About the Author: Ambassador Gaddi H. Vasquez is the 8th U.S. Representative to the United Nations Organizations in Rome.
All eyes are on the United States. Not on the presidential campaign, but on Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Yes, the markets are volatile. There’s no doubt we are vulnerable. Yet while traveling in Colombia I realize how fortunate we are that, unlike the world’s poorest, volatility is not a constant for us.
For the millions of displaced people in Colombia instability is a fact of life. Today in Guajira, the northernmost Colombian state, I met a few communities who are making strides to manage their risk to hunger, disease, and poverty. With the help of the United Nations and U.S. food assistance, they are reestablishing their lives and maintaining their culture, even steadfastly avoiding displacement from their ancestral land.
What keeps them going against great odds, often after having lost family members and suffered from the violent Colombian domestic conflict? Quite simply an opportunity for something better, a more stable life with economic opportunities. For a group of over forty families outside of the town of Riohacha, a slice of land on which to settle pays great dividends. Leadership and determination has turned this diverse, rural community with displaced from around Colombia into a cohesive group that helps one another build family homes. For this and other labor, they receive food from the World Food Program to supplement the crops that they grow.
Stability for indigenous groups does not come easy. The indigenous make up 3% of the total population of Colombia but more than 6% of the displaced. School feeding programs aim to minimize one of the side-effects of displacement: loss of educational opportunities for youth. I marveled, as I have done elsewhere in the world, at how a simple meal maximizes learning and is an incentive for parents to send their kids to school. In the case of the Wayuus in rural town of Dibulla, a well-balanced lunch also preserves an indigenous language and traditions.
The young girl in the photo is from one of the vulnerable indigenous groups that live in the Sierra Nevadas. Her elders welcomed us to a site to which they had walked more than three hours to receive a ration of food that includes enriched U.S. flour and vegetable oil. Illegal armed groups and isolated living conditions make their access to food difficult; however, through a UN partnership with a local indigenous organization, supportive local government officials, and USAID, they have been able to retain their land.
We’ll take a close look at how the urban poor cope with displacement tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Editor's Note: Read Ambassador Vasquez's next entry about his travels in Colombia.