Colombia: Home to the World’s 2nd Largest Humanitarian Disaster

This is an article I wrote for my other blog a few year ago. The information is out of date – and fresh information is hard to find, as displacement is the Colombian story that nobody around the world is talking about. It is important to note that the security situation in Colombia has improved dramatically in recent years and illegal groups are considered to be at their weakest in decades.

Every year one million tourists flock to the cities and beaches of Colombia, but behind the luxury of its top hotels and friendly faces of the market stalls lined by foreign holiday-makers, Colombia is facing one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Last year (2009) nearly 400,000 people became newly displaced, which takes the total number in Colombia above the 4.5 million mark, second only to that in the Sudan. The displaced have been driven from their homes and land by the many guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who control much of the countryside and many rural villages. Up to Ten million hectares of land, nearly 10% of the country’s total area has been abandoned by the displaced. The vast majority of this land is taken over by illegal groups and used to grow vast amounts of crops, some legal, but more often than not drugs and narcotics, usually cocaine. It therefore comes as no surprise that 90% of the world’s cocaine is exported from Colombia, and is also one of the planet’s largest suppliers of heroine. The paramilitaries and terrorist groups have almost complete control over the local populations in the countryside. They enforce their power through violence, slavery, and even rape. Poverty and intimidation forces thousands of families to work against their will in the production of these drugs. Displaced women and often teenage girls are forced into prostitution, and supplied to the barons and male workers in the drug-farms. Sexually transmitted Infections spread at rapid pace, contributing to the workers inability to heal from flesh wounds caused by the work and their incapacity to survive outside of this environment.

The extreme power, wealth, and number of the guerrillas and illegal groups prevent their destruction. Many guerrillas are recruited at a young age, lured by the promise of an escape from poverty and inevitable death during youth. The International Tribunal for Children Affected by War and Poverty announced this year that one in four of Colombian guerrillas were minors, with an estimate of nearly 14,000.

12million Colombians have no access to clean, drinkable water, and 50% of the displaced have insufficient food and drink resources. Although nearly all of the displaced are eligible for free healthcare, provided by government subsidies, only a minute percentage actually take advantage of this. The majority are unable to prove their eligibility. The main means of this is through the provision of an address, which the displaced simply do not have. The jobs the displaced work in are often informal, illegal and parts of the black market. They are therefore unable to prove their employment and earning status, for fear of being arrested or losing their employment.

Over 3 million Colombian young people or high school age, do not attend any form of educational institution. Many displaced children have no option to go to school at all. Many charities and foundations are working to bridge this gap, one of which is the Fundación Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Foundation) which was founded by Colombian pop-star, Shakira. The foundation’s mission is “to demonstrate a sustainable, replicable education model which provides quality education to Colombia’s most vulnerable people, thereby unlocking their intellectual, emotional and social potential.”

Pies Descalzos opened their first school in 2003, with the aim of providing an education to 700 children, and act as a community centre for over 120 families in the Quibdó area, which has a 35% displacement rate. A youth development centre was created to help 240 young people and 120 household heads, teaching them dressmaking, ecotourism, arts and crafts, thus indirectly assisting 10,000 people.

It has since opened 3 more schools, the latest in the La Playa district, where it serves nearly 2000 impoverished students. It is not only a school, but also runs programmes to develop the area. These include income generating projects, necessary work training, and even health services. The 4 Pies Descalzos schools serve over 30,000 Colombians, who otherwise would feel the full force of poverty, malnutrition and displacement.

Dozens of other organisations provide similar relief. The Genesis Foundation provides grants to projects providing health and education to young people in Colombia. Their mission is to focus on “supporting high-quality formal education and training programmes that target underprivileged children who typically would not have access to them”. Hundreds of education providers and health services avail of their help.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the largest organisations working in Colombia. The first Colombian schools were opened over 400 years ago by the church, and today millions of Colombians still benefit from a catholic education. The church not only runs schools, but over 120 colleges, health clinics and orphanages.

Colombia is a country with a rich heritage and vibrant culture but its history has been marred by bloody conflict, political wars and the devastating legacy of its modern-day drug trade and guerrilla insurgencies. The future for many is bleak, and it will take many years for the government to correctly address and solve its displacement and poverty. However increased provision of education, food and water, and health services, by the likes of Pies Descalzos in collaboration with the government is offering the country a chance to move forward and offer all of its citizens a brighter future.

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