As Columbia prepares for a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton, church leaders and human rights activists have warned that expanded U.S. military assistance to this war-torn country will in fact increase the level of violence and swell the number of displaced people. President Clinton will travel to the Colombian city of Cartagena on August 30 to meet Colombia's President Andres Pastrana. For security reasons, however, President Clinton will spend only a few hours in Columbia. Last month the Clinton administration approved US$1.3 billion in aid for Pastrana's "Plan Columbia," an ambitious program to eradicate illegal coca production and end the crippling war with armed groups. The number of U.S. troops here will increase dramatically under the latest aid package, which includes 63 high-tech military helicopters for the Colombian military and police. President Clinton's visit to Cartagena is intended to provide moral support for Pastrana's campaign to bring peace to Columbia. But church activists and others who work with the victims of violence vehemently oppose Pastrana's military solution to Colombia's seemingly endless war."Plan Colombia is not really a plan for peace, it's a plan for more war and more death," Antony Sanchez, the executive director of the Mennonite Development Foundation of Colombia (Mencoldes), told ENI. "It's difficult to believe that ripping out a few more illicit coca fields is going to solve anything. The peasants who are cultivating coca are just going to move further into the jungle, cutting down trees in the natural reserves of the Amazon region in order to keep cultivating it," Sanchez said. "As long as there is no clear, concrete economic alternative for the peasants, nothing is going to change, because growing coca is the only way they have of surviving."A cornerstone of Plan Colombia is a dramatic increase in the aerial fumigation of coca fields, yet critics point out that despite years of U.S.-financed fumigation, coca production has steadily increased.Leila Lima, local coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told ENI: "Fumigation is a political obsession of the North Americans, even though it simply doesn't work. Despite fumigation, coca production has increased. What fumigation has done is increase the numbers of internally displaced people, as well as push the agricultural frontier deeper into the jungle."According to Carolina Aldana, of the Association for Promoting Social Alternatives, a church-related group that works with peasants in the southern province of Putamaya, stepping up aerial fumigation will also increase pesticide-related sicknesses and harm food crops, aggravating the food crisis in the countryside and adding to the burden on churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which provide food aid.Fumigation is just one of several factors that have forced people to leave their homes and villages and seek refuge elsewhere in Colombia. About two million Colombians—5 percent of the population—have already been displaced in recent years. Several experts claim that only Sudan has a higher number of internally displaced people.Many of those forced to leave their homes were community leaders, who were the first targets of harassment and violence."Where we came from we were somebody, people knew us. Then we have to leave and all of a sudden we're nobody," said Olga Remolina, who was forced to leave her home in the southern Bolivar province last year. "We've lost everything, our homeland, our property, our family. At times we've even lost our faith, as we ask, like Jesus, why we've been abandoned by God."Displacement has increased in recent years as interlocking wars between government forces, left-wing guerrilla armies and right-wing paramilitary squads have escalated. Every armed group in Colombia has some link with "narco-trafficking"—the massive, illegal drug trade. This exacerbates the situation, making negotiated solutions more difficult.Despite on-off peace talks, the biggest guerrilla army, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), officially controls 42,000 square kilometers (16,216 square miles) in the south of the country. The second-biggest, the National Liberation Army (ELN), held talks with Colombian government officials at the end of July, in Geneva, Switzerland. However the meetings ended without substantial progress, in part because the government refuses to grant the ELN a chunk of territory similar to that held by the FARC.But the most brutal of Colombia's armed factions is a collection of right-wing paramilitary squads, partly funded by wealthy landowners. The squads are active in many parts of the country and cooperate with government forces.Some experts estimate that the paramilitaries are responsible for roughly two-thirds of all forced displacements.Although the Colombian government is responsible for helping resettle the displaced, critics claim it fails miserably. "The state is lazy, and it's a constant liar, and it leaves the displaced people to fight against other poor people in the country for scarce resources," Diego Falla, a government human rights official in Neiva, capital of the southern province of Huila, told ENI.According to Juan Manuel Bustillo, a Mennonite Development Foundation employee working with displaced communities, the government "pretends to be incapable and weak in order to avoid responsibility for the violence and to obtain international money to attend to the problems of the victims."After a visit to Colombia in June 1999, the UN secretary general's special representative for children and armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, wrote that the displaced communities of Colombia "are on their own. Apart from the limited presence of the church and a few NGOs, the communities … can count on little or no assistance from the government or the international community."Observers say the displaced are turning more and more to Colombia's churches.On arrival at a Mencoldes center in Bogota, internally displaced families are given counseling and job training. In the village of Sibate, 10 miles south of the capital, Mencoldes is helping 50 displaced families build new homes on land purchased by the London-based organization Christian Aid.Faced with the overwhelming avalanche of displaced families, however, churches and NGOs are changing their strategies, concentrating less on meeting physical needs and more on helping displaced people meet their needs themselves."We're working more these days on helping the displaced to form their own projects of life, to strengthen their own organization in order to move from despair to dignity, from solutions that contribute to mendacity to those which enable them to recover their human condition and be treated as social subjects with rights and visions for solving their own problems," Sanchez said. "We're moving from purely humanitarian aid to helping the displaced build their own participative processes, to build real democracy."Mencoldes and other church groups have formed an Ecumenical Network of Work with the Displaced. "Churches are particularly suited to this work. We have lots of willing hands, we're present throughout the territory, and our focus on the spiritual factor in development is something that's essential for constructing a new social fabric," Sanchez told ENI.Members of the new church network are working with Christian Aid and other international church agencies, formulating a program to step up help for the displaced, whose numbers are expected to swell in coming months as Plan Colombia swings into operation. They hope to issue an appeal for funding in late September through Action by the Churches Together (ACT), a Geneva-based international alliance of church-based relief agencies.
Copyright © 2000 ENI.Last week, the National Liberation Army took 26 members of a scientific expedition hostage and later freed them.Yesterday, the Associated Press carried an article on the planned aid.For more Colombia news, see Yahoo's full coverage.Our earlier coverage of the church in Colombia includes:Death in the Night | Colombia's pastors endure extortion, kidnappings, and threats as they plant churches and help the poor in a war zone. (June 6, 2000) Colombia's Bleeding Church | Despite the murders of 120 church leaders, Christians are fighting for peace in one of the world's most violent nations. (May 18, 1998) Fate of Kidnapped Missionaries Still Unresolved | Colombia remains thought to end questions are not human after all. (Mar. 29, 2000) Twenty-five Pastors Killed This Year (Oct. 4, 1999) Christians Held As Hostages (July 12, 1999)
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