Displacement: Colombia’s Inescapable Burden?

by David Sussman on April 1, 2013

Colombia has suffered from an ongoing and oft-underreported civil war and insurgency for more than half a century, with approximately one in ten people forced to flee their homes due to the violence. Now, even if ongoing peace negotiations lead to large-scale demobilization of paramilitary and other armed groups—and hopefully they will—another type of displacement pressure remains probable. Increased international investment and related development projects can lead to the dislocation of rural communities, and Colombia’s southern neighbor Peru serves as a vivid example of this dilemma.

As opposed to internally displaced persons (IDPs) who flee conflict, development-induced displaced persons (DIDPs) must resettle as the result of projects that include urban infrastructure, dam construction, or mining and resource extraction. It can be difficult to differentiate between these categories, and many people move for a combination of reasons. Nonetheless, an estimated ten million persons relocate each year, often through force or coercion, due to development projects around the globe.

Those affected are not specifically protected by international law, nor do they fall under the jurisdiction of a UN agency in the way that the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) assist refugees and internally displaced populations in conflict zones. For many in forced migration studies, development displacement is considered a lesser concern because, rather than facing physical threat, many residents are compensated for their move. Still, numerous studies show that resettled populations are often worse off in new locations.

Historically, Peru and Colombia have each had large IDP populations due to armed insurgencies: the Shining Path and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), respectively. CODHES, Colombia’s leading NGO in the study of displacement, reports that more than 250,000 people were forced from their homes in 2011, part of a total IDP population of nearly 5.5 million (much higher than the government estimate of 3.9 million IDPs). Meanwhile, political violence in the 1980s and 1990s displaced as many as 1 million people in Peru.

Peru’s subsequent stabilization may offer a glimpse of Colombia’s future. Twenty years after the capture of the Shining Path’s founders and the diminution of a conflict that caused 70,000 deaths, security is much improved, although a low-grade insurgency persists. Peru now has the greatest exports of gold, silver, lead tin, and zinc in Latin America. However, the government is promoting laws and forging relationships with international mining companies that will lead to the relocation of entire villages or neighborhoods in mineral-rich areas.

This increased pressure from mineral extraction has brought a concomitant rise in community mobilization and protest, with the government Ombudsman’s office reporting a four-fold increase in disputes between 2004 and 2008. Large-scale protests have lead to multiple deaths. One Peruvian researcher estimates that 100,000 persons will be displaced by development projects in the country during the coming years. The Council on Foreign Relations considers Peru to be “emblematic of the economic promise and trials facing nations rich in mineral wealth”.

The growing appetite for resources and elevated mineral prices have led to expanded mineral extraction worldwide, largely driven by private international mining companies. During 2011, mineral extraction helped drive strong economic growth across the Andes: Colombia’s economy grew 5 percent, Peru 6.2 percent, and Chile 6.6 percent. Mining is increasingly pushing into previously untouched regions, where hundreds of millions of poor peasants and indigenous persons reside.

In Colombia, mining holds great potential. After decades of violence, investment is increasing due to security improvements and government tax breaks for foreign investors. Colombia experienced a nine-fold increase in international mining investment since the year 2000, and during the first six months of 2012, foreign direct investment rose 26%, largely tied to mining and oil production.

However, a mining boom in Colombia may cause complications. Mineral extraction could actually deepen the problem of displacement, raising the number of DIDPs even as the conflict abates. Although the International Crisis Group reports that legal mining companies face extortion by armed groups such as the FARC, illegal mining operations still take place in nearly half of all municipalities. The spread and development of legal extractive industries brings broad economic benefits, but it can also increase social unrest and dislocation. Like its southern neighbor, Colombia may also be entering a new stage in which armed conflict is accompanied by development-induced displacement as a significant threat to rural communities and internal stability.

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