Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - the Fate of Putumayo’s Children

March 15, 2016 Laura Benrey Opinion 
Child Labor

Up until now (access my previous blogs here), I have talked about the factors leading to the recruitment of child soldiers. I have offered aspects about a child’s socio-economic status, gender, violence within the family, proximity to the operations of armed groups and family ties to armed groups that make that child more susceptible to illegal recruitment by various armed groups.

However, there are underlying reasons that explain why certain areas are more susceptible to conflict. This is the story of Putumayo, the hidden impact of U.S. presence and involvement and the importance of economic interests as to it relates to children and children’s lifestyles.

Tropical Paradise?

Located in the southwestern part of the country along the Ecuadoran and Peruvian borders, the Colombian department of Putumayo is characterized by its high biodiversity with more than 542 species. The combination of high rainfall, varied vegetation and historical geographical patterns makes this territory one of the most species diverse regions in the world. Other natural resources found in this region include coal and oil.

However, this tropical paradise has been one of the territories most affected by Colombia’s internal conflict and the drug trafficking scheme. Two important qualities of Putumayo make it a target for military and international intervention: fertile grounds for coca leaf production (a main component of cocaine) and oil reserves. Colombia is the third-largest oil producer in Latin America, and the top cocaine producer in the world – both conditions that can be traced to Putumayo’s vast and rich terrain. Due to its proximity to international borders, Putumayo then became a strategic ground for the operations of armed actors. The high concentration of indigenous communities and high poverty rate increased the vulnerability and propensity of the Putumayo population to the terrorization and economical and social abuse by armed actors.

A view from the the 75 meter waterfall named "El Fin del Mundo" or End of the World between the towns of Mocoa and Villagarzón, Putumayo. ©Laura Benrey

Let’s Go Back to The Beginning

It was the beginning of the 1980s, when people realized the kind of results that the coca production had. They got rich very fast. Back then, a kilo of pure coca cost one million pesos (around $400 USD), whereas a car only cost three hundred thousand pesos (around $100 USD),” stated Joaquin, one of the founders of one of Putumayo’s most deserted town El Tigre. He recounted how the cocaine commerce started to boom, “They would bring the stacks of money containing 200-500 millions of pesos (up to two hundred million USD). Everyone had a lot of money. Children as young as 13 and 14 forgot about school and started to work in the coca farms.”

The cocaine commerce profited all types of people: border patrol, police officials, soda merchants (soda is an important ingredient for the production of cocaine), the farmers that worked in the area and the outsider criminal bands that would come to confiscate the soda. Eventually, these criminal bands were replaced by organized guerrilla movements such as the M-19, the EPL and the FARC who protested the unequal distribution of income, corruption, the political exclusion of most Colombians from participation in government and the exploitation of local oil reserves by foreign companies. Not only were children and adolescents working in the fields to produce cocaine, but they were the prime targets of forced recruitment by these guerrilla groups. Joaquin remembers when the leader of the M-19 came into the town and “gathered all the youth and told them ‘guys, we are going to work; you will get paid $20.000 pesos, and then you are going to this place and get your gun and then you will be part of the M-19.’ He took the majority of minors.”

Plan Petroleum in Putumayo

The escalation of conflict in Putumayo limited the exploitation of the vast oil reserves by foreign oil companies, until the arrival of right-wing paramilitaries and the implementation of Plan Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

What started as diplomatic aid aimed at combatting the war on drugs and the drug cartels in Colombia, Plan Colombia became the biggest contributor to the militarization of Putumayo and, consequently, the increased oil exploration by multinational companies, states the NACLA Report on the Americas. Of the $9.94 billion implemented by Plan Colombia, 71 percent went to military strategies in Putumayo in the form of U.S.-trained counternarcotic battalions, U.S.-supplied Blackhawk helicopters and U.S.-piloted planes that descended on Putumayo to conduct Plan Colombia’s aerial eradication campaign. But do not get confused by the fancy title; this “aerial eradication campaign” is nothing more than the intense fumigation of herbicides and chemicals over four million acres of coca and other cultivation areas that happen to be close to the coca crops. These activities negatively impacted the health and environment of rural communities, leading to the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands Putumayo’s adults and their children.

Okay…So What About the Children?

The presence of armed groups is one of the biggest risk factors that result in the recruitment of boys, girls and young people. Valentina Gonzales, one of the founders of COCA - House Amazonia Corporation, explained how “the militarization of civil life; the idea of focusing your life around the military logics of whatever side you are in is reflected on abusive relationships, on power relations and violence against children.” COCA’s main focus is the prevention of sexual violence and the recruitment, use and utilization of boys and girls in the armed conflict in Putumayo. For most of the children and adolescents in Putumayo, achieving higher education is not a viable option. It is easier to join the army or an armed group (a guerrilla group or the paramilitaries).

“We work with schools, teachers, parents, local public authorities and indigenous authorities by doing workshops designed to help visualize risk situations, and also situations of protection,” says Valentina who has been with the organization since its formation more than ten years ago.

Founders of Corporación Casa Amazonia: Valentina (left) and Sandra (right). ©Laura Benrey

COCA is the only local NGO that works to end the recruitment of children and to prevent the sexual violence against girls in the whole department of Putumayo. Despite their efforts in making a big difference in the region, they cannot do all the work that the community needs. The Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF), due to its emphasis on urban centers, does not have and cannot have a permanent presence in rural areas and indigenous communities. If the ICBF identifies a child that was recruited, they send that child to their headquarters in Bogota and assist them there.

This is where you start to understand how complex the situation in Putumayo is. The absence of a local institution that offers psychosocial assistance, technical training and safety has some great implications on how badly Putumayo’s population is recovering from the conflict. Sandra, the co-founder of COCA, states that the need is great because “the communities are too different…of the three boys that I have witnessed move to Bogota, three have come back saying that they cannot adapt to the city.” It is COCA’s role to work with the community and provide the mechanisms needed to foster communication about these issues and the training to assist public and indigenous authorities, parents or legal guardians and local leaders in resolving the problem of not having an established institution. Following is a video of COCA working with children and adolescents and informing them of the rights they have been deprived of for so many years.

Food for Thought

It is important for us to realize that we do not live as distant from world conflicts as we think we are. Just because it is not in our backyard, we do not care. It is easy for us to put the blame on the parents who make their children work or on children who would “prefer” to acquire money as opposed to obtaining an education. But yet we find it quite difficult to do our part and be the voice for these communities, to be the voice for these children with an uncertain future. How many congressional leaders supported Plan Colombia, without fully understanding the social implications of where this military aid was going to?

Many of the people of these communities hope that with the signing of the peace agreement, aid will come in the form of regional development strategies and assistance for the demobilized (including children). Meanwhile, others see the agreement as superficial and incapable of reconciling the strains that have scarred the population. That is why I invite you to talk to your congressional leaders and encourage them to voice the same concerns that you have after reading this article and to make sure that if the U.S. is going to provide Colombia with aid, that it reaches the far communities in Putumayo.

Topics: Child Labor

About the Author

Laura Benrey

Laura is an undergraduate senior at the University of Cincinnati. She plans to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and a minor in Human Rights. She was an intern for the Strategic Director at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in the summer of 2014, and is currently working on her senior thesis which will focus on the success of the programs designed by non-governmental organizations for the reintegration of former child combatants in Colombia.