EU Nobel Prize funds bring education to highland tribe in hostile Colombian territory

Making a Difference, 3 December 2013

© UNHCR/F.Fontanini
It seemed like the whole town had turned out to clean and renovate the primary school in Gaitania.

GAITANIA, Colombia, December 3 (UNHCR) A year after the European Union (EU) won the Nobel Peace Prize, a project funded with some of the cash prize is bringing education to displaced children in western Colombia and helping to protect them from recruitment by armed groups.

The EU was named in October last year as the winner of the 2012 award in recognition of its contribution to peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. It later announced that it was giving the prize money to four "Children of Peace" projects benefitting 23,000 children affected by conflict and forced displacement worldwide.

This included 400,000 euros for UNHCR's project to provide educational support for 5,600 Colombian children, including 4,900 refugees in Ecuador and 700 children of indigenous groups threatened by displacement within Colombia.

Among the latter beneficiaries of the UNHCR programme are members of the Nasa We indigenous community living in and around the town of Gaitania in Colombia's Tolima department. The windfall funding has been going towards renovating school buildings and class rooms, fixing lavatories, endowing libraries, providing school uniforms and materials, boosting the quality and number of teachers, and subsidizing scholarships for the brightest to continue their education.

When UNHCR recently visited Gaitania, after a seven-hour drive from the refugee agency's nearest field office in