Living out in the streets (with children’s mouths to feed)

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An indigenous family on the streets of Medellín (Image taken from Cosas Del Alma blog)

(I would just like to preface this by saying this is going to read like an vaguely racist 18th century travelogue, so forgive me for that.)

Ethnically, Colombia is broadly broken down into a mix of people of African descent, people of indigenous descent and people of Spanish descent.

Going off my rough estimation, the population of Medellín seems to have drawn most heavily on the European gene pool.

What has been stark is that the only indigenous people I have seen so far have been living on the streets.

It’s jarring for a few reasons.

The groups are almost exclusively female, and without fail have children with them.

The ages of the children are at the extreme low end, ranging from a few months up to maybe five.

As much as their parents seem to be trying to look after them, they don’t have much at hand to help them to do so.

Yesterday I was passing one group and two children who were no older than 18 months were lying face down on the pavement with their knees tucked underneath them and only a piece of cloth separating them from the concrete.

An indigenous family on the streets of Bogota

An indigenous family on the streets of Bogota (Credit: Mike’s Bogota Blog)

Homelessness and the housing crisis is perhaps the biggest issue that the current generation of Irish people have to deal with, and the dependency on emergency accommodation and hotel rooms is a disgrace in a western society.

But still, the story of a family with a young child having to sleep rough earlier this year was a big enough issue to be raised in the Dáil by Mary Lou McDonald. 

The other thing that is striking is that the indigenous people I have seen wear bright traditional clothing, so on first impressions it can be hard to reconcile their appearance with the fact that they’re in such dire straights.

To try and find out why this seems to happen, I asked around a few Colombia people, and what I heard most was that a lot of the people have been displaced by the war in the country.

This has happened on a pretty massive scale.

While around 220,000 people have been killed during the 52 years of conflict in Colombia, close to 6 million have been displaced.

It can be hard to make statistics emotionally palatable, but if you think about that, that’s every person in Ireland – north and south – being booted out of their home.

According to Amnesty International the groups most impacted have been Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmers, with groups that depend on agriculture for their livelihood impacted the most.

Many of these people have been forced off their land after threats from paramilitaries, the armed forces and guerrillas, with 14% of the country’s territory having been either abandoned or illegally acquired.

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Indigenous families set up camp under the school building in Aguasal in Alto Andágueda after being forcibly displaced from their homes in 2012 © Steve Cagan / Amnesty International

The other reason that people have been forced off their land is, inevitably, money.

Once the government cottoned on the fact that a lot of these lands contained valuable natural resources, they had no problem granting licences to mining companies to get digging – with the fate of the Indigenous and Afro-descendent people living on them barely an afterthought.

Since 2012, the government has backed a programme to give people their land back, but this has been a slow moving process and a relative few have been able to regain legal ownership.

This is definitely something I am going to try and learn some more about while I am here in Colombia.

Click here for more information from Amnesty International about the plight of displaced people in Colombia. 

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