Jul 13

We got back from Colombia on Saturday. Between meetings and a bursting e-mail inbox, it may be a few more days before I post any substantial entries to this blog.

In the meantime, here is another video from last week in Colombia. 1:20 of footage of some of the houses abandoned in 2000 after the paramilitaries swept through the town of Chinulito, Sucre, which sits right on the main highway between the cities of Cartagena and Sincelejo.

Now that security conditions have improved, about one-quarter of the families who displaced from the area have returned. But most of the homes are still empty shells, a very stark image of what forced displacement looks like.

I apologize for the clumsy improvised narration, which ends up adding little. Also, the road goes east from Chinulito, not south as I say here. No chance for a second take, obviously.

Abandoned homes in Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jul 10

Hi from Sincelejo, the capital of the department of Sucre, Colombia. We’ve had several tremendous days of interviews and site visits in the Montes de María region, which was hit hard by the conflict in the early 2000s and which is now increasingly a focus for U.S.-supported “integrated action” programs. Today we go to Montería, Córdoba, and then back to Washington.

Here’s a 100-second video I recorded from the back of a pickup truck on the road between Macayepo and Chinulito, both of them sites of massacres in 2000, and both of them experiencing a partial return of displaced people.

Some of you may recognize Nancy Sánchez of the Colombian human rights group MINGA (winner of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2003 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award). It may appear that I have Nancy in an affectionate embrace; actually, I’m clinging desperately with my free hand to the roof of the truck in order to avoid flying out. The road is in terrible condition.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Apr 14

Download the report: (PDF, 1.1 MB)

Over the past nine years, an estimated 300,000 Colombian refugees have crossed their country’s border with Ecuador, fleeing persecution, threats, disappearances, murders and deliberate displacement by the parties to Colombia’s long conflict. In November 2008, staff from the Center for International Policy accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) on a four-day visit to Ecuador’s northeastern borderlands. We found the humanitarian crisis to be more severe than anticipated, and the need for action – from the U.S. government as well as international humanitarian organizations – more urgent than is generally recognized.

The Center for International Policy’s new report, “Ecuador’s Humanitarian Emergency: The Spillover of Colombia’s Conflict,” documents the consequences of the spillover of Colombia’s conflict into Ecuadorian territory and the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Ecuador’s border provinces – Esmeraldas, Carchi and Sucumbíos. The Ecuadorian state’s presence historically has been minimal in the border region, yet the influx of hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees – 85 percent of whom remain close to the border – has drastically worsened living conditions and stressed social services. And the fact that Colombian refugees live among the Ecuadorian population and not in refugee camps makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, to extend their services to the entire population in need – not to mention the 250,000 Colombian refugees who remain “invisible” and therefore out of the scope of UNHCR’s assistance.

After spending time in Ecuador, Rep. McGovern told his colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives that “Colombia’s war is literally bleeding – violently – in Ecuador.” The CIP report offers six short- and medium-term recommendations for addressing Ecuador’s humanitarian crisis and ensuring the well-being of both the Colombian refugees in need of protection and the Ecuadorian citizens living near the border. These recommendations include:

1) The international community, including humanitarian NGOs, UN agencies and foreign governments, including the United States, must provide immediate emergency humanitarian assistance to the refugee population in Ecuador.

2) Colombia must address the needs of communities being displaced by violence within its territory, through “integral reparations” for the conflict’s victims as well as through full compliance with the guidelines set out in Colombia’s Constitutional Court decision T-025.

3) Social and development assistance must be provided to entire communities that receive refugees in order to cover the urgent need, among refugees and residents alike, for basic infrastructure, health, education, and a state presence in general.

4) The United States should increase its commitment to Plan Ecuador and similar Ecuadorian governmental efforts through Economic Support Funds and Development Assistance.

5) U.S. contributions for Fiscal Year 2010 through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) program of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), and through the contribution to UNHCR for the Western Hemisphere, should at least double over 2009 levels.

6) Assistance to protect populations from armed groups and crime, strictly conditioned on human rights performance, should be provided to the border region.

