Closing humanitarian gaps in Tumaco

written by: Lisandro Torre
posted in: 2011, Colombia

July 12, 2011

Last week the nutritionist and I sat down to try to create a short nutrition survey so he can get a better idea of the nutritional situation of the displaced population here in Tumaco and teach to the gaps.  I was doing some background research to see what kind of questions we wanted to ask when I came across a World Food Program report about Colombia.  They had looked at nutrition in several other provinces but not Tumaco and their first question was how long the family had been displaced. They didn’t really go into it a lot in the report, but the question got me thinking.  They divided people who were displaced in displaced 1-3 months, 4-9 months and over 9 months, but then did not explain differences in diet among the groups.  I wondered if after a year the diet of displaced people is generally better or worse.  My gut reaction is that if you were to do a food survey after a year the diet would be better than when they arrived because they have lived in their new community for a year and know the markets and are “settled.” But then I started thinking that, at least in Tumaco, for the first three months, people who are served by IRD get a ton of free food. Then the government provides free food for the next 6 months (which coincidently lines up with the WFP timeline) – how settled are people really? How well do they know the markets? How much did they learn about nutrition in those 9 months both from programs and by seeing what was distributed? Did that change their buying habits? I could imagine a scenario where, after a year, people are actually eating worse than they did during the first nine months.

I would love to know because I think it raises a lot of interesting questions about whether or not the aid that IRD and the government provide is actually doing any good in the long term.  Again, my gut reaction is that giving the food is a good thing, especially for the kids who show signs of malnourishment much more quickly than adults and the aid in the short term can prevent that.  I do worry about long term distributions and creating a culture of dependency – but then what is the right amount of time?

I was at dinner with a personwho is working with disabled people in Tumaco.  We were talking about the displaced population in Tumaco and he asked if I would rather live in a village in Uganda or be displaced in Tumaco. I was surprised by how quickly I knew that I’d rather live in Uganda.  To be fair, I am comparing two completely different situations.  The situation for displaced people in Tumaco is that of a continuing complex humanitarian emergency. The people who live in these neighborhoods have moved there recently and come from different places, where in Bududa families have lived there for generations. That means that the displaced population here does not have the same established sense of community because people are constantly coming and going.

I just can’t get over the living conditions (I know I’ve written about this a lot, but I’m stuck on it). The man at dinner was telling me how one of the guys he interviewed that week broke his back when he fell through one of the wooden plank walkways and now he’s paralyzed and spends most of his days in on a mattress in the corner of his mother’s house alone a lot of the time.  I was thinking how in Uganda, things aren’t always great, but at least there I had an idea where to begin, or you can see where if some changes were made (albeit big changes) then schools could and health facilities could be improved.  But in Tumaco, I don’t have any idea where to begin (another reason of course is that I have only been here a month and spend my time in a hotel instead of being in the community).

I was thinking about the kids and how good the schooling of a displaced child is.  Yes, there are laws and procedures to get them into school, but there is constant moving and stigma when they do go to school and I am sure that a lot of them do not go to school.  It just seems like the rest of Narino (the province that Tumaco is in) is bleeding into Tumaco and it is bad for the families and it is bad for the town, which does not have the resources and capacity to handle over 120 new families a week. This is why you get the poor housing, sick and malnourished children, and higher rates of violence and disease.  The whole system in Tumaco is overburdened and there is no end in sight. I guess this is why they call it a complex humanitarian emergency.

I was also thinking about IDP camps.  Colombia has the second largest internally displaced population in the world, but, unlike Sudan, people here do not live in IDP camps. They have to find their own homes and services.  I immediately compare the situation to the camps I saw in Uganda and I think that I would rather live in a camp (and I know I would rather work in a camp). Now, again, I don’t know a lot about camps. I visited a few in Uganda and drove past many others. The camps in Northern Uganda are over 20 years old and are more like towns.  But I do know that when people are in camps it is easier to have an accurate count of people (though the numbers are hardly ever accurate as we have learned over and over) and to distribute goods and services, because everyone is centrally located.  In Northern Uganda several camps were built by schools so the kids could still go to school.  It just seems that here in Colombia it is easier to lose track of families or even ignore people because you don’t know where they are.  At least in the camps there is a sense of accountability. The UN establishes the camps and there are minimum standards for living (which are not always met, but there is at least something to build towards). It seems like it is harder on both sides – there are many families here that do not receive services because they do not know what is out there and don’t even know their rights as displaced people (I think that educating people of their rights is one of the most important functions that IRD carries out) and it is harder for NGOs or the government to provide services directly (some of the neighborhoods here are too dangerous to enter).  Then again, I wouldn’t want to be forced to live in a camp – so, like everything else, it seems I can’t really come down on one side or the other.  I just see that people are being ignored and the situation is not good and getting worse and trying to think of where to start.

We went on a home visit today in a neighborhood I hadn’t been to yet.  It must be a newer neighborhood because the wooden walkways between houses haven’t been built (but they seem like older houses).  This neighborhood is on water and when the tide comes in people are forced to stay in their houses or wade through the water. Like other neighborhoods, they use the water below as their toilet with the thought that the tide going out takes away all of the filth.  The house we visited was one of the worst houses I’ve seen so far.  It was two rooms, the door had no lock and the hinges were made of string.  There was a big hole in the floor (big enough for the baby to fall through for sure) and one bed where the family of three (mother 18 years old and 2 kids- 4 years and 2 years old) slept.  The kitchen had a small area for the plates and there was a board on the floor with two bricks and the part of the stove you put the pots on (I don’t know what it’s called) lying across them to cook on.  They build a fire underneath the bricks, in the house to cook.  I asked about the bathroom and she told us about going in the water and letting the tide take it. We asked if her kids played in the water and she said of course.  I asked where she got water and she said “en la llave” or the tap.  I went outside to look for the tap and did not see one.  I asked a neighbor and she pointed in the direction of the tap.  I walked and didn’t see anything and she said, “right there.”  I looked and looked around and didn’t see a tap and asked where and she pointed to a small tube sticking out of the ground. I couldn’t believe it – it almost seemed inhumane to ask people to drink water from this hose.  It was surrounded by trash and is definitely underwater when the tide comes in.  I asked and they said the water has been out for the last 8 days and I swear that is the first time I’ve ever thought that a lack of water was a blessing.   Going to this house today makes me wonder if a camp is really worse.

As we were driving to the second house I was talking to the team and telling them that I could not live like that and how I am still struck that this is a choice and that this option is better than where people are fleeing from.  The nurse told me that this morning they had gotten a lady who just arrived in Tumaco after she was told she had 10 minutes to leave or they would kill her.  I asked the driver how long these neighborhoods had been around and he told me that they started being built in the mid 1990s and before it was all beaches. There have apparently been efforts to get people to move out, but as soon as someone leaves another family moves in. The houses are worlds away from what is in Bogota and also worlds away from the rest of the (not displaced) population in Tumaco.

IRD’s mission is to close humanitarian gaps in Tumaco.  I think they do an amazing job at what they do – they get people in the system and provide direction and orientation within the system while also providing aid.  I think what they do is important and there is a need for it and the people in this office work incredibly hard.  But I look around these houses and neighborhoods and living situations and wonder how to put a dent in that problem, how to make the lives of displaced people here better.


This entry was posted on August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm and is filed under 2011, Colombia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply