Territory and Population

Colombia’s vast Choco region is a world apart, a lush and dramatic jungle and coastal landscape that hides small Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities within, accessible exclusively by boat. It is also one of the “hottest” regions in Colombia, referencing both the high temperatures with saturating humidity, and the violent presence of both militant guerrilla groups and privately formed, but perhaps even more barbaric, Paramilitaries. For all of these reasons, this is a place where few dare to go, especially to the interior jungle communities.

The San Juan river basin in the southern Choco is where the majority of the 16,000 “strong” Wounaan tribe live in attempted harmony with their beautiful surroundings. “Strong” in quotations because the Wounaan used to be much larger in population, but the 500 plus years of conquistadors, civil wars and forced displacement, has left them struggling for survival. Their true strength, however, shows in many ways.


The Wounaan live side-by-side, or more correctly in this instance, face-to-face, with their Afro-Colombian neighbors, with homogeneous communities set-up at times directly across the river from each other. They live in peace, having so many shared experiences of hardships and exploitation.

The Wounaan communities vary in size from as low as 200 to just over 1,000. In fact, it is only recently, within the past 40-60 years, that these communities were established, out of economic necessity, security, and as an adjustment to more modern influences, such as schooling. The Wounaan used to have more isolated homes dispersed throughout the jungle.


Profound threats from all sides are being faced by the Wounaan. Living along a strategic river route conducive to smuggling and illicit economies leads to heavy conflict in a neglected part of the country. Displacement is common for the Wounaan.

Health is also a major concern for the Wounaan. The water and fish have become contaminated due to pervasive illegal mining activities in the Choco, and the communities have minimal access to medical care. Lack of access to education and legal markets are further problems for the Wounaan that keeps them repressed.

Traditions, Language and Symbolic Products

The Wounaan, especially the older generations that have lived through so many hardships, are trying extremely hard to preserve their traditions. The entire Union Balsalito community of approximately 600 Wounaan, for example, still speak their native Wounaan tongue, and they have resisted with admirable force and principle, the intrusions of outside religious forces, and hold their connection to, and presence within, nature, and their belief in the “supreme father,” called Inwadam, as essentials of life.

Amongst this amazing setting, of beauty and tradition and struggle, the Wounaan also make and design marvelous and intricate 100% natural products, made from a special Palm tree that the Wounaan call Werregue.