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Run off their land

Farmers displaced by war and ignored by politicians are searching for a new life in Bogota's slums.

A boy swings in a hammock in Bebedo, Colombia, on Feb. 24, 2009. Bebedo is a poor village in the province of Choco, a western jungle region with a mainly Afro-Colombian population that has been badly affected by a four-decade-old armed conflict between leftist rebels and ex-paramilitary gangs. The conflict has forced many from their homes. (Jaime Acosta/Reuters)

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.