Conflict between illegal armed groups forces people of indigenous and African descent to abandon their properties in the Alto Baudó municipality.
COLOMBIA NEWS – BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Violence in the department of Chocó’s Alto Baudó municipality has displaced more than 3,000 Colombians in 2014.
Conflicts among emerging criminal groups (BACRIM) and guerrilla groups are forcing populations of indigenous and African descent to abandon their homes.
“These groups are seeking control over the territory for the processing, sale and distribution of coca leaves and pressed marijuana,” Juan Pablo Guerrero, a researcher with the Popular Research and Education Center, said.
The Alto Baudó region is of strategic importance, as the Baudó River and its tributaries can be used to carry drugs to the Pacific Coast, from where they are shipped to the international market.
In May, there was a mass displacement among 17 indigenous communities in the region. About 2,500 people had to leave their homes because they were caught in the crossfire. On June 13, another 500 people were displaced, according to Colombia’s Office of the Ombudsman.
Illegal armed groups’ advancement into indigenous territory threatens nearby communities in the Bajo Baudó region, which has endured three mass displacements since 2011.
“Over the last four years, the displaced population has been increasing, especially in the regions of the Baudó and San Juan rivers, due to the disputes over territory,” Guerrero said.
The Colombian Army has provided assistance to the affected population and is working to dismantle the illegal groups present in Alto Baudó. About 40 soldiers were sent to the communities of Chachajo and Cugucho, according to the Ministry of Defense.
However, the violence and difficult access to this remote region – the Alto Baudó region can be reached only by boat – have complicated the work of the Victims Unit and the Colombian Red Cross, which provide humanitarian assistance to displaced peoples in the region, said Luís Mauricio Vesga, a delegate assigned to advocate for the rights of displaced people.
The clashes between the guerrilla and illegal armed groups also have affected mobility. About 450 people are being prevented from using the river because of the presence of armed actors and the fear of new conflicts, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
The effects of mining
Illegal mining carried out in the San Juan River region is also impacting the Alto Baudó municipality, according to Guerrero.
“The rivers in Chocó pass through the different sub-regions. So, if portions of a river are contaminated with mercury, other areas also will be affected,” Guerrero said.
Traditionally, Baudó hasn’t been a mining region, but rather a coca cultivation region, according to Guerrero.
Informal and illegal mining, as well as criminal mining – which helps finance the conflict’s illegal armed groups – are occurring in Chocó department, according to the Office of the Ombudsman.
The use of mercury in the extractive process of gold mining has contaminated the Atrato, San Juan, Andágueda, Apartadó, Bebará, Bebaramá, Quitó and Dagua rivers, the Office of the Ombudsman reported.
In addition to water pollution, illegal mining has diverted rivers, forming pools of water, which cause diseases such as dengue and malaria to proliferate.
A lack of basic sanitation, wastewater treatment and a water shortage has increased the risk of disease in the region. Garbage accumulates in open-air piles or is dumped into water sources, according to the Departmental Health Secretariat.
As a result, more than 400 cases of people falling ill from symptoms related to water pollution were reported between January and April. Three indigenous children died in the communities of Buena Vista, Bajo Grande and Quiparadó during the same period.
Landslides, also caused by mining activities, caused 11 deaths this year in the municipalities of Nóvita, Sipí and Medio Baudó.
However, the conflict among armed groups in the region is complicating access to information about the real difficulties being faced by the population, according to a June 23 report by the UNOCHA.