Illegal mining, drug violence fuel Colombia displacement: U.N.

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Illegal mining and drug-fueled gang violence will still force thousands of Colombians from their homes each year, even if a peace deal emerges from current talks with Marxist rebels, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) predicted.

The number of freshly displaced Colombians fell by 40 percent last year from 2013, a drop attributed largely to a unilateral ceasefire by the rebels, whose talks in Cuba with government negotiators have lasted two years.

This followed five decades of fighting between government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups that had pushed the number of internally displaced Colombians to six million, the world’s second biggest total after Syria, the UNHCR said.

Displacement will fall if the government signs a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but gangs involved in drug-trafficking and illegal mining will still uproot others, Stephane Jaquemet, head of the UNHCR office in Colombia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Government figures show 122,000 people were freshly uprooted last year alone, roughly half of them displaced by drug-running gangs, many linked to demobilized paramilitary groups.

“Even if a peace deal is signed, there will be a continuation of displacement. Whether the government has the capacity to respond to other forms of violence is a question. You have to ensure there’s a response to deal with organized crime in the cities,” Jaquemet said.

Illegal gold and silver mines in central Colombia, and in the impoverished western jungle province of Choco on the Pacific coast, have become increasingly important sources of revenue for criminal groups, police say.

About half of all mining operations in Colombia are illegal, according to the authorities.

Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups are particularly at risk of displacement as their ancestral lands are often located in resource-rich areas.

“Some communities may not be willing to sell or allow mining operations on their lands. There’s pressure from these guys (criminal gangs) to take control of territory, and most of the time, communities don’t want to get involved, and then they receive threats and are forced to move,” said Jaquemet.

“The high pollution of their lands because of mercury and other chemicals used in mining is another element in displacement,” he added.

Around half of all displaced Colombians live in the cities, many settling in precarious makeshift shelters in hillside slums, often with no land tenure rights and no drinking water.

“The big challenge is whether we will be able to find a solution to the displacement problem. It’s a gigantic problem. Most IDPs in the cities don’t have access to land. You need to ensure that the land they occupy has a legal status because if you don’t, they don’t even exist,” Jaquemet said.

Many displaced people in the towns scrape a living as street sellers, or find temporary work in construction sites and as domestic workers.

“The areas where IDPs live are off the radar for employers and job creation programs,” Jaquemet said.