like comfort as much as you white people do. So, for example, I would like to take at least a metal machete with me into the jungle. And maybe a bike,” he adds, laughing out loud.


Javier: ‘With the passing of time, of course, it will be harder and harder for the displaced indigenous groups to return to a nomadic lifestyle. The children that were born here will have a very hard time surviving in the jungle. Besides, they are already facing ‘Western’ problems: they hardly move, which causes many to become too fat to be able to move swiftly through the jungle. They also eat sugar now, which causes tooth cavities. Meanwhile they want to listen to pop songs on the transistor radio that a friend of mine gave them. They now constantly need batteries. The longer it takes for them to return, the slimmer the chances that they will actually be able to do so. Maybe they are best off if they start going to school, speak Spanish and learn math…’


Two days later, after a day of exploring the neighborhood and sighting grey and pink river dolphins as well as coca plantations and cocaine processing laboratories near the Guayabero River, we go back to the first camp we visited. Javier introduces me to Monicaro and his wife and three children.  Monicaro invites us to go hunting with them. There is no more face painting, and they now keep their western clothes on so as not to offend the locals. Besides, they have been wearing clothes now for almost a year and a half, and already it feels uncomfortable to walk around naked. Also they are not as resistant to the mosquitoes as before.

The Nukak Maku live off fruits and berries that they find in the tropical forest, they hunt monkeys and birds, or fish when nothing else is available. Monicaro carries a long bamboo rod, from which he can blow poisoned arrows that paralyze monkeys and birds that are in the high foliage of the rainforest. If they capture a mother monkey or a bird with young, they also take the offspring to raise them in their camp, releasing them back into the jungle when they are old enough.

The problem is that around the refugee camp area, the kind of monkey they usually hunt hardly exists. Instead, they hunt a much smaller kind of monkey, which has little meat. Furthermore, there are fewer and fewer monkeys, as the Nukak overhunt the supply in their limited hunting region.


It’s an hilarious sight - Monicaro the Nukak Indian, riding a kids’ bike on his way to the local jungle with a bamboo hunting stick. His wife and kids follow, picking berries along the way. Along the road there are two big dogs guarding a farm. The bike is hidden in the woods, and the family crosses a fence to make their way through the meadows. Because we white people are too slow and noisy and scare the monkeys away before we even get close, we decide to leave the family alone so they can eat that day.


When we get back to the camp, it turns out the other family who had left owing to the previous night’s dispute has also returned. There was nowhere they could go. Hweby, the father of the sick boy who was sent to Bogota, has fallen ill himself. He has visited the local hospital twice over the past week, and they kept him waiting there all day without even looking at him. Javier examines him, and is afraid he might have tuberculosis. The doctor’s fear causes a weak smile on Hweby’s face. He wonders whether, if they send him to Bogotá as well, he might finally be reunited with his missing son.