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Paula Plaza, Communications Officer at Christian Aid, reports back on a recent trip to Colombia to meet families in conflict-affected communities. Pushed from their land, they are struggling to feed their families.
Five-year-old Marcia has chronic malnutrition. Lack of clean water and nutritious food during infancy has left her with brittle hair, dry skin and irreversible stunted growth.
She stands at just over a metre – much smaller than she should be for her age – and weighs barely more than two and half stone. The orange tint in her hair signals a serious lack of protein in her diet.
Marcia is from the rural community of Las Pavas in northern Colombia. Las Pavas is just one of thousands of communities forced from their lands by armed groups during Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict. To date, over 6 million people across the country have had to flee their homes fearing for their lives.
Although the violence in many parts of Colombia, including Las Pavas, has abated, there are still killings. The government’s encouragement of foreign investment in large-scale mining and extensive agriculture, such as palm oil plantations, has also kept the displaced from returning to their land.
Made up of 123 families, the 600-strong population Las Pavas community has been repeatedly removed from land which traditionally provided enough food for their survival.
The poverty I saw on a recent visit was overwhelming; children roam the streets barefoot on dirty roads used as toilets by street dogs, pigs and donkeys.
As is all too common in Colombia, rural people are left to their own devices, to fend for themselves, by a government that fails to invest in public services such as roads, schools, electricity and running water.
Without land to cultivate, the farmers and their families have no food. Marcia’s father did try to eke something from the soil but bad weather ruined the crop.
With people going hungry and the children becoming malnourished, many of the families I met in Buenos Aires, the town where the Las Pavas families live, were hopeless and desperate.
In recent years, Christian Aid has been providing legal representation to the farmers of Las Pavas, organised under the Association of Farmers of the South of Bolivar, to help them get their land back.
But legal support alone won’t address the community’s most urgent need, which is for food.
In 2013, when Christian Aid partner Corambiente first entered Las Pavas to help support the community grow the food it needs, most children showed signs of nutritional deficiency, such as stunting.
Community-wide screening revealed that 63 per cent of the children were nutritionally deficient, with only 38 per cent having normal height and weight measurements . Incidents of chronic malnutrition stood at 19 per cent, compared to the country’s average of 13 per cent.
According to UNICEF, stunting and other forms of under nutrition reduce a child’s chance of survival, while also hindering optimal health and growth. It can also have long-lasting harmful consequences for cognitive ability, school performance and future earnings.
A diet poor in protein, minerals and vitamins is not solely responsible for causing malnutrition among the children of Las Pavas. Intestinal worms compound the problem as the worms rob children from essential nutrients they need to thrive. These worms spread when people come into contact with soil that has been contaminated by infected people, through poor water and sanitation or when larvae penetrate the skin.
As well as identifying children like Marcia who are malnourished, Corambiente is also treating them with de-worming medicine and providing them with a nutritional food supplement to help boost their nutrition. As a mother myself I was very happy to see these children getting the help they so desperately need.
The organisation is also training women to grow their own kitchen gardens, which gives them fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet. Until they get their land back, a kitchen garden and healthy, nutritious diet diet can make a huge difference to the families affected by this long-running conflict.
So far, Corambiente has restored the community’s morale, which was weakened by a very lengthy and unresolved legal process, and is slowly helping to meet the community’s need for food.
If you would like to contribute to Corambiente’s work, so they can do more to help communities like Las Pavas, you can donate Christian Aid’s Easter Appeal here.
Photos: Federico Rios