Explore Colombia’s Awa-Kwaiker Tribal Diversity

The Awá 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.

Awá, as they call themselves, literally means people. They live in the mountainous rainforest regions of the south-west of Colombia, particularly the departments of Nariño and Putumayo and the north-west of Ecuador. Their entire population is around 40,000 members. They speak a language called Awapit.

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The origin of the ethnic group is uncertain and complicated since archaeological studies show that the coastal area, both Colombian and Ecuadorian, was inhabited by the Tumaco culture.

Recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, however, links the Awá Kwaiker with Mesoamerican civilization.

Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in 1525, annals give accounts of semi-nomadic indigenous groups with a very low degree of development about the other ethnicities found in the Andean region. In Colombia and Ecuador there are about seventy settlements, averaging no more than 100 inhabitants except in places with some infrastructure – small health centers or schools, where the population may be slightly more densely concentrated.


The origin of the ethnic group is uncertain and complicated since archaeological studies show that the coastal area, both Colombian and Ecuadorian, was inhabited by the Tumaco culture.

Recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, however, link the Awá Kwaiker with Mesoamerican civilization.

Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in 1525, annals give accounts of semi-nomadic indigenous groups with a very low degree of development in relation to the other ethnicities found in the Andean region.

In Colombia and Ecuador there are about seventy settlements, averaging no more than 100 inhabitants except in places with some infrastructure – small health centers or schools, where the population may be slightly more densely concentrated.


Ceramic work has almost completely disappeared, nevertheless, the construction of containers and canoes from the huge trees found in the area is still an important activity.

Musical instruments are very significant and among these are marimbas, drums, maracas and flutes.

The sexual division of labor is clearly distinct. The couple is the basic unit, supplying all the necessities of life. The woman combines domestic chores with child rearing and animal husbandry. Sometimes she is required to work in the fields and carry loads.

The man dedicates his time to farming, hunting and fishing for food procurement, which has led to his having absolute authority in the family. The woman, on the other hand, is subordinate and is treated rather like a child, very quiet and is excluded from certain rituals.

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The Awá, whose traditional territory extends across the border of the modern day nation states of Colombia and Ecuador, have been working for decades to preserve their traditional way of life, as well as the lands and waters essential to their survival.

Despite many changes, several Awá communities have maintained their traditional practices of subsistence agriculture, intensive agroforestry and hunting and gathering activities and are committed to protecting their lands and livelihoods.


The Awá are profoundly connected to their lands and require thriving ecosystems to maintain their cultural practices and protect their livelihoods. The Awá are therefore deeply committed to protecting their territory and their rights to their land, despite threats from industries, settlers, government corruption and civil war.

We hate the fact that now our forests are being viewed by others as financial commodities. The notion that outsiders can place a price on our resources is ridiculous. Our forests and our lands mean so much more to us. Without them we are nothing. Outsiders simply don’t understand this.”


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