Run off their land

As the Colombian army steps up its offensive against paramilitaries and guerrillas, more and more people are getting pushed off their land. Some have headed for other parts of Colombia while others have fled the country. GlobalPost looks at the issue from the Colombian and Venezuelan sides of the border.

BOGOTA, Colombia — Accustomed to tending horses, cows and corn crops, a group of farmers listened intently as the professor explained the more delicate tasks of handling yeast and bread dough.

Most of these men and women were forced off their land by guerrillas or paramilitaries for allegedly collaborating with the enemy. Now, at a shelter for displaced people, they are learning how to make and sell bread so they can scratch out a living in the slums of south Bogota.

“Their world has changed,” said Huil Camacho, the professor, during a break in the class. “They have to acquire new skills to survive.”

Although the Colombian government says that the country’s guerrilla war is winding down, the number of people being run off their land by the warring factions is actually rising.

Last year, 380,000 Colombians were uprooted, a 24 percent increase from 2007, according to the Bogota human rights group Codhes, which tracks forced displacement. The Colombian government puts the number at about 294,000, but that figure covers only the first half of last year.

Either way, “the number of new cases is going up,” said Marie-Helene Verney, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia. “Something is going on.” Because they do not cross borders, internally displaced people, or IDPs, often receive less attention than war refugees. Yet the U.N. estimates that there are about 25 million IDPs worldwide compared to about 10 million refugees.

Colombia has produced more IDPs than any other nation except Sudan. Since 1985, more than 4.5 million Colombians — nearly 10 percent of the population — have fled their homes, abandoning more than 13 million acres of land in the process.

But the crisis is often overlooked by the country’s powerbrokers who live in the cities. Forced displacement usually occurs in remote areas of the countryside and affects poor farmers.

Though the figures dropped for a few years, the annual number of displaced people is creeping back up even though, by most measuring sticks, the security situation in Colombia has improved.

Under President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian Army has delivered a series of blows to Marxist guerrillas. More than 30,000 paramilitaries, who often teamed up with the army to target the rebels, have demobilized. During Uribe’s seven years in office, the number of homicides and kidnappings has dropped dramatically.

Uribe’s hard-line security policies helped him score a landslide re-election victory in 2006. He is contemplating running for a third term next year, though the move would first require a referendum to change the constitution.

But even Colombian officials admit that they’re disappointed in the recent rise in IDPs.

“We’ve been stuck in our efforts to reduce the levels of displacement,” said Armando Escobar, who heads IDP programs for the government’s social welfare agency. “It’s worse than what we had been expecting two, three or four years ago.”

Analysts attribute the rising number of IDPs to the formation of new paramilitary groups. But unlike the ideologically-driven, right-wing militias of the past that targeted Marxist guerrillas and their civilian supporters, these new armed groups are focused on making money.

Government officials say there may be as many as 82 so-called “emerging armed groups,” which often clash with guerrillas and with each other for control of land that can be used for growing coca — the raw material for cocaine — or for smuggling narcotics.

In addition, there have been widespread accusations that these groups work in cahoots with legitimate businesses to take control of large swaths of land to mine gold and to produce palm oil for Colombia’s booming biofuels industry. “Today’s paramilitaries are closely tied to economic interests,” said Jorge Rojas, who heads the human rights group Codhes. “In almost every case where there is a big palm oil development, there is widespread forced displacement.”

One of the newly displaced is Maria Elvia Mendez, who lives in a rundown building housing IDPs in downtown Bogota. She used to live on a coffee farm in the southern state of Huila but then gunmen threatened to kill her so she fled to Bogota in March.

“I don’t think that the levels of violence have gone down,” she said. “If that was true, we could live on our land in peace. But there is still a lot of fighting going on.”

The Colombian government has set up temporary shelters and provides food, health care, education and small monthly stipends to displaced people. But it also claims that many poor Colombians register as displaced to scam the government out of benefits. Escobar, who runs the displacement programs, claims that two of every three registered displaced people in Bogota are frauds.

But Verney, the U.N. spokeswoman, says the number of displaced people has probably been underestimated because many people who lose their land live too far from government offices to seek help.

Only about 10 percent of displaced Colombians have managed to returned to their homes. Part of the problem is that many small farmers lack titles to their land.

“Once they are forced to go," Verney said, "it is extremely difficult for them afterwards to be able to go back or to hope to get any kind of reparations."