Apr 28

The Nukak Makú are an indigenous group of perhaps 600 nomadic hunter-gatherers who were first “contacted” by the outside world in 1988. Deep in the jungles of eastern Guaviare department, they have their own language and intricate set of customs. The men hunt monkeys and other prey with blowguns, the women weave intricate armbands and baskets. They have only a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture.

The Nukak somehow missed out on the Spanish conquest and all that came after it. This has meant no access to even the most basic technology – not even light bulbs or radios – and no knowledge of what the rest of Homo sapiens has gone through. (Imagine gazing upon the moon and not knowing that people had been there.)

On the other hand, it also meant no enslavement, no theft of their lands, and no involvement in the frequent armed conflicts that have marked Colombia’s history. But their luck is quickly running out.

Increased contact with the outside world has meant death by unfamiliar diseases for perhaps half the Nukak since the early 1990s. It has meant murder at the hands of landowners on whose property Nukak hunters have unwittingly strayed. It has meant coca growers encroaching on the land that the Colombian government “reserved” for the Nukak, cutting down old-growth rainforest in order to grow the lucrative crop used to make cocaine.

And now, perhaps inevitably, it has meant combat between the military and the FARC guerrillas in the territory where the Nukak Makú have ranged for generations. Many of the remaining Nukak, a peaceful people, have fled.

Now about sixty are in a settlement about ten minutes’ drive outside San José del Guaviare, a patch of land called Aguabonita that is the property of the mayor’s office. A shifting, leaderless group of displaced Nukak (they go in and out of the jungle, and in and out of the town of San José) has been in Aguabonita since 2006.

Journalist Juan Forero, then writing for the New York Times, visited the site in 2006, shortly after their arrival. He compared them to a second group of Nukak that had previously arrived at a settlement in Barrancón, to the east of San José del Guaviare.

What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in a clearing called Barrancón.

Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They also have no plans to return to the forest.

That, unfortunately, is a fair description of what I saw in Aguabonita in April 2008.

After driving through an expanse of cattle ranches, one arrives at a stand of trees, which opens up into a clearing of perhaps an acre. The ground is well-worn dirt, and dust coats everything. The Nukak live in a cluster of six or seven open-sided thatch-roofed huts strung with hammocks, an arrangement similar to what they would have in the middle of the jungle.

In the huts, cooking fires are always burning; instead of set mealtimes, a Nukak eats small amounts all day long. As hunter-gatherers, they do not work if food stocks are sufficient; they spend much of the hot day reclining in hammocks. Donated food supplies – most bearing the seal of the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, some with the USAID logo – are stacked overhead, on planks laid just below each hut’s roof. Despite the food deliveries, I saw at least two children with the light hair and swollen bellies typical of severe malnutrition.

(This basket, I was told, holds aid items for which the Nukak have no use, like lentils, pasta and toothpaste.)

When they want something other than the donated food, Nukak go back into the jungle to hunt. Monkeys in particular are a preferred food. When a hunter kills a monkey carrying offspring, the baby monkey is kept as a pet. Several young monkeys were living alongside the Nukak at Aguabonita, some adopted by children on whose shoulders they inseparably sat. Monkey and child even eat from the same bowl.

Though it was hard to get definitive information from a few linguistically difficult conversations, I gathered that the violence the Nukak have suffered has been principally at the hands of guerrillas. As “Plan Patriota” and similar military offensives have brought periodic sweeps into increasingly remote parts of Guaviare, the FARC, fleeing frontal combat, has moved into the Nukak Makú reserve.

Continue reading »

Apr 18

Here is a video featuring Pedro Arenas, the recently elected mayor of San José del Guaviare, Colombia (someone we’ve known for a long time). Here, the mayor gives a tour of a public housing project whose scale dwarfs anything else in this town of 40,000 people.

Begun back in 2004, the project is an unfinished semi-ruin because corrupt authorities made off with the construction funds. Pedro Arenas’ administration is now trying to get the building job finished.

Of course, there is no shortage of government contracts stalled by corruption in Colombia and Latin America (or, for that matter, in the United States). What makes this particular case outrageous, though, was that the intended beneficiaries were 168 of the thousands of internally displaced families who have arrived in San José del Guaviare over the past fifteen years.

