Moving into my apartment in Bogotá, I found the very nice owners had left me a map of the local area, including helpful notes on where to go, and perhaps more importantly, where not to go. My new home was clearly identified on the map by the words: ‘you are here’. This familiar marker is often used to help us gather our bearings before setting off to explore a new location. ‘Here’, for me, is Colombia and I was curious to learn more about the place to help me understand the context of the job I am to do.
Colombia is a country of contrasts: Andean mountains, tropical coastlines, Amazonian rainforests, and desert. It’s the second most biodiverse country in the world – only trailing Brazil, which is seven times bigger. The estimated 48 million people living in Colombia make it the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, and home to the third-largest number of Spanish speakers, after Mexico and the US.
Colombia has some famous exports including coffee, emeralds, and of course, Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It’s also well known for more infamous exports, which perhaps need neither introduction nor further discussion.
Although now categorised as a ‘middle income’ country, there are still many areas where communities are in need. In 2014, the country’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) reported 28.5 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line – compare this to 16 per cent of the population in the UK and 15 per cent in the US.
Although Colombia is now more stable and secure than in previous times, it is a country that has been living with armed conflict for more than 50 years. In Bogotá, private security guards are a common sight – as are electric fences, surveillance cameras, and secure, monitored entry systems to most properties, including schools and businesses. Sniffer dogs can be seen at the entrance to every large office building and shopping centre. The sight of armed police in military clothing stationed at regular intervals along the main roads, although still very foreign to me, is strangely more reassuring than menacing.
All this serves as a very present reminder of the conflict and huge security issues which have resulted in serious consequences for the country. Since 1985, up to 5.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes. For the past three years, the number of new internally displaced people has remained consistently above 200,000 – almost half of which are under the age of 18. This statistic secures Colombia’s status as home to more displaced people than any other country except Syria.
The conflict zone is restricted mainly to sectors across remote rural regions in the south-west of the country, which is subject to road blocks, drug trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping and extortion, as well as attacks on the country’s petroleum and energy infrastructure. Regions most affected by conflict also happen to coincide with areas suffering the greatest incidence of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.
This is where the work of Save the Children is most needed. Here, the organisation, which has been supporting vulnerable communities affected by poverty and conflict for almost 30 years, is working to protect children, support their right to access education and healthcare, and offering help during natural disasters and emergencies.
So, I am here, eager to learn how I can support the essential work Save the Children does, in some of the most challenging areas, to ensure the next generation has the opportunity to go to school and live healthily, in a safe environment, where they are free to be children.