Life in a Sports Centre

The indigenous Wounaan tribes of Buenaventura Department live mostly along the rivers Calima and San Juan. These rural areas are perfect for self-sufficient living, and the communities grow all types of fruit, vegetables, rice, maize, etc. But over recent years, the situation in these communities has become more and more intolerable as they are caught up in the internal conflict between the FARC guerillas and the armed forces. There have been incidences of threats, extortion, accusations of being guerrillas, to the point where many of these communities are unable to get out to farm their land, fish or hunt because of fear of violence. Many of them have left their communities and sought refuge in Buenaventura city, either forcibly or under duress.

One such community is that of Agua Clara. 523 people from Agua Clara were forced to leave their homes on 28 November 2014 after being persecuted by the paramilitary forces operating in the area. They came to Buenaventura and were told that they could be accommodated in the Sports Arena. Around 350 of them had nowhere else to go, so have been ‘living’ in the arena since then.

The conditions in the sports arena are not fit for living. The well-being of these Wounaan people is at risk; already 2 babies have died because of the insanitary conditions. They are sleeping on a cold concrete floor, they have an irregular supply of clean water, little in the way of health care or education for the 100 children living there. They receive food supplies from the UN World Food Programme, but there is little fresh food and the poor diet is affecting their health. They have to go and try to find wood to build fires to cook on because they can’t afford to pay for gas for the cookers. Leaving the sports hall is risky because they aren’t used to busy city traffic and they are targets for paramilitary abuse (particularly the women).

When I met with the women there they were feeling desperate, with no hope in sight. They feel that they are losing their culture and identity as indigenous people. They can’t follow their normal customs or way of life. As the saying goes here in Colombia, “A community without land is not a community”.

The local government is not doing anything to help. They have had 7 meetings now and have got nowhere, either in terms of improving their conditions in Buenaventura or in terms of negotiating a safe return to their land. They are the forgotten victims of Colombia’s conflict. There seems to be no willingness from official sources to help their situation.

And once again, the land is at the centre of the violence. They have heard that there are plans afoot to build a military barracks on their land, and there is also interest in the gold mining prospects in the area. So, a link between displacement and political/economic interests rears its head again. And it begs the question, why aren’t the local authorities taking action? Because it’s not in their interests to do so when the land is such a valuable asset for commercial investment!

Wounaan women cooking at the sports arena

Wounaan women cooking at the sports arena


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