Feb 18

Here is a quick overview of the utterly depressing scandal that, for the time being at least, has knocked Hugo Chávez off of Colombia’s front pages.

On August 8, 2004, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced that his government would liquidate Carimagua, an enormous state-owned hacienda in Meta department, in Colombia’s eastern plains. 17,000 hectares (43,000 acres) of land, Uribe told reporters, would be distributed to 800 families who had been forced off their land by violence.

This giveaway alone would have increased by one-third the 54,500 hectares of land that the Uribe government has distributed to displaced families since 2002. (This total, however, hardly makes a dent in the 2.9 million hectares that, the Colombian government Comptroller’s Office estimates, have been stolen from forcibly displaced Colombians during the past twenty years.)

Three years passed, though, and nothing happened with Carimagua. Not a square inch of the land has been distributed.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo revealed why in a story published February 10. At some point, the Uribe government changed its mind about Carimagua quite radically. In July 2007, the newspaper revealed, Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry decided instead to make the 17,000 hectares available to large agribusiness companies, promising a fifty-year lease to the highest bidder. The displaced families, who had been waiting for years, were not told of this decision.

This revelation has shed an uncomfortable light on the Colombian government’s agriculture minister, Andrés Felipe Arias, an ultraconservative young politician who is so close to President Uribe that Colombian commentators frequently call him Uribito.” Arias – who is known more for campaigning against demilitarizing territory for talks with guerrillas than for any rural development policies – defended the decision to break his government’s promise to the displaced families by arguing that Carimagua is not appropriate for small-scale agriculture.

Arias argued that the 17,000 hectares are poor-quality land (a claim that other experts have since disputed), far from transportation (though along one of Colombia’s largest rivers, the Meta), and that “nothing can be done with only 11 hectares per family.”

In an El Tiempo column, analyst Cristián Valencia responded to that last point, recounting conversations with displaced families he encountered trying to scratch out a living by selling goods at busy Bogotá intersections.

Continue reading »

Oct 09

Here, from several Colombian non-governmental organizations, is a disturbing update about worsening security conditions along the Colombia-Ecuador border. The original Spanish can be read here.

Colombia-Ecuador Border Working Group

Situation of Risk at the Southern Border

Due to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Colombia’s border departments with Ecuador (Nariño and Putumayo), the Borders Group, made up of national and international organizations, expresses its concern about repeated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

During the past year the civilian population of the Colombia-Ecuador border has been affected by acts of violence, manifested in their utilization as “shields for attacks against military targets or to protect, facilitate or impede military operations” (No. 10 of the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement).

The worsening of the humanitarian situation has been denounced by the Nariño departmental government, the Catholic Church through the bishops of the Colombia-Ecuador border zone, different social and community organizations of Nariño and Putumayo, national and local non-governmental organizations, and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office [Defensoría del Pueblo] through its early-warning system, risk reports and defensorial hearings.

Nonetheless, in recent months the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Nariño and Putumayo departments has been marked by a series of actions that generate a situaition of persistent risk for communities.

In Nariño:

  1. From August 23 to 26, the county of San Lorenzo in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province registered the arrival of approximately 1,700 people of Colombian origin, originating from communities along the Mira, Mataje and Nulpe rivers of Tumaco municipality, Nariño department. Simultaneously, the departmental government reported the movement of approximately 6,000 people from these communities toward the areas known as Vallenato, La Guayacana and El Azúcar, in the rural zone of Tumaco municipality. These people moved due to presumed pressures from illegal armed groups, with the supposed interest of impeding forced eradication operations against illicit crops. This situation was attended by the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments, civil-society organizations and the international community, seeking to mitigate the complex humanitarian consequences. On August 26, 2007, delegates of the Colombian government and some members of the local communities signed an accord for their return to their lands. So far there has been no known compliance with point 3 of the accord signed by the government delegates and the communities, which specifically concerns the re-starting of negotiations with the “mobilization of southwestern Colombia” [to agree on eradication and government assistance], begun in Nariño department in May 2006.
  2. Threats from illegal armed groups persist against community leaders who returned to their places of origin in Nariño.
  3. Pressures from illegal armed groups persist against the civilian population residing in ten hamlets along the Pasto-Tumaco highway in Nariño department.
  4. Since September 18 there has been combat between the army and the FARC-EP guerrillas during military operations launched by the security forces in the community of Inda Sabaleta, in the rural zone of Tumaco municipality in Nariño department. These hostilities forced the communities of Pilbizita, Sabaleta, Bajo Inda and La Victoria to displace to the Inda Sabaleta Educational Institution in the community of the same name, which is about 25 minutes by road from the town center of Llorente. On Friday, September 21 1,018 people had been displaced, out of 1,172 who live in the Awá indigenous reservation in Inda Sabaleta. Of these, 488 are minors, who remain concentrated in the educational institution. There is a risk that the populations of other reservations like Gran Rosario and Inda Guacaray may be displaced for the same reason.

