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Where Have All the Children Gone?

7 May 2009 No Comment

Tracy Hughes

Tracy Hughes


It has been three years since I last visited the communities of Florida and Ñeques, which CPT has accompanied for years, along the Opón River. I had butterflies of anticipation as CPTer Jenny Dillon and I prepared to return on 14 April 2009.

Children’s faces flashed through my mind as I tried to remember where families lived along the river. During the hour-long canoe trip, Jenny and I reviewed the children’s names. The remembering became a sort of litany. We called out a child’s name, reminded ourselves where he or she lived, and laughed at a memory. But the refrain became depressing. Almost always, after we had remembered a child and his or her family, Jenny would tell me, “Oh, they don’t live there anymore. They sold their land to the big landowner.”

Jenny reported that the school in Ñeques is closed because the children’s families have left. After seeing the school locked shut, and abandoned, I felt heartbroken. My new question was, “Where have all the children gone?”  It is hard to pinpoint why more than forty families left Ñeques and Florida. Could it have been from years of armed conflict and violence, of disappearances, assassinations, threat of armed actors taking food, sleeping in their yards, or fighting over the area’s natural resources? Could it have been the hard life of subsistence farmers facing the falling prices of their cash crops? Could it be that a large landowner has bought up all of the land for a cattle ranch, offering just enough money to families worn out from years of conflict?

As Jenny and I visited the remaining families in Florida and Ñeques, we pondered with them their future in the places they have called home for up to five, thirty, or even fifty years. Community members showed us the path cut through their land by Ecopetrol, Colombia’s oil company, for oil exploration. Ecopetrol has employed some of the men and given the communities new canoes and other materials. However, these gifts are bribes to earn the communities’ trust. I found it disquieting that soon after a large landowner-reported to be a retired military commander-bought so much land, a major oil company would begin explorations.

Who is going to receive the financial rewards? Not the rural families that struggled through all the years of armed conflict. Definitely not the children, who are the most vulnerable in war. No, in Colombia’s war against the rural population, large multinational and national corporations reap the rewards from exploiting natural resources, leaving the local people to live a subsistence lifestyle with the constant fear of forced displacement.

Where have all of the children gone? They must once again find new homes and friends. I hope they are healthy, attending school, and never have to be displaced again.

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