Report Coronavirus

Chain reaction in a crisis

After a decade of gradual progress in Colombia, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated social and environmental conflict. A report on how people are living in this time of crisis – and on green shoots of hope.

Text
Katharina Wojczenko
Foto
Andrés BO

They arrived in the conservation area by the busload, in broad daylight. More than 400 people. Everything they could, they chopped down with machetes; everything else they burnt. ‘They ran round here like the torch bearers at the Olympic Games,’ says John Castiblanco, from Red del Agua (water network), an environmental foundation. They used mattocks, shovels and pickaxes to divide the plots and level the ground. Men with firearms allocated parcels of land. They also collected the money, and handed it over to the head of the land mafia, reports Castiblanco. By the time the environment authority arrived a few days later at the end of June, bringing the police and army with them, it was too late. They had nine people arrested and tore down the shacks that had been built, made of tree trunks, plastic sheets and corrugated metal. But more than 80,000 trees in Parque Entrenubes had been felled.

Anstehen für eine kostenlose Mahlzeit in Bogotá: Weil sie kaum noch etwas verdienen, sind Menschen in prekären Arbeitsverhältnissen auf Spenden angewiesen.
Queuing for a free meal in Bogotá: people in precarious employment now rarely earn anything at all, so are reliant on donations.

These 18 hectares of devastated Andean high forest are situated in the largest protected area in the hills south-east of Bogotá, and are particularly important for the city’s air quality and its drinking water. The landgrabbers buried at least four springs. ‘They destroyed 20 years of reforestation work,’ says Castiblanco. This is an alarming event in a country that has a major role to play in global climate action and environmental protection thanks to its forested areas and biodiversity.

‘We have always had the problem of people creating illegal settlements in protected areas, especially on the outskirts of the city,’ says Carolina Urrutia, head of the environment authority for the District of Bogotá, ‘but the coronavirus pandemic has made this problem worse throughout Bogotá.’ The environment authority did hear what was happening in Parque Entrenubes, Urrutia relates, but it was not able to take action straight away. Firstly because it was too dangerous without police protection, and secondly because the land mafia, as they are known, had driven large numbers of families with children into the protected area, lured by false promises. ‘We can’t simply evict these people, we have to offer them a solution,’ says Urrutia. ‘We have to involve the housing office and social services. That takes time.’

 

SEEG Missions

 

Colombia is one of the countries supported by the German Epidemic Preparedness Team (known by its German acronym SEEG) in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. By the end of 2020, there will have been 38 SEEG assignments around the world. When a country requests German assistance, the core team at GIZ assembles a group of experts to be deployed. GIZ is supported by the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Robert Koch Institute. Since the start of the pandemic, the team headed by Professor Jan Felix Drexler from the Institute of Virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital has also been involved. In Colombia, SEEG has established dialogue between public health care institutions and Charité. It has also strengthened diagnostic capabilities in the north-east of the country, where many refugees from Venezuela live, and has supplied 80,000 test kits. Altogether, SEEG has provided coronavirus tests for around 1.2 million people so far, along with laboratory equipment. SEEG was set up by the German Development Ministry (BMZ) and the German Health Ministry (BMG) in response to the Ebola crisis.

 

Contact: Michael Nagel, michael.nagel@giz.de

No income, no roof over their heads

The people illegally resettled by the land mafia were mainly internally displaced Colombians, as well as refugees and migrants from Venezuela. The former had fled the armed conflict that has been raging for decades in certain regions of Colombia and is far from over, even after the peace agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the state. The latter had fled the economic crisis and President Nicolás Maduro’s administration in Venezuela. All of them came to the Colombian capital in the hope of starting a better life there.

Even before the pandemic many of them had lived from hand to mouth, doing casual work or selling sweets, coffee or other small items on the street or in buses. When Colombia started one of the longest periods of lockdown in the world in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, their income disappeared. For more than five months. Those working in the informal sector were neither able to work from home nor did they have any form of social security. Many were thrown out of their homes because they could no longer pay their rent. The Government of President Iván Duque had actually prohibited this to begin with, but many landlords in Bogotá did not keep to the rule, and when the decree expired at the end of June this protection was lost, too.

