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RubricheIntervisteClimate, food and humanitarian emergency in Colombia: interview with...

Climate, food and humanitarian emergency in Colombia: interview with Carlo Scaramella, World Food Programme Colombia Director 

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The Geopolitical Studies Center had the privilege of interviewing Carlo Scaramella, the Director of the World Food Programme in Colombia. Our conversation delved into critical topics surrounding climate, food security, and humanitarian emergencies in Colombia.

1. The climate emergency has a strong impact on Colombia. The El Niño phenomenon could last several months this year. What are the repercussions on the country’s food and humanitarian security? 

Colombia is considered to be a high-risk country in terms of the potential impact of climate change, and in some territories there are already signs of irreversible transformations underway that add up to multiple vulnerability factors (deforestation and contamination on the one hand, poverty, violence, and social exclusion on the other). In recent years, the country has been affected by three consecutive cycles of La Niña, and as of September 2023, the El Niño phenomenon has been confirmed. Historically, these phenomena generate differential impacts depending on the territories of a country that is vast and diverse. In anticipation of El Niño, and using data and projections from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies of Colombia (IDEAM), in October 2023 the WFP developed an analysis of the potential effect of the phenomenon on the food security of Colombian populations. According to these estimates, depending on the intensity of the phenomenon, the impact of El Niño could affect the food security of up to 3.5 million of the most vulnerable people in both rural and urban areas. Based on these projections, a number of ‘anticipatory actions’ have already been put in place by both government agencies and WFP in some particularly vulnerable areas, such as strengthening water availability in rural areas. In recent weeks of exceptionally high temperatures and no rain, the phenomenon of forest fires has intensified, with 90% of municipalities in the country considered to be at risk. With the phenomenon still raging, the WFP and the Colombian authorities continue to monitor the situation to update forecasts and intervention plans, in order to ensure targeted relief and assistance where necessary. 

2. The migratory flow from Venezuela to Colombia has increased exponentially due to the Venezuelan crisis during the last 10 years. In the last 3 years only, Colombia has received more than 5 million Venezuelans. Which humanitarian aid does Colombia and the international community envisage to cope with this migratory flow? What are the expectations and needs for the coming years? 

First of all, it is very important to highlight the progressive, inclusive and non-discriminatory policy adopted by Colombia in relation to the “massive” migration phenomenon that has affected the country and the sub-region in the last 6-7 years. It is estimated that around 7 million people have left Venezuela in this period, and of these around three million have decided to settle in Colombia, with around two million in transit and commuting. With respect to this exceptional exodus, Colombia has adopted a policy that, inspired by the concept of ‘migration as a factor of development’, represents a unicum in this historical period at a global level, and could offer very interesting points of reflection for Europe as well. Certainly, the cultural affinity between Colombia and Venezuela, and the historical bonds between the two countries, have facilitated the adoption of reception and integration policies. On the operational level, the management of such intense migratory flows in a very short period has naturally generated great challenges in terms of reception, service provision, protection, assistance, human security, and of course integration. In this situation, the Colombian government and the international community have collaborated very effectively to ensure an adequate humanitarian response and progressive access to basic public services by migrant populations. The WFP has been a key actor in this process, supporting government authorities and affected communities through diversified interventions, such as providing food aid to about 1.2 million people on average each year, facilitating access to schooling for thousands of migrant children by supporting school feeding programmes, promoting socio-economic inclusion through specific programmes, with a particular focus on women and vulnerable groups. It is also important to remember that a large part of these interventions took place during the COVID epidemic, which of course further aggravated the condition of already extremely vulnerable migrant populations, and complicated the management mechanisms of aid and assistance programmes. Forecasts for the future seem to indicate that significant migratory flows will continue for years to come in the absence of profound changes that could affect the structural causes that drive civil populations and vulnerable groups to leave their territories of origin, including conditions of poverty, social exclusion, hunger and conflict. It is also important to remember that Colombia is also a transit country for flows to Central and North America. During 2023, an estimated 400,000 people of different nationalities crossed the country and the difficult territory of Darien, on the border with Panama, in an extremely dangerous journey to the north. The dramatic conditions under which these ‘illegal’ crossings through the Darien Tapon region take place have been widely documented in the international press. It is a dramatic situation that requires coordinated and effective action at regional level. 

