“Here We Wait to See What God Wants”

Displacement and Poverty in Colombia

For Alicia and José César Perea, just getting by is a privilege. After being forcibly displaced from their land on the Pacific coast by resurgent far right paramilitaries, they have tried to settle in El Obrero (‘The Worker’) barrio in Chocó’s state capital, Quibdó.

Here, where Colombian soldiers patrol the dirt streets at dusk, they have tried to make a new life, starting again with almost nothing but with little hope of ever returning home because the paramilitaries who took their land handed it over to businessmen to clear for an African palm plantation.

In Quibdó, their wood and mudbrick home barely keeps out the rains, which are incessant in this tropical coastal state. Alicia rises at 4am in the morning to walk to the local market where she prepares fresh caught pargo fish and lobster for 15,000 pesos (US$7) for a 50 hour week.

Her husband, José César, hasn’t worked since he was hurt on a construction site last year. He cannot afford privatised medical care and hasn’t even been able to buy painkillers. Despite this, José César still searches for casual day labour, or el rebusque, but in Quibdó he says, ‘there is little work at all, and much hunger.’

Usually, he spends the rest of his day waiting for Alicia. Of their six children, four have died, one is in prison, and they think the other is in Medellín, but they are not sure. They try to look after their four grandchildren as best they can, and most days they manage to get by making and sharing caldo — a thin watery soup with a little potato.

There is no running water in their home, except what is collected from the rains, but sometimes José César manages to bring home a guanabana — a large juicy spiky fruit — or maybe a mango that he has knocked out of a tree by throwing stones at it.

There is electricity, via a precarious wire that pirates the power from overhead lines, but it is unreliable — usually, without light and once night falls, the Pereas have little else to do but go to bed and wait for the dawn.

Cazucá and Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia

‘I know I am malnourished because they told me so at school,’ says Ángela, an 8 year old displaced girl in Bogotá, leaning against a Coca Cola advertising hoarding that is also the wall to someone’s home, ‘This is because since I was very little I have eaten dirt. Now it’s better in the city; I can eat the scraps that are thrown out behind the stores.’

Ángela runs to take shelter as a fierce torrential rainstorm, an aguacero, begins to convert the steep dirt streets in Cazucá and Ciudad Bolívar into thick mud streams. The brick walls of the homes in these Bogotá barrios have no mortar, and the roofs, a collection of scrap metal zinc sheets and wooden planks, drip water onto hard earth floors.

The displaced and dispossessed that manage to make it to Colombia’s capital attempt to settle here, scattered amongst makeshift homes in the close, narrow streets that cover what the barrio residents call ‘the mountain.’ There is water and electricity in the homes further down, but the newest arrivals have to begin in the highest streets in the barrio, where there is little.

Water is collected from a communal tap that trickles out a flow for barely two hours a day. Ángela sometimes has to miss school to wait in line in the hope that her wait will coincide with those two hours, but it is better than missing school to ask for coins at stoplights.

Hernández, Ángela’s father, works as a baker in a panadería, and sometimes she can sell little hot bread pan de yuca rolls her father gives her to the workers on the colectivo buses. Although he is paid much less than the legal minimum wage — 436,000 pesos, or about US$220 a month — and has to work every day in the week, Hernández believes he is fortunate to have work at all.

‘No-one wants to hire a desterrado,’ he says, ‘I had to lie to get work; bosses don’t want those who live in Cazucá or Ciudad Bolívar; for the displaced there are no opportunities, you are nothing, no-one wants you.’

Forced to leave their home in Córdoba, a Caribbean coastal state, Hernández and Ángela had to wait two months after arriving in Bogotá before receiving a little state assistance. A 500,000 pesos grant (US$250) over six months then allowed Ángela to start school, but there is still no help to return home, even though fear and violence seem to have followed them to this barrio.

The rightist paramilitaries that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe claimed had ‘demobilised’ and turned in their guns, have been reprised as criminal gangs in Cazucá and Ciudad Bolívar. One illegal armed force, the Águilas Negras, or Black Eagles, undeterred by the police cars that here are armoured personnel carriers, terrorise the barrios with threats, assassinations and forced conscription.

At night, from the steep, dark streets on ‘the mountain’, the distant lights of the glittering steel and glass towers in downtown Bogotá look like more of the starlit sky, and to Hernández, are just as inaccessible. He doesn’t understand why, if he and his daughter work so hard, the future still seems to be as dark as the skies that bring the torrential aguaceros.


28 million Colombians live in poverty, according to research in the independent Revista Actualidad Colombiana. Even the government concedes that almost 50 per cent of all its citizens are condemned to live on less than 7,500 pesos (US$3.30) a day, with almost 15 per cent, or more than 6 million people, enduring misería — extreme poverty — and attempting to survive on less than 3,000 pesos (US$1.50) a day.

In the capital, together with Hernández and Ángela, 2.5 million live in poverty, while in Chocó on the Pacific coast, Alicia and José César Perea and their grandchildren are among the 85 per cent who are considered to be in this state.

Unable to afford basic foods containing iron, vitamin A or zinc, at least 80 people, 50 of them children, have died of malnutrition so far in 2007 in Chocó alone, and in all Colombia it is expected that 1000 children under 5 years of age will die this year from nutritional deficiencies and associated illnesses.

Colombia’s riches — its gold, oil, emeralds, sugar, coffee and exotic fruits — have the potential to end the disgrace that allows a million people in this unbelievably beautiful country to go hungry each day. But averting their eyes from the pain of someone’s loss helping their gain, Colombia’s uninterested political elite continues to permit the forced displacement, and the unmitigating terror and impunity that enforces this dispossession, to further enrich those who already have more than Ángela or the Pereas ever will.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: paul.jisv@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.