Colombia: UN agencies hand out emergency food to isolated indigenous groups

Ferry laden with vital food aid for indigenous people on the Guaviare River

22 April 2008 – The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have started distributing emergency aid to several indigenous communities in east-central Colombia living in an isolated area being disputed by Government forces and irregular armed groups.

WFP provided 14 tons of food aid by boat last week to some 1,000 people – who mostly belong to the Guyabero or Nukak Maku indigenous groups – living in four villages along the Guaviare River after a request from UNHCR, the refugee agency’s spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters today in Geneva.

The area, so remote that it is only accessible by river, is disputed territory and rumours of imminent conflict between Government forces and armed groups have sparked widespread panic among local communities.

Hundreds of people have recently fled, Mr. Redmond said, sometimes walking for days through local forests. One settlement, Puerto Alvira, has lost about 75 per cent of its estimated population of 3,000 people. A shortage of gasoline has also brought boat transport to a standstill.

“Those who have stayed are now virtually cut off from the rest of the world,” Mr. Redmond noted. “Food is not getting through. The very little that is available is extremely expensive. Mission members also noted an acute shortage of medication, with no available means to evacuate the sick in an emergency.”

Aside from UNHCR and WFP, the local church, the Colombian Ministry for Social Welfare and representatives of the ombudsman’s office took part in the mission, distributing basic hygiene kits and school materials donated by the local municipality.

The two UN agencies are also starting several projects in the area, such as establishing a school restaurant and running welfare programmes for the elderly and young children.

Decades of conflict and strife in Colombia have displaced at least 2.4 million people, and the country’s 80 different indigenous groups – who together comprise about two per cent of the national population – are disproportionately represented in those statistics.


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