3. Colombia is characterised as a country with many indigenous communities, more than 80. What is their feeding and health condition? How much are they actually threatened by globalisation and deforestation? What is the crucial role of humanitarian aid, and what kind of support do they need internationally? 

There are 114 indigenous peoples in Colombia, with over 65 native languages and idioms in use. The welfare status of these populations varies greatly depending on various factors. In general terms, historically, indigenous peoples and the territories they occupy have remained on the margins of development processes, and in many cases, as we know, have been subjected to processes of discrimination, subjugation and dispossession. Today we can say that the presence or absence of the state, local and regional conflict dynamics, and the presence of illegal and criminal economies – all highly correlated phenomena – are the main determinants of the socio-economic conditions in which these populations live. In other terms, the conditions of insecurity and violence in which many indigenous peoples are plunged, the phenomena of desplazamiento forzado and the confinement and restriction of movement to which they are subjected by armed groups, together with the impact of other related factors, such as increasing deforestation, the illegal exploitation of mineral resources and the concomitant contamination of rivers, are all factors that affect the present and future of these populations and individual communities. In recent years, the WFP has expanded its territorial presence and humanitarian response in support of indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples, working in coordination with government authorities, civil society and the communities concerned, and developing interventions aimed at rebuilding livelihoods in line with the different contexts in which it operates. WFP is often the sole actor in disputed territories and conflict zones. Clearly, the development of a peace process in these territories, the gradual eradication and transformation of illegal economies, and the strengthening of the presence of the state through its various articulations and functions, are necessary factors in reversing ongoing dynamics and tendencies. Without this, humanitarian aid will continue to be an urgent necessity, and the support of the international community an indispensable factor in ensuring continuity in humanitarian aid, and in efforts to strengthen protection mechanisms for the most vulnerable populations. In recent years, on average, WFP has assisted 1.6 million people each year in Colombia, including populations affected by violence and conflict, school-age children, women and vulnerable groups, and migrant populations. 

4. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of the cocaine leaf and criminal organisations are in full control of the drug trade. Latin America is a victim of this criminal phenomenon, which has a social and economic impact in the region and internationally. What are the social and economic repercussions on the Colombian people due to this phenomenon? What policies have been and are being implemented to counter it? 

In Colombia, an estimated 400,000 families depend on the cultivation and commercialisation of the coca leaf, the basic product for the production through chemical processes of the cocaine that has long since invaded western markets. Vying for control of this production are large groups and drug trafficking cartels, together with a growing number of small criminal groups. All these actors exert an enormous presence on Colombian rural society in the most exposed territories, with the articulation of a criminal economy that permeates vast strata of society and indirectly affects large groups of the population. One of the characteristics of the coca economy is that in the areas of intensive production of the coca leaf (which, it should be remembered, is a sacred plant for many indigenous peoples and autochthonous people in Colombia) is that it has supplanted agricultural production for consumption, making the peasant populations (los campesinos) involved highly dependent on the commercialisation of coca leaves to generate the economic income needed to acquire food. Over the last two years, starting at the end of 2022, a deep food crisis has developed in several of the main coca leaf producing areas in the country, a relatively new phenomenon. This state of food crisis in cocaleras areas is explained in light of a sudden reduction in demand for coca leaf and paste in local markets, a situation that was in some ways unforeseen, has multiple explanations, and is still evolving. More generally, the presence of criminal economies and structures linked to the production of coca leaf has historically had a profound and lasting social impact, distorting social and economic processes, and forcing a large part of the Colombian population to live in conditions of profound insecurity in territories where the presence of the state is limited, with a profound deficit in terms of the enjoyment of human rights and a profound impact on the development prospects of populations and territories. Dramatically, Colombia is today the country most at risk globally for human rights and environmental defenders. Moreover, in territories subjected to criminal economies and conflicts between groups, and between these and the army, civilian populations are exposed to violence, often driven from their territories or confined to enclaves in conditions of profound vulnerability. The Colombian government of President Petro has clearly framed the problem of the relationship between the illegal economy and drug trafficking, criminality, and violence against the civilian population, and is trying to develop alternative solutions to the policies conducted so far, mostly based on repressive action and crop substitution programmes, policies that have not achieved the desired results in the last two decades. It seems abundantly clear that the challenge of recovering large parts of the territory and rural populations in Colombia to the rule of law is an extraordinary one, and requires integrated efforts and innovative solutions to ensure both security conditions for the populations and development opportunities for the territories.

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