Displacing Development in the Chocó

and Terry Gibbs

In the context of the ongoing territorial conflict in the Chocó, the mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents of the region struggle on various fronts. The Chocó is Colombia’s poorest and most underdeveloped department with almost 80 percent of the population living in extreme poverty and an illiteracy rate three times the national average. Only four countries—Afghanistan, Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone—have a higher infant mortality rate than the Chocó, where 125 children out of every 1,000 die before reaching their first birthday. The region’s lack of infrastructure is evidenced by the significant percentage of the population without access to electricity and potable water and the fact that roads are virtually non-existent, leaving rural Chocó almost exclusively dependent on river transportation. In addition to struggling with ongoing problems of health, education, employment and the civil conflict, chocoanos also face one of the highest rates of displacement in the country.

Deficiencies in infrastructure are only one aspect of a much deeper crisis of development in a region that faces two different and simultaneous forms of displacement: Forced displacement due to the conflict, and economic displacement that occurs as a result of a lack of opportunities. Forced displacement resulting from the conflict escalated in the Chocó in 1996 when former-President Ernesto Samper first publicly mentioned the possibility of building a transoceanic canal across the lower Río Atrato region near the Panama border. Much of the displacement has resulted from land speculation by right-wing paramilitaries who have sought to gain control over traditionally rebel-controlled territory that is strategically important, not only for the proposed canal project, but also for drugs and weapons smuggling. According to Harvey Suarez Morales, director of the Bogotá-based Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), the soaring displacement rates are more than just a consequence of the conflict, “Displacement isn’t a collateral effect of the war—it’s a central strategy of the war. It is entirely functional.”

Chocoanos have also suffered economic displacement as there are few opportunities in the Chocó, which depends almost exclusively on the state for employment. As a result, unemployment stands at 70 percent, forcing many residents to seek work in Bogotá, Medellín or Cali. Luis Angel Moreno, regional coordinator of the Social Solidarity Network, the governmental agency responsible for displaced persons, explains that displacement in the Chocó has race, class and gender dimensions. According to Moreno, “Our young people between the ages of 17 and 30 have to leave to look for work. And of course jobs pay according to your skill level. So in our case, we are employed to do the jobs that the white and mestizo population won’t do, which are also the lowest paid jobs.”

Moreno notes that many men leave to find work, making the Chocó a region with a disproportionately high percentage of female-headed households. In these circumstances women are forced to cope with the psychological trauma of desertion, while at the same time confronting social and economic adaptation to an unfamiliar environment in which they must provide for their families. Recognizing the high levels of displacement in the Chocó, the UN has decided to apply its Humanitarian Action Plan, which aims to protect those at risk of displacement and provide assistance to those who have already been displaced.

The Social Solidarity Network is also assisting displaced communities, but according to Moreno, the current crisis assistance strategies adopted by the state will never provide a real solution to a problem whose roots lie in chronic underdevelopment. What worries Moreno is the form of intervention: “Assistance means giving temporary food or shelter, or both…. They say, ‘The black population needs food.’ No, what we need is jobs. For people to be able to work and for them to be able to generate their own income. Things are given to us, consumed, and then there’s nothing left. So the village remains in the same state of poverty, underdevelopment and abandonment.” While the UN has provided the region with some $2.5 million in aid over the past year, as Moreno points out, none of this funding went to job creation, healthcare or education. In other words, none of the aid contributed to a sustainable development agenda for the future; it only addressed the immediate crisis needs of chocoanos.

Many communities have simply given up on the state and struggle to survive on subsistence agriculture. Residents of one such community on the Río Atrato, San Miguel, grow plantains, yucca, bananas, pineapples and maize for local consumption. They also raise chickens, which are communally owned and sold to buyers from the departmental capital, Quibdó, five and a half hours upriver by motorized canoe. This village of some 70 families has no teachers, healthcare workers or police, and faces constant interruptions in its electrical supply due to a lack of funds to purchase fuel for the generator. The local “school” is a dusty, empty cement room with bars on the windows. One community member notes, “This is our school but we haven’t had a teacher for a long time. Older kids have to go to school in Vigia [30 minutes downriver], but we can’t afford uniforms or transportation.”