In Putumayo: Continue reading »

Jul 11

[Note as of July 12: The resolution passed late yesterday afternoon by a voice vote. Floor statements from several members of Congress can be read in the Congressional Record.]

Today’s House of Representatives calendar includes consideration of a non-binding resolution, H. Res. 426: “Recognizing 2007 as the Year of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Colombia, and offering support for efforts to ensure that the internally displaced people of Colombia receive the assistance and protection they need to rebuild their lives successfully.”

The resolution has 42 cosponsors, and was approved by the House International Relations Committee two weeks ago. It should pass easily by a voice vote today; let’s hope that happens. Here is the text.

Whereas Colombia has experienced the internal displacement of more than 3,800,000 people over the past 20 years, representing approximately 8 percent of Colombia’s population;

Whereas Colombia’s internally displaced population is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Americas, and the second largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan;

Whereas more than 200,000 people continue to be displaced internally every year;

Whereas Colombia’s internally displaced people are often forced from their homes multiple times, and fear repercussions if they identify their attackers;

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program have found internally displaced people in Colombia to be poorer and more disenfranchised than the general population, with 70 percent suffering from food insecurity, inadequate shelter, or limited health care services;

Whereas Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by displacement, representing almost one-third of the internally displaced;

Whereas women and children also comprise a large majority of the internally displaced;

Whereas very few internally displaced Colombians have been able to return to their original homes due to ongoing conflict throughout the country, and when returns take place they should be carried out voluntarily, in safety and with dignity;

Whereas, in 1997, the Government of Colombia passed landmark legislation, known as Law 387, to guarantee rights and assistance to its internally displaced population;

Whereas the Government of Colombia has expanded its ability to assist internally displaced people through its own agencies, and with the financial, technical, and operational support of the international community;

Whereas the Constitutional Court of Colombia has handed down multiple decisions recognizing the insufficient nature of the government’s efforts to meet the basic needs of internally displaced persons and upheld the importance of implementing law 387 in light of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement;

Whereas the Constitutional Court of Colombia, in consultation with the Government of Colombia, civil society, and the United Nations, has developed an extensive set of measurements to ensure government compliance with Law 387;

Whereas the Government of Colombia, the international community, and civil society are engaged in the London-Cartagena Process to develop coordinated responses to domestic problems, including humanitarian assistance and internal displacement;

Whereas the Government of the United States provides valuable, but limited, humanitarian assistance to Colombia, and has programs targeted specifically for internally displaced people; and

Whereas the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, on a visit to Colombia in March 2007, urged greater attention to the issue, stating that it should be a `national priority’ and asked for `greater coherence’ in programs to address the needs of the internally displaced: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that–

(1) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Colombian Catholic Church, and the Coalition for Human Rights and Internal Displacement should be commended for their initiative to declare the Year of the Rights of the Internally Displaced People in Colombia;

(2) the Government of Colombia and the international donor community should be encouraged to prioritize discussion of humanitarian assistance and internal displacement with the international donor community, especially within the context of the London-Cartagena Process; and

(3) the Government of the United States should increase the resources it makes available to provide emergency humanitarian assistance and protection through international and civilian government agencies, and assist Colombia’s internally displaced people in rebuilding their lives in a dignified, safe, and sustainable manner.