In a jungle community in Colombia, families are mourning the loss of 37 children. The suspected cause of death: mercury poisoning.
These families hail from Choco, a rural province where FARC-controlled illegal mining—and therefore environmental devastation—are rampant. So, too, is mercury. Run-off from the mines contaminates water and food supplies with the toxin, causing debilitating illnesses and slow, awful deaths for the people who live close by.
The children’s deaths are one of a slew of tragedies in Colombia’s recent history. For more than 50 years, the country has been locked in a war with the FARC and other left-wing rebels, and many people have suffered. More than 200,000 people have died, more than six million have been displaced.
But no group has suffered as much as rural Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, who have been systematically forced out of their homes or killed by cartels who steal, exploit, and pollute their land to fund illicit activities.
Last year, a peace agreement was announced between the FARC and the Colombian government. And last week, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia met with President Obama to ask for US aid to facilitate a new, peaceful era in Colombia.
(There’s a history here—the US has invested more than $9 billion in aid to end the war between the FARC and Colombia, which has been controversial. You can read more about that here.)
After his meeting with President Santos, President Obama announced that he would ask for more than $450 million in aid to help Colombia end “half a century of wrenching conflict.”
This sounds like good news, but notably absent from the commitment was any mention of the 50-year war’s most unfortunate victims: Indigenous and Afro-Colombians.
Their message is this: for Colombia to remain peaceful, the government must guarantee the land and human rights of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Any aid package that excludes these groups misses the point.
Until Indigenous and Afro-Colombians see hope for a better future—until their lands are no longer stolen, and their children no longer die from mercury poisoning—there can be no peace for Colombia.