Colombia: World Leader in Forced Displacement

(IPS) – “We want to shout out to the world, and no one will be able to keep us silent: forced displacement is still happening in Colombia, which is why we are asking for solidarity. We aren’t terrorists, we aren’t criminals; we are farmers whose dignity and rights have been stolen from us.”

These were the words of a community leader from the central department (province) of Tolima, who asked not to be identified because he has received threats.

He spoke with IPS, with visible anger and sadness, outside of the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation (Acción Social), where security forces broke up another protest last week by farmers displaced by the country’s nearly five-decade armed conflict.

Some 5.2 million people were displaced from rural areas of this South American country between 1985 and 2010, according to a report released Wednesday by the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).

This figure confirms that Colombia still heads the list of countries with the greatest number of people forced to flee their homes by political violence, as indicated in 2009 by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

The study “Consolidation of What? Report on Displacement, Armed Conflict and Human Rights in Colombia in 2010” was completed in the final stretch of the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the authors say.

“Unlike his predecessor, President (Juan Manuel) Santos is fomenting social and political dialogue, including the question of peace on his agenda, and vindicating the victims,” they stress.

“It is early to know whether the shift will be permanent,” but the hope is to achieve “a non-military solution to the conflict that has been bleeding this country dry” since the early 1960s, the report says.

In the last 25 years, the war has forced “11.4 percent of the population to change their residence, because their lives, physical integrity or freedom were threatened,” says the 140-page report, published in Spanish.

Half of the total population of internally displaced persons fled their homes during Uribe’s two four-year terms in office.

Acción Social reported that 86,312 people were displaced in 2010, but CODHES puts the figure at 280,000, based on its daily monitoring of the phenomenon, fact-checking and verification of the information.

Statistics on violence and displacement in regions where the National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory is being carried out indicate that “32.7 percent of the people uprooted from their homes come from municipalities included in this policy to fight the left-wing guerrillas.”

The counterinsurgency programme was launched by Uribe in 2007 with the pretext of “meeting the goals of the government’s Democratic Security policies, shoring up investor confidence and making progress towards effective social policies.”

It has been implemented in 86 of the country’s 1,141 municipalities. The mining industry is active in 21 of the 86 municipalities, and in 14 others, large-scale cultivation of oil palm and biofuel crops has displaced production of food crops.

These productive activities are associated with the violent eviction of rural families from their land, the CODHES report states.

The Commission to Monitor Public Policies on Forced Displacement, set up after the Constitutional Court handed down rulings in 2004 ordering the government to protect the rights of displaced persons, reports that between 1980 and July 2010, more than 6.6 million hectares of land were violently seized by illegal armed groups.

The departments where most of the land was seized coincide with the regions where the National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory is being carried out, especially the western departments of Antioquia and Chocó, where rural families have lost 1.9 million hectares of land.

CODHES reports that 44 of the 86 municipalities included in the National Plan are among the areas with the highest rates of forced displacement last year, with six different violent episodes that affected 2,684 people and included 19 massacres in which 92 people were killed.

In that area, 176 targeted killings were also committed, of indigenous people, public employees, community leaders, a human rights activist and a journalist.

Communities returning to their land as part of the process of the restoration of rural property to displaced farmers have also been caught up in the violence, which cost the lives of 44 leaders of displaced communities between March 2002 and January 2011.

After they are forced off their land, the farmers tend to fall into poverty, usually swelling the populations of the shantytowns surrounding the country’s large cities. Up to 70 percent of the displaced are living in poverty.

“My husband was a cattle farmer,” Miriam López told IPS in 2009 during a four-month protest camp by thousands of displaced people in the Tercer Milenio park in the centre of Bogotá. “We had plow mules, and planted mandioca, plantains and cacao, and we traded our crops in (the northeastern department of) Norte de Santander.

“They killed my husband, and I had to leave it all behind, in the hands of others,” she said. “It was really hard. I would pull out the deeds to my farms and just sit and cry.”

Like López, many displaced people had property and were relatively well-off.

CODHES director Jorge Rojas said the report questions Uribe’s Democratic Security policies and National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory, because “in the first three years of its implementation, there have been many doubts about its effectiveness.”

The 5.2 million victims of forced displacement make Colombia the country with the largest number of displaced persons or refugees in the world, followed by Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, CODHES reported.