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DISPLACEMENT AND CONFINEMENT: Today Colombia has one of the highest number of persons internally displaced by violence in the world.  By official statistics, there are an estimated 5.7 million people displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia. According to the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR), in Colombia thirty five ethnic groups are in danger of disappearance, among them the Embera and the Wounaan.They have been displaced, kidnapped and murdered by leftist guerrilla groups, right wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian army, and are threatened by national and multinational corporations that are implementing megaprojects on teir lands. They are also living in extreme proverty, the Colombian goverment has abandoned them. The goverment has signed agreements that have not become effective.The Embera and the Wounaan peoples are asking the Colombian government to protect their lives, cultures and properties. Not only have they suffered the physical consequences of war, but the legacy and cosmogony of these native peoples are at risk of disappearing forever. We exist because of our ancestral roots. Since 2011, I have been documenting the crisis of forced displacement and confinement suffered by these indigenous communities.


WOUNAAN: The Wounaan are trapped by the paramilitaries  Rasytrojos and the guerrilla Revolutionary Amerd Foces FARC , who control their movements. Today they produce fewer crafts and products. Despite their situation of permanent  confinement, they are educating their women and children to participate in society and to talk about their rights. They receive international humanitarian aid and supplies. Their shamans and community leaders often pray for peace. 


MAACH JEB/ ANCESTRAL TERRITORY WOUNAAN: Today, the indigenous Wounaan from the Pacific seaboard continued to be threatened by the armed conflict in Colombia and the extreme poverty they face. They are in the middle of the war for the control of the trade of coca and guns business between the neo-paramilitaries groups, the guerrillas Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC and the National Liberation Army ELN, and the Colombian army. Although this situation has put this indigenous community at a great risk, the Wounaan continue to work to save their culture and their territories (these group has been declared by the Colombian constitution in peril of physical and cultural extinction) The Wounaan new generation, who have grown up in displacement in the cities and don’t know he jungles of the Pacific seashore, are asking to their god Ewandam to return them to their ancestral territory: Macch Jeb (in Meu language) in where he created them on the seaboard.


They have been living in a cycle of confinement and displacement, which has increased substantially in the last five years. On June 10, 2015 one hundred and ten (110) Wounaan natives were displaced from the El Papayo, Chocó community. Between September and December of 2014, nine hundred twenty indigenous were displaced from several communities in the state of Valle del Cauca; and in August seventy three more people displaced looking to call the attention of the Colombian authorities on the problems they are facing in their jungles. In 2014, the armed actors confined three thousand twenty Wounaan people (the Wounaan are the indigenous community that has the highest statistics in confinement in Colombia).


The Wounaan’s policy is to remain in their native territories, to not abandon their land and to only displace the population to protect women, children and elders, the most vulnerable ones. The armed groups try to control their lives; the Wounaan constantly receive specific threats of recruiting minors and threats against the indigenous leaders and traditional doctors call Benkuna. Besides this, they are coerced of free mobility in the San Juan River and they cannot practice with freedom their normal daily activities such as Fishing, hunting, cropping and artisan manufacturing, which is causing a huge socio-economic crisis due to lack food and resources.


Despite these conditions, the Wounaan keep fighting for the survival of their ways of living and their cosmogony, as we can see in my images. The Maach Jeb exhibition: Our Ancestral Territory is a tribute to the Wounaan communities and their struggle for cultural survival. Among their most traditional costumes are the body paint with Jagua ink, the shamanistic practices of the traditional doctor or benkuna and the ceremonial chants and dances. Today the Wounaan make few crafts and cultivate few produces due to their confinement and displacement, even though they are educating their women on their rights and their role in the society and about the armed conflict. The benkunas, leaders and women pray for peace in front of sacred canoe, as is their ritual.


The photographs of this exhibition were photographed on a trip I made to Union Pitalito, Chocó with United Nations for Refugee in Colombia, ACNUR who has strengthened the Wounaan with strategies to protect and defend the rights of the community in the armed conflict.


The United Nations has also helped them build dichardis (communal –traditional houses on their territories) for the displaced; thus strengthen the political cloud for the Wounaan to stay in their territory. At the same time, this exhibition is a way to thank the indigenous communities of San Juan river who in their canoes, with only their sacred sticks, and putting at risk the lives of their children and women, were able to rescue us from the FARC guerrillas, who kept the team of UN and my retained for four hours.


I donated all of the photos to a non-profit organization called Entre Paréntesis, responsible for promoting indigenous culture by an audiovisual media organization, and that is in charge of raising the funds needed to complete the construction of a dichardi (traditional house) for the displaced Wounaan living in Ciudad Bolivar, a slum neighborhood, in Bogota, Colombia’s capital. This house was designed by architect Steven Heller, who unfortunately was killed early this year, and who is honored through his projects in this exhibition. For more information about the Wounaan house please visit: or contact to Alexandra


The exhibition Maach Jeb: Ancestral Territory Wounaan/Cultural Survival is sponsored by the Museum of the Folkloric Dress (Bogotá-Colombia) which celebrated its 40th year with the Wounaan exhibition and workshops taught by the Wounaan community.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Alexandra McNichols-Torroledo










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