Delving Colombia Barí Indigenous Roots

The Barí people live on lands that lie along the border between Venezuela and Colombia, south of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, and along the Catatumbo River of North Santander Department in Colombia. The Bari are a part of the Arawak language family which extends from the Caribbean south to Brazil.

The Barí are hunters who also practice rotational, or slash and burn, agriculture. As late as the early 18th century, their lands encompassed some 25,000 sq. miles/64,750 sq. km.

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As with most other indigenous peoples of Colombia, non-Indigenous settlers encroached upon their lands. By the 1980s, they had been restricted to a 1,900 sq. mile/4,921 sq. km. tract of land while the rest of their territory had been deforested and turned into pasture.

The Barí people, a minority belonging to the Arawak family known as the Children of the Forest, inhabit the Catatumbo Basin in the north of the Department of Santander. The Barí have a language known as Bari-ara and their own internal political and social organization.

Their supreme authority is the autonomous Council of Chiefs, comprising 23 Caciques (Chiefs) from the 23 communities of the Barí indigenous people.

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In the 16th century, Alonso de Ojeda of Spain sailed along the southern Caribbean coast and reached the Maracaibo Basin. The Spaniards began to settle the area extensively, incredibly believing that frequent lightning strikes in the area would turn stone into gold.

The Barí fought the Spaniards from their territory and defeated no less than five royal expeditions sent to pacify the Indians. It was the Spaniards who first named them Motilones, meaning short-haired people.

Over the years, the Barí have suffered a constant loss of territory to powerful trade interests that have sought to profit from the wealth it contains.

Now, faced with modern technology, increased access to their territory and reduced numbers, Barí leaders have concluded that it is no longer possible to fight for their lands with arrows and spears as they would have in the past.

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Barí leaders recognize that a new battle is being fought with words, politics and law, a battle being pioneered by Barí youth, guided by the arguments and visions of their elders. The Barí present their history as that of extermination since it is time that their story is told and time for these abuses to come to an end.

The population of the Barí has experienced steep losses over time. Their population in the early 18th century was estimated by the Barí at about 16,000 but that had dropped sharply to about 1,100 by the middle of the 20th century, as massacres and disease took a heavy toll. Their population continued to fall until the mid-1960s to fewer than 1,000.

With the demarcation of a new reserve, the Barí population has stabilized and begun to grow. Today, it numbers well over 3,000 people living on less than one-tenth of their former land base.

In the 20th century, oil was discovered on the territory of the Barí and the land was subjected to extensive oil drilling from 1913 to 2001 as oil companies moved in.

The Barí have since been subjected to repeated incursions by these oil companies. The fragile lands upon which they depend for their subsistence lifestyle have suffered degradation and at times, irreparable harm from hydrocarbon spills.

The Barí tribe’s main economic activity is the cultivation of cacao from which chocolate is made. They export their cocoa and use the proceeds to maintain a network of schools, community centers and clinics. All of this started after a large number of them converted to Christianity, the result of which was an important cultural shift.

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