Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Who Cares About the Victims of Forced Displacement?

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - “Why is the government, which is so generous towards the richest sectors of the economy, so stingy towards the displaced?” asked activist Marco Romero at the presentation of a new report on the dire situation faced by the millions of Colombians who have been forced out of their rural homes by the country’s nearly half-century old armed conflict.

Romero, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), was alluding to things like a recent scandal over 113 million dollars in tax-free farm subsidies handed out over the last three years to wealthy business families, some of whom are not even involved in agriculture, under the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro programme.

Many of the beneficiaries have made sizeable campaign contributions towards the re-election of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe to a third term in office. The Ministry of Agriculture is one of the focuses of the investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.

The activist was also referring to recent tax cuts for the tobacco industry adopted by the Uribe administration and the huge tax breaks it offers foreign investors.

But Romero’s criticism, voiced during this week’s release of the report “¿Salto estratégico, o salto al vacío?” (“Strategic Leap, or Leap into the Void?”), an overview of forced displacement in Colombia between 2002 and 2009, also alluded to society’s indifference towards the throngs of poor peasant farmers trying to scratch out a living as street vendors or manual labourers in the cities.

Indifference to the plight faced by the nearly five million people forcibly displaced in Colombia over the last 25 years, including 2.4 million displaced from 2002 – when Uribe’s first term started – to 2009.

The report by CODHES, one of Colombia’s most respected human rights groups, says 49 percent of the displaced have been forced off their land during the Uribe administration, whose controversial “democratic security policy” has drawn criticism from human rights groups.

Based on data from Colombia’s Catholic Church and bishops’ conference, the public prosecutor’s office and the government department in charge of providing aid to the internally displaced, Accion Social, as well as daily monitoring of the media, CODHES estimates that 290,000 people were displaced in different regions of the country in 2009, “as a result of the conflict and other expressions of violence.”

In this South American country, which has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, along with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Sudan, people have been forcibly displaced in 69 of the total 1,119 municipalities.

But the hardest hit areas are the northwestern province of Antioquia, a paramilitary stronghold (45,800 IDPs), and the war-torn southwestern province of Nariño (26,000 IDPs), where coca crop spraying has been stepped up in the last few years.

The largest numbers of IDPs have fled to Bogotá, whose reputation as a relatively safer city and the fact that it is the largest city in the country make it the biggest magnet for those seeking safety and a way to make a living.

And although the latest CODHES figures point to a 24 percent drop in the number of people displaced in 2009 compared to 2008, the situation remains serious.

The report says it is appalling that “civilians in Colombia are still forced to flee from the constant aggression from illegal armed groups, and in many cases from agents of the state who due to action, omission, incapacity or complicity fail to guarantee the basic rights to life, honour and assets as the constitution stipulates.”

Rural populations of black and indigenous people are the most heavily affected by forced displacement, especially in areas where oil palm plantations are expanding.

“It’s true that there have been advances for some segments of society, but not for everyone, which casts into doubt the democratic component of (the government’s) security policy,” says the report.

The humanitarian and human rights crisis caused by displacement will lead to “a leap into the void” unless there is some change in terms of “the internal conflict, theft of land, emergence of new armed groups, increase in illegal drug crops, fragmentation of drug cartels, and a rural development model that accentuates inequality and deepens social injustice in the countryside,” it adds.

Between 1999 and 2007, some 5.5 million hectares of land were seized from 380,000 peasant families, according to the Encuesta Nacional de Verificación, a national survey that periodically follows up on the government’s compliance with a landmark 2004 Constitutional Court ruling.

In its unprecedented legal decision, known as T-025, the Court ruled that there were massive violations of the constitutional rights of those displaced from their land by all parties to the conflict – far-right paramilitaries, leftwing guerrillas, and government forces – and that the government is legally bound to guarantee respect for IDPs’ rights to health, education, housing, emergency humanitarian aid, and food security.

However, in 2009, public policies once again failed to live up to the Constitutional Court order, said CODHES president Jorge Rojas.

That was borne out by the fact that the rural population shrank by one million people over the last five years, to 9.3 million people.

“Under the current administration, the rural population has declined by at least nine percent, due to causes attributed to the violence and armed conflict and, to a lesser extent, the predominant rural development model,” said Romero.

Among the causes of the rural exodus, the report mentions the resurgence of “demobilised” paramilitary groups seeking to consolidate control over land taken from peasant farmers.

In addition, the paramilitaries “control the drug trade, take over the local institutions, and impose guns and money as forms of political control,” said Romero.

In second place in terms of numbers of IDPs are disputed areas where the state is carrying out a military offensive against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and smaller ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas, which are trying to regroup after the setbacks suffered in the past few years.

The third cause of displacement is aerial spraying and forced manual eradication of drug crops by the military, reports CODHES.

The only options available to IDPs are joining one of the illegal armed groups, fleeing to Bogotá or some other city or to a neighbouring country, or trying to find land to grow coca or opium poppies, thus becoming part of the weakest link in the drug trafficking chain.

But people are also fleeing growing levels of urban violence, especially in Antioquia’s provincial capital, Medellín, Valle del Cauca’s capital Cali, and Bogotá.

In the meantime, the constant threats against activists and organisations working on behalf of the IDPs, including CODHES, continue.

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