Spuren der Zerstörung im kolumbianischen Naturschutzgebiet Parque Entrenubes, das für die ­Wasserversorgung der Millionenmetropole Bogotá wichtig ist.
Signs of destruction in Colombia’s nature conservation area Parque Entrenubes, which is important for the water supply to the metropolis of Bogotá. 

 

Refugees with no social safety net

‘The situation is particularly tough for the migrants from Venezuela because they don’t have a family network in Bogotá,’ explains Ana Karina García. From Venezuela herself, she is a lawyer and one of the founders of the Juntos Se Puede (together we can) foundation. Many would not be able to rent a house or flat because that requires a Colombian guarantor or proof of property ownership as collateral. Often their only option was the costly ‘pagadiarios’, mass accommodation that has to be paid for by the day. Another major problem is the lack of health insurance, says García: ‘Migrants are only treated free of charge in emergencies.’ Fear of COVID-19 is widespread, she adds. This is a difficult situation, with growing levels of general psychosocial stress for refugees, who see themselves exposed to increasing xenophobia in the course of the crisis. Prior to the pandemic, Juntos Se Puede focused its efforts on helping Venezuelan citizens to help themselves, to enable them to get to know their new homeland better and find their feet in the labour market. The world of work changed with the onset of coronavirus, however. The foundation distributed food parcels to 15,000 Venezuelan families with children in Bogotá on behalf of the Colombian Government. To ensure their survival.

Colombia has taken in more refugees from Venezuela than any other country in the world. According to Colombia’s migration authority, there were roughly 1.8 million in the country at the start of the coronavirus crisis, around a fifth of them in Bogotá. To begin with, the number dropped during the pandemic. Despite the general border closure between March and mid-August, some 100,000 Venezuelans left Colombia. The Venezuelan Government allowed small groups to cross the border every week.

In their desperation, those who didn’t find space on one of the few special humanitarian buses to the border chose to go on foot, without permission – the same dangerous route in reverse that many of them had taken to Colombia in the first place. All of them were driven by the desire to be with their families in Venezuela during the crisis and live at home rent-free. At times a backlog of 2,300 migrants crowded into the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, in a tent camp of plastic tarpaulins, where the hygienic conditions were disastrous.

In the third quarter of 2020, many Venezuelans started to head back to Colombia again – in the vague hope of finding work there. This was because the Government in Bogotá lifted the lockdown on 1 September, although restrictions had been increasingly relieved anyway thanks to numerous exceptions. That said, life in Colombia is still far from the state of normality known before the virus struck.

GIZ IN COLOMBIA

 

On behalf of the German Government and the EU, GIZ supports Colombia in peacebuilding, environmental protection and climate action, and in sustainable economic development. Germany is named as a supporting partner in the peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the largest guerrilla group, FARC. GIZ promotes social dialogue through programmes aimed at coming to terms with the past. Job creation in rural regions also helps foster peaceful coexistence, especially in areas with large numbers of internally displaced people or refugees from Venezuela. Generating income while at the same time enhancing environmental protection – this green recovery approach has long been part of GIZ’s work in Colombia. Owing to its forests and biodiversity, the country is a key partner in the efforts to achieve the UN climate goals.

 

Contact: Michael Nagel, giz-kolumbien@giz.de

Green hope through youth

In the Parque Entrenubes protected area, John Castiblanco is kneeling next to a seedling the height of his hand. He is visibly delighted with every little plant struggling to emerge from the parched soil. ‘Nature is unbelievably resilient,’ says Castiblanco. Working with volunteer helpers from the surrounding districts, Castiblanco has already planted 700 trees. He says 44,000 are needed to restore the forest destroyed in June. He and his fellow campaigners are therefore leading groups across the devastated terrain at weekends. Almost all of them are young people from adjoining areas of the city, and almost without exception they put their names down for the next planting session. Many of them have been engaged in nature conservation in their home region since they were at primary school. Now they are ‘líderes’, role models for environmental protection in the municipalities, motivating children, young people and their parents to join in and do their bit. Even though it is dangerous, because of the illegal gangs. Castiblanco sees it as only part of his job to impart a love of and respect for nature at an early age. You have to take a holistic approach to saving the forest for the long term, he says. ‘The state must guarantee the right to decent accommodation and a secure job, otherwise this will never end.’ Especially during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.

 

published in akzente 3/20

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