The children are also the most affected by the lack of access to healthcare and medicines. “We have been asking the mayor [in Vigia] for help, but they always say they are coming mañana,” says one local resident. San Miguel’s children endure serious health problems stemming from a variety of diseases including diarrhea and malaria, which are aggravated by the fact that local residents use the Río Atrato as a sewer as well as a place to wash dishes, clothing and to bathe. These are concerns for communities all along the Atrato, where problems of sanitation further heighten the risks of disease.

The tragic events of May 2, 2002, in the town of Bellavista, Chocó, focused national and international attention on this neglected corner of Colombia. On that day, locals took refuge in a church in an attempt to escape fighting between leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries. But shortly before noon, an errant FARC cylinder bomb crashed through the roof of the church, killing 119 people. Most of the town’s 1,400 residents fled the region following the attack, with only 600 returning some four months later.

Since the return of Bellavista’s displaced population, the local municipal government has been engaged in a dialogue with Bogotá on an extensive reconstruction plan with the input of local residents. Representatives from the Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Planning, the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, an architect from the UN Development Program and other experts have all visited Bellavista to devise a plan for building new houses that can withstand the frequent flooding of the Río Atrato. While the national government appears to be responding to Bellavista’s needs because of the publicity garnered by the tragedy of May 2, it continues to ignore the similar needs of other communities in the region such as San Miguel.

There has been criticism of the Bellavista reconstruction plan, including the fact that the ultimate decision-making power for the plan lies in the hands of officials from Bogotá. In the past, according to the Social Solidarity Network’s Moreno, the disproportionate amount of assistance money spent on consultants who are flown in from other regions has proven to be problematic as these “experts” have little knowledge of local problems and do not understand the culture of the Chocó.

So far, the government’s social and economic response to May 2 has primarily consisted of discussions and promises. Initially, local residents were pleased that the events of that day finally brought their problems to the attention of the national government. However, according to William Salazar, regional representative of the government’s human rights office, the Defensoria del Pueblo, “There have been a lot of promises, promises that haven’t yet been fulfilled. More than a year has passed, it’s now going to be a year and two months, and the communities are still the same.”

Laura Zapata, an investigator for CODHES, is also critical of the government’s response to the attack on Bellavista: “The response from the state has been restricted to the militarization of the zone…. So the people keep thinking that the state only sends military troops, that it doesn’t send any help in terms of education and health.” While Bellavista’s acting Mayor Manual Corrales admits the “community has received a lot more attention since May 2,” he concedes that it is going to be difficult to move beyond the planning stage because “the government just doesn’t have the resources.”

One of the reasons it is difficult for the national government to fund development projects in the Chocó is the structural adjustment policies imposed on Colombia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a $2.1 billion loan issued in January 2003. The loan agreement calls for the Uribe administration to implement neoliberal economic policies that include cutbacks in public spending that inevitably affect the funding of development projects such as the one currently being proposed for Bellavista. One local resident, clearly accustomed to governmental neglect and broken promises, simply states, “They make plans, but nothing gets done.”

The problems of development in the Chocó are only more extreme variations on a common theme throughout rural Colombia, and they speak loudly to the contradictions of the national government’s development priorities and its handling of the conflict. At the root of the violence are extreme inequalities in the distribution of wealth and land, and ultimately very polarized visions of the kind of society Colombia should be. Long-term solutions to Colombia’s development crisis will have to confront these issues honestly and systematically with the full participation of broad sectors of society. Effective investment in regions such as the Chocó will not occur as long as macro-economic efficiency and fiscal discipline are the nation’s economic religion. As Harvey Suarez Morales of CODHES notes, “There is a metaphor we use that says, ‘The country goes up by elevator, while public policies go up the staircase.’ The worrying thing is that now it is not going up by elevator, it’s going up in a missile, very fast. While public policies are going back down the staircase.”

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