To many in Colombia, peace feels much like war

A scene from Cartagena, Colombia a day before the signing ceremony of the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / United Nations

URIBIA, Colombia — Ortensia Ipuana wakes up every morning in her dusty shack with her children and grandchildren and heads to El Basurero, a sprawling, stinking garbage dump on the outskirts of Uribia, Colombia’s largest urban indigenous hub. Ipuana is of Wayuu ethnicity, like the vast majority of those in the area, and has little time to care about peace deals between the government and guerrilla groups.

A peace agreement signed in November 2016 between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had promised to bring development to the Andean nation’s far-flung corners, which had long been ignored during 52 years of bitter conflict. For the Wayuu and other marginalised communities and ethnic groups, though, peace looks much the same as war.

"We’re here everyday, fighting to stay alive,” Ipuana said, sifting through piles of trash strewn across the desert floor. She is able to sell one kilo of plastic for 500 Colombian pesos, approximately $0.18. “We haven’t seen a decent rain shower in years and our children are dying,” she said. Official figures suggest that at least 193 indigenous children aged under 5 died in the province due to malnutrition between 2013 and 2017. Local NGOs and Wayuu leaders say the number is likely much higher.

Development has not arrived for those like Ipuana and, more than a year after the peace deal, violence continues in many regions; some even say it has worsened. Yet at the same time, the numbers now seem to confirm what many had feared: Since the deal, humanitarian funds have started vacating the country.

“You do not build peace by shutting down an armed group. You do it by shutting down inequality.”

— Gerard Gomez, Colombia head of country office at the U.N. OCHA

The Wayuu populated the northeastern La Guajira province long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. The arid desert climes kiss the crystal Caribbean waters in the north of the province, flanked to the east by the porous Venezuelan border. Along the coast to the west, there is more western influence, with tourist-friendly beach towns, though many Wayuu live in extreme poverty just outside them.

For Gerard Gomez, Colombia head of country office at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the peace deal has not ushered in the prosperity many had hoped for. “You do not build peace by shutting down an armed group,” he said in his office in Bogota, Colombia’s sprawling capital. “You do it by shutting down inequality.”

OCHA’s latest report claims that that there are 4.9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Colombia, a country with a population of 49 million and an estimated Gini coefficient — a measure of inequality — of 51.1. Malnutrition rates present a troubling dynamic, with chronic malnutrition in children under 5 in decline, while acute malnutrition — meaning the life of the child is in imminent danger — is rising.

But somewhat paradoxically, humanitarian assistance to Colombia is in retreat, with many donors citing the country’s newfound post-conflict status as a reason to divert resources to other global crises. Last year, Colombia received just over $39 billion in humanitarian funding, the lowest sum for at least a decade. OCHA’s mandate expires at the end of 2018, leaving many in the development community worried that dwindling funds will be further stretched in the absence of a coordination body.

José Luis Barreiro, Colombia country director at Action Against Hunger, shares these worries. “If the international community is a friend of Colombians, and not just in a political sense, then it must continue helping Colombia.” he said. “That’s the tone we take.”

Coupled with the threat of reduced funds is the changing dynamic among armed groups looking to move into the FARC’s former territory. Despite the the group’s demobilisation, violence continues to plague Colombia’s isolated regions, with 152,455 people displaced last year, up nearly 10,000 on 2016, according to figures gathered by OCHA. This is creating practical challenges for the government in bringing assistance to those who need it most, leaving humanitarian organizations — more likely to be seen as neutral parties — to pick up the slack.

“While some kind of conflict continues, the government will find it more difficult to reach these isolated regions with water and sanitation, to build roads so products can come out, [to create] social protection programs for children and infants, etc., in the way that we can,” Barreiro explained.

“After the signing of the peace agreement, what we have seen is an upward trend in violence when we hoped we would see a downward trend.” 

— Deborah Hines, Colombia representative, WFP

Others have noted that the situation has further imperilled the work of humanitarian agencies in the field. “After the signing of the peace agreement, what we have seen is an upward trend in violence when we hoped we would see a downward trend,” Deborah Hines, the World Food Programme representative in Colombia said. “Even for humanitarian workers we find the dynamics have changed and it is not as safe as it was before.”

Despite the uncertainty and complications created by armed groups, efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition continue apace. AAH, whose Colombia mission began in 1997, brought assistance to 71,418 vulnerable people nationwide in 2016, according to the most recent data available, continuing their focus on long-term food security, alongside disaster relief and risk reduction, by distributing water tanks and filters in flood-prone regions.

Meanwhile, WFP had a total of 204,208 beneficiaries, of which 34 percent are victims of violence. “In Colombia, we have a country strategy that was approved in 2017 that allows us to make this transition from humanitarian assistance to recovery, stabilization, and development,” Hines said. “What do we do when we are in a humanitarian situation working with displaced families? We give a cash-based transfer or a food-based transfer, but it’s always accompanied with trainings in nutrition, and sometimes it’s broader than that.”

One local NGO, Fundación Caminos a Identidad, or Fucai, also sees Colombia’s peace process as an opportunity to bring attention to malnourished children in La Guajira. Through alliances with UNICEF and UNESCO, among others, Fucai travels to far flung regions of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil in order to assist humanitarian communities. In La Guajira, they send brigades to teach locals how to build houses with local materials and make flour from the few grains that grow.

Ruth Chaparro, Fucai’s deputy director, argues that these small-scale methods are able to bring sustainable solutions to La Guajira, without patronizing or imposing Western values on culturally-suspicious indigenous communities.

“We have lived through the war, it was close to us,” said Chaparro. “This conflict has brought so much money to Colombia to spend on war. Now we have an opportunity to spend it on peace.”

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About the author

  • Joe daniels

    Joe Parkin Daniels

    Joe Parkin Daniels is a British journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia, where he covers human rights, the country's internal conflict, and health.