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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sandstone mining trucks buzz up and down the dirt roads in the valley of Soacha, the combination of their open loads and churning tires kicking up a red-brown dust that coats skin and is easily inhaled. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Soacha, a small city close to Bogota, is home to about 35,000 officially registered internally displaced people. The actual number is much higher, as many have registered in Bogota or have been unable to register at all. Anyone who claims to have been displaced by a paramilitary group after 2005 is not allowed to register as displaced, because in 2005 the paramilitary groups were officially disbanded, according to the government. In reality many of them simply reconstituted themselves and continue to wreak havoc.

JRS advocates for access to health care and education for displaced people in Soacha. Despite a national law guaranteeing education through the ninth grade, there is no school past sixth grade in Soacha. It is generally difficult for students to reach school due to inadequate transportation for the children, and the quality of education is often lacking.

Each neighborhood of Soacha has an executive board, similar to a neighborhood advisory council in the U.S., and these boards meet with the mayor to advise him of conditions and advocate for services. Several local women noticed their local board was doing nothing to bring jobs, projects or aid to their neighborhood and decided to do something about it.

JRS helped them to understand their rights and responsibilities, and the women organized themselves and their neighborhood in order to have new members appointed to the board to reinvigorate it and, hopefully, their neighborhood.

JRS also helped some of the women to grow crops on small plots of land around their homes. The JRS team was instrumental in teaching a group of 26 women how to use organic farming techniques to improve food security for families in their neighborhood.

Each family participating in the project now has a small plot of land on which they plant squash, fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other staples. In addition to growing food for their own use, the women are able to grow surplus to sell and trade, thus enabling them to earn extra income.

The large garden plot of Doña Katia*, one of the displaced of Soacha, with its orchids and bonsai trees, papayuellas, mint, squash and other crops, sits in stark contrast to the heavily eroded cliff-side facing it over a dusty valley. Sandstone mining trucks buzz up and down the dirt roads in the valley, the combination of their open loads and churning tires kicking up a red-brown dust that coats skin and is easily inhaled.  

Doña Katia sends a worried glance toward her ten-year-old daughter as the youngster clears her throat and coughs. Many of the children in the community have lung problems attributed to the constant dust from the 30-some mines that pepper the Soacha landscape. 

Only a handful of the mines have permits, the rest are illegally plundering the minerals of the community and causing water contamination and erosion, which leaves the area vulnerable to flooding. 

Access to quality healthcare and adequate education and the services due to displaced people under Colombia's progressive legal framework are principal concerns of the community. As the paramilitary groups encroach on more and more of the urban landscape intra-urban displacement has become a growing problem. 

The FARC are said to still be an ominous presence in the rural territories surrounding Soacha, preying on the local population, forcing them to pay war-taxes and attempting to forcibly recruit young people. 

Names have been changed for their safety.

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