Over 5 Million Displaced: Colombia Reaches Highest Figure in the World

News from Colombia | on: Thursday, 10 March 2011

CODHES, the Colombian human rights NGO has released its latest report on internal displacement, the armed conflict and human rights. This report looks specifically at the so-called Centres for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), regions of the country which the Colombian government has designated as focal points for coordinated military and political efforts, ostensibly to “overcome forced displacement, protect human rights and reconciliation, overcome extreme poverty and consolidate conditions for development and peace.” Most shockingly, the report states that in the last 25 years at least 5 195 620 people have been forcibly displaced, a figure that encompasses 11.4% of the entire population and means that on average 778 people are displaced every day.

There are 14 CCAI spread across the country, encompassing 86 municipalities. These zones link in to Colombian government efforts to portray the conflict in the country as stemming from a lack of state presence in some areas of the country. According to this interpretation the power ‘vacuum’ is then filled by guerrillas and paramilitaries who are to blame for the violence that besets the nation.

However the Codhes report shows that this interpretation is false. Forty-four of the 100 municipalities with the highest levels of displacement are in the CCAI, areas where the army is in control. Violence is the main cause of displacement in these zones and at least 8 paramilitary groups operate in 62 of 86 CCAI municipalities. The Integrated Action Zones have witnessed 176 assassinations, 87 civilians killed in military actions, 81 injured by mines and 15 people kidnapped.

According to the report, between 1980-2010 land clearance - the forced displacement of peasants in order to allow free access for mining and intensive agriculture - has resulted in the violent clearing of 6 638 195 hectares of land. Where the military then takes control land is often sold to wealthy families, which entrenches the displacement of peasant families. Mining occurs in a third of the CCAI municipalities and the report states that “Mining zones are militarised and paramilitarised: the armed forces protect big private investments, the paramilitaries prevent social protest and pressure people to displace.” A similar process happens around the palm oil plantations which exist in nearly a fifth of the CCAI municipalities. In May 2010 the human rights prosecutor ordered the arrest of 24 palm oil businessmen for forced displacement and the invasion of areas of special ecological interest in alliance with paramilitaries.

Furthermore, despite official claims that the CCAI will target drug production, illegal crops continued to be cultivated in nearly three quarters of Integrated Action zones, making up 48% of the national total of illegal crop production. These figures have cast into doubt the effectiveness of the Integrated Action zones in achieving the purported goal of creating “an environment of stability and peace that allows the strengthening of democratic institutions to the benefit of citizen rights and the creation of the conditions for citizen’s human development.” Moreover, the continuance of forced displacement from these zones of government control demonstrates a questionable concept of social cohesion.

According to Codhes, official and NGO data coincide in that the zones of most forced displacement are the zones of the heaviest military and police presence. These zones are also those where paramilitaries are strong and where new paramilitary groups have been created. It is now also clear that these same areas of forced displacement are those of heavy foreign and Colombian investment in mining and biofuel agriculture.

Meanwhile the government tries to play down the numbers of displaced. Until 1997 there was no national registration system, and that which exists today still does not accurately record the numbers affected. The government insists on calling displaced persons ‘migrants’ and in 2010 reported only 86 312 displaced. However, according to Codhes, this figure did not take into account those displaced by paramilitary activity, nor displacement between towns, and only some of those displaced by military operations and aerial fumigations. Furthermore, in May 2010 Fabio Valencia Cossio, the Colombian Interior Minister declared that up to 30% of those seeking displaced status were opportunists seeking to take advantage of the system, accusing them of fraud. This contributes to the dangers faced by the leaders of the displaced population, 44 of whom have been killed between March 2002-January 31st 2011. Nor does the government take into account that many of the displaced from so-called ‘red zones’ are heavily stigmatised by government institutions and therefore refuse to register as displaced. Despite this, even the government’s own figures show that 42% of those it recognises as displaced come from the Integrated Action Zones.

Codhes points out that the CCAI are part of a development model that is more interested in foreign investment than in “life and nature” and is one where the idea of social cohesion is a euphemism that hides the reality of uprooting and fragmenting local societies that enjoy neither real democracy nor rights. The report calls on the government to revise the Integrated Action zone strategy and halt a development model that promotes inequality and destroys the environment.

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