In October 2016, In Their Lifetime (ITL) board member Melanie Farquharson and Chair David Paterson joined Christian Aid’s International Director Paul Valentin to witness the growing impact of humanitarian spaces in Buenaventura.
The country’s history of violence has been well documented in the media in recent months. Decades of conflict have left over 200,000 people dead and over five million displaced* from their homes – a number surpassed only by Syria.
The timing of the trip was significant, with the recent signing of the peace deal between the government and the FARC – and the subsequent vote by the Colombian people not to implement it.
Communities living in fear
Buenaventura is known as the most violent in Colombia, but the conflict there is more complex, with an almost constant fight for territory and control between different criminal gangs and paramilitaries.
Residents who show any signs of resisting intimidation from these groups often disappear or are brutally murdered in the notorious ‘casas de pique’, or ‘chop houses’. Communities live in fear.
It’s within these communities that ITL is helping to pioneer an approach that claims back areas of the city, to free them from the constant threat of violence. The first ‘humanitarian space’ in Puerto Nayero was established over a year ago in coordination with the local community – a place where the carrying of arms by civilians is banned.
The spaces are set up with support from Christian Aid partners and are granted protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The legal framework offered by the international court and international observers, including the presence of our partner Peace Brigades International, add critical weight to deterring potential perpetrators, knowing that any violence would attract international attention.
In the time since the humanitarian space was established, there have been no murders. In fact, as explained by one of its residents, Martha, shops are now thriving and children are not afraid to play on the streets.
Expanding the programme
It’s off the back of this success, that the humanitarian space is now growing – to an adjacent small community port called Punta Icaco, home to 138 residents. It had in the past been a main landing point for fishing boats where indigenous people used to trade goods with city dwellers. But extortion and intimidation had virtually halted any commercial activity.
The plan is now to revive the port and re-start the market.
The formal declaration of Punta Icaco as part of the humanitarian space, which coincided with the visit, was observed with a mass held in front of a shop where a shop-keeper was murdered last year for his refusal to pay extortion money.
Significantly, the launch was attended and celebrated by members from both the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, two groups who have historically been divided. Children from both communities performed traditional dances.
During the celebration there was also a sense of caution from the residents – many of them choosing to observe the day’s events from their homes. This was a reminder of the hard work required by Christian Aid partners and residents to achieve the same peace and safety felt in Puerto Nayero.
What we've learned
Taking the learnings from the work that has been done so far, there is real cause for hope that Buenaventura, and, in time, other conflict-affected areas of Colombia, can be transformed to places of peace.
Join our webinar
Hear more about the impact that your contributions are making to the lives of people in Buenaventura from Paul Valentin, Christian Aid International Director, and Christian Aid’s Country Manager, Thomas Mortensen, at our first ITL webinar at 1pm on 25 November 2016.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join our webinar at 1pm on 25 November.