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Colombia: deprived of their land by armed conflict

05-01-2011 Feature

Colombia is facing a serious problem that has steadily grown worse over the years: its countryside is littered with antipersonnel mines, improvised explosive devices and unexploded munitions that have claimed thousands of lives, maimed and traumatized untold numbers, and had a disastrous socio-economic impact.

This protracted problem has affected one community after another, as the fighting shifts from area to area.

Karlina,* a member of the Embera-Katio indigenous population, hopes that one day her people will be able to return to their ancestral lands, which they had to flee because of the armed conflict. “The fighting has taken my husband’s life and robbed me of my land,” she said slowly, her voice heavy with sorrow.

Karlina’s people, who come from the south of Córdoba state, in northern Colombia, can no longer work their land, which is strewn with deadly explosive devices, nor can they hunt in the mountains or grow their own food the way they used to.

“Before all this, we sowed our crops in the mountains, watered them and returned for the harvest. Nature took care of the rest,” said one of Karlina’s neighbours.

Today, cultivating the land or going to market means risking life and limb. Karlina, her family’s sole breadwinner, works from dawn to dusk as she silently mourns her husband, who was killed by a mine.

Her story is a familiar one in Colombia, where unexploded munitions litter the countryside, threatening all who live there – farmers, indigenous peoples and the population of African descent.

The ICRC has set up special programmes in the area to prevent accidents and ensure that victims have what they need to feed themselves and live in dignity without having to relinquish their traditional lifestyle.

Finding solutions

An ICRC team recently visited Karlina’s community in an effort to find ways, together with the Embera-Katio population, of reducing the risk of accidents and making it possible for people to resume their traditional agricultural and hunting activities.

After some discussion with the locals, the ICRC decided to distribute fishing tackle so that people could take advantage of a large river nearby. Fishing is one of the few activities that can still be carried out safely. The ICRC also provided villagers with assistance to plant kitchen gardens and raise farm animals, such as pigs and chickens, and it held sessions to teach people safe behaviour that reduces the risk of accidents.

A few months later, a community leader said that people felt more secure now that they knew they could produce their own food without risking their lives. Karlina, however, felt that even though food was easier to come by, something had to be done to remove the explosive devices and ensure that people could return to their land. She had not lost hope that one day she could bring her four children back to their ancestral home and teach them the lessons that Mother Earth had taught her and her forebears.

The ICRC, having witnessed problems like these at first hand, strives to make armed groups aware of the consequences of unexploded munitions on people’s daily lives.

*Not her real name

 

The problem

The fact that unexploded munitions are scattered across remote areas means that countless people are prevented from working their fields, fetching water, and going to schools, health centres and places of worship. This scourge also keeps people confined to their villages and homes, since they are terrified of venturing out. Others flee and join the ranks of the displaced.

Two of the most immediate effects of unexploded munitions are to prevent people from returning to their homes and to block the delivery of crucial aid. In the long term, these devices can also hamper the rebuilding of basic infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, roads and wells, and deny people access to market places and farmland.  

ICRC activities

In areas contaminated by explosive devices, the ICRC’s activities include persuading local authorities and humanitarian organizations to focus their attention on the needs of victims and their communities, teaching safe behaviour and raising awareness of victims’ rights, providing medical care (including physical rehabilitation), giving economic assistance, promoting awareness of international norms and carrying out activities designed to prevent accidents and reduce the socio-economic impact of weapon contamination.


Photos

The Embera-Katio people, who live in the south of Córdoba state, in northern Colombia, can no longer cultivate their land, which is littered with unexploded munitions. 

The Embera-Katio people, who live in the south of Córdoba state, in northern Colombia, can no longer cultivate their land, which is littered with unexploded munitions.
© ICRC

Because of the presence of explosive devices, the Embera-Katio people can no longer hunt in the mountains or grow food, as they did for generations. 

Because of the presence of explosive devices, the Embera-Katio people can no longer hunt in the mountains or grow food, as they did for generations.
© ICRC

The ICRC visited the Embera-Katio people to teach them safe behaviour and inform them of victims’ rights. 

The ICRC visited the Embera-Katio people to teach them safe behaviour and inform them of victims’ rights.
© ICRC

By organizing activities aimed at preventing accidents caused by explosive devices, the ICRC seeks to ensure that people can feed themselves and live in dignity without having to relinquish their traditional lifestyle.   

By organizing activities aimed at preventing accidents caused by explosive devices, the ICRC seeks to ensure that people can feed themselves and live in dignity without having to relinquish their traditional lifestyle.
© ICRC