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Michael Solis

Michael Solis

Posted: September 13, 2010 04:20 PM

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, approximately 26 million people worldwide have had to flee their homes for different locations within their countries as a result of conflicts, government policies, or human rights violations. In Colombia, the number of internally displaced people is approximately 4.9 million -- nearly the population of Colorado. This makes Colombia the second largest internal displacement country in the world next to Sudan.

Internally displaced people in Colombia account for 11 percent of the nation's population and 19 percent of all internally displaced people globally. Once displaced, they are exposed to violence, rights abuses, and limited access to food, education, and health care.

The driving cause of displacement in Colombia is the ongoing civil war, which began in 1964 when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas rose up in arms. Government-backed paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s to combat the insurgents. Paramilitary forces remain active despite failed demobilization tactics between 2002 and 2006, and they continue to commit rights abuses.

Such abuses do not stop with the State-sponsored expulsion of people from their land. Human Rights Watch's 2010 report on Colombian paramilitaries documents the widespread abuses of successor military groups to the paramilitary coalition that regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion. They often target human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims seeking justice, and community members who do not follow paramilitary orders.

According to women's rights activist Ana Teresa Lozada, at the core of the Colombian conflict is deep social inequality. Half of the country's population of 45 million people live in poverty. The territorial dispute has caused the dispossession and displacement of the poor and marginalized to the benefit of the powerful -- the State and multinational corporations -- who gain minerals, oil, and other natural wealth as a result of exploitation.

Forced displacement continues in countryside towns and cities, with indigenous and Afro-Colombians being the main target groups. Nearly half of the displacements that occurred in 2009 took place in Nariño, where paramilitary forces have assassinated indigenous peoples. An estimated 300,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2009 alone.

Paramilitary organizations have helped facilitate the entry of multinational corporations in Colombia by doing the "dirty work" of removing farmers and their families from their land. Internally displaced people are excluded from the enjoyment of their economic and social rights, including the right to work. Approximately 11 percent of internally displaced people earned Colombia's minimum wage of $260 per month, while the rest rely on informal work such as rummaging and selling things like cell phone minutes or tamales.

Recently, a delegation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) visited Colombia to meet with Colombian officials and activists about the internal displacement issue. The group visited the people of Las Pavas who have been displaced from their land by a former drug lord.

Stacey Carmichael, one of CPTs delegates, expressed her concerns with what the Colombian corporation Daabon that now resides in Las Pavas has done to the 123 local families and their land. "This corporation has disrupted a native burial ground and bulldozed the Las Pavas community's crops to plant palm. The palm oil being harvested is mainly being sold to...get this...the Body Shop."

The revelation is telling. The Body Shop is a corporation that claims to commit itself to defending human rights and campaigning against social injustice. According to its website, the Body Shop commits itself to "respect local, cultural, and political differences" and insists that their business activities adhere to basic human rights standards. Yet the corporation is profiting directly from policies that displace Colombians, extract resources, and deprive locals.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced people are not afforded the same protections as refugees under international law such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol. Instead, the government is chiefly responsible for addressing their rights. This is problematic when the Colombian State is largely responsible for the infringement of its people's rights.

Hope for change exists, as a recent Constitutional Court ruling has deemed the government's response to internally displaced people as unconstitutional. The Colombian government has begun a discussion process to address the dispossession of land. While the government of the former president Alvaro Uribe increased funding for programs to benefit displaced people, the initiatives did not result in improvements in their quality of life, nor did they seek to right the wrongs of the past by holding people accountable for rights abuses. It remains to be seen what the newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos, will do to address this humanitarian concern.

Until then, it would not hurt to contact multinational corporations like the Body Shop to question them about the implications their business agreements have on Colombian people and native lands.

UPDATE: The Body Shop's Shelley Simmons has responded here