29 January 2008

Colombian Displaced People Create Their Own Humanitarian Zones

Forcibly displaced people have established “humanitarian zones” (HZ) in the north-western department of Chocó (a Colombian state), near the frontier with Panama with the intent of clinging on to their land and their way of life. . In the words of one of the leaders of the internally displaced persons (IDP), “it is better to die by bullet at home than of hunger and desperation in a municipal centre”.

These zones are occupied by groups that have united to remain in the surroundings from which they were expelled in the wake of an important campaign undertaken by the Colombian army and paramilitary forces in 1996 against guerrilla groups of the Left. Though the security situation improved between 1999 and 2000, many of those displaced by the conflict could not return to their land.

The HZ are delimited areas where members deny access to armed groups and insist on neutrality, refusing to provide information to armed groups or offering logistical help. Many have established warning systems in case of threats or abuses against their members. In November 2006, there were five HZ in Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, housing approximately 400 of the 2,125 people who lived in these settlements before the start of the counter-insurgency operations in 1996. In 2005, there were more than 50 HZ or similar initiatives in Colombia.

Soon after the inhabitants were displaced, private companies, cultivator of African palm in the production of biocombustibles, started establishing plantations in Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, two communities in the department of Chocó. The Colombian government has provided political and financial support to the development of plantations of African palm as part of the effort to eradicate illicit cultivation, promote regional development and, from what has come to be known, to offer economic incentive to the paramilitaries to hand over their arms in keeping with the government programme of the law of “Justice and Peace”.

A HZ was established in Chocó in April 2006 within a palm plantation, on land awarded to a settler in the Eighties by a rural development agency. The landowner, who in turn was displaced by the paramilitaries, in place of yielding before the threats of the African palm companies, helped other displaced families to establish the zone on his land. The establishment of the zone entailed felling palms, a huge risk for the inhabitants.

From September 2006, the seven occupying families had to cross barbed wire fences installed by the African palm company to arrive at the zone. The conditions of living were precarious, as they could not clear enough land to cultivate for their own needs and all they needed, foodstuff and otherwise, had to be brought from the closest town and the paramilitaries and the companies controlled the routes. Members of a recently-established HZ were living under plastic sheets, without electricity, with access only to surface water and with schools for the children. Members of the most developed HZ have erected wooden houses, organised educational services and have harvested part of the land they were forced to abandon.

The African palm companies, with the apparent support of the local paramilitary forces, have pressured the displaced so they sell up or otherwise hand over their land. The members of the HZ have been exposed to persistent threats and pressured to abandon their intent to recover their land. The nature of the pressure has changed with time, from open military and paramilitary violence, including assassinations, torture, forced sales and death threats to offers of food and medical service distributed by the military.

While the communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó have rejected these offers, members of a HZ in an area very close to the border with Panama have accepted them. The result was a rise in social tension, as much as among members of the community who accepted the offer as with neighbouring communities who rejected it.

The IDPs of Chocó have complained of more than 100 crimes committed by the paramilitary groups acting in collusion or with material support of the army from the start of the counter-insurgency in 1996. In 2007, two leaders of the displaced were shot and seriously injured in a paramilitary-style attack. In February 2007, the Procurator-General opened formal investigation against military personnel accused of having killed eight members of an IDP community in the area. Still the majority of attacks against the civil population has not been investigated.

Link: http://www.internal-displacement.org/8025708F004BE3B1/(httpInfoFiles)/7E236B356E816D93C125738A002EE88A/$file/Colombia_SCR_Nov07_Spanish.pdf
The original report was published by:
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre
Norwegian Refugee Council
Chemin de Balexert 7-9
CH-1219 Châtelaine (Geneva),
Tel: +41 22 799 0700, Fax: +41 22 799 0701

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