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Colombia: outside the city, a different reality
29 May 2012

In Soacha more than 30,000 residents have been registered as displaced in a city with a population of about 400,000. The displaced arrive from throughout the country, seeking the security and services of the Bogota environment but unable to afford rent within the capital. (Christian Fuchs/JRS)
As paramilitary groups encroach on more and more of the urban landscape, intra-urban displacement has become a growing problem.
Bogotá, 29 May 2012 – It is easier to be optimistic about the humanitarian situation in Colombia from within the confines of the vibrant city centres of Bogotá, Cartagena and Barranquilla. Thriving economies spurred by a surge in foreign investment, reports of a growing middle class and the general warmth of the Colombian people can lull you into feeling that all is well; the nearly 50 years of civil war have been left behind and shadowy illegally armed groups who leave terror in their wake have all but been defeated.

But crossing just over the city limits of Bogotá into the sprawling urban environment of Soacha, walking the neighbourhoods of the bustling port city of Buenaventura and traversing the Calima and San Juan Rivers sheds light on a different story, one of a country still trapped in civil war where security – the basic human right to get through the day free from the threat of torture, kidnapping or death – continues to be a grave challenge.

In Soacha, a suburb of Bogotá with a population of about 400,0001, more than 30,000 residents have been registered as displaced. They arrive from throughout the country, seeking the security and services of Bogotá but unable to afford rent within the capital.

A community initiative. We met with the JRS team, and a displaced person who has been an instrumental leader, teaching a group of 26 women how to use organic farming techniques to improve food security for families in her neighbourhood. Each participating family now has a small plot of land on which they plant squash, fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other staples. 
Listen to the audio:


Sponsorship and accompaniment by Jesuit Refugee Service has also enabled the mothers of the community to take classes in emergency healthcare and contingency planning.

We sit in Doña Katia's* large garden plot, surrounded by her orchids and bonsai trees, lemon balm, papayuellas, mint, squash and other crops; a verdant scene juxtaposed with the heavily eroded cliff-side that faces us over a dusty valley. Sandstone mining trucks are busily at work on the dirt roads in the valley, the combination of their open loads and churning tires kicks up filmy red-brown silt that soon coats our skin.

Doña Katia sends a worried look in the direction of her ten-year-old daughter as the outgoing youngster clears her throat and produces a croupy cough. Many of the children in the community have lung problems, attributed to the constant dust from the 30-some mines that pepper the Soacha landscape.

Only a handful of the mines have permits, the rest illegally plunder the minerals of the community while causing water contamination, erosion and subsequent vulnerability to flooding.

We hear the story of the community’s civic engagement and their work with the local mayor's office to raise their burgeoning concerns surrounding threats and disappearances connected to paramilitary groups, and the problems wrought by illegal sandstone mining.

Access to quality healthcare, adequate education and the services due to displaced people under Colombia's progressive legal framework are likewise principal concerns of the community.

The FARC, a left-wing rebel group, are said to still be an ominous presence in the rural territories surrounding Soacha, preying on the local population, demanding war-taxes and attempting to forcibly recruit young people.

As paramilitary groups encroach on more and more of the urban landscape, intra-urban displacement has become a growing problem.

Shaina Aber, JRS USA Associate Advocacy Director

*Name has been changed for security reasons.

1According to the 2005 census. Anecdotal reports gathered on this trip peg the population at closer to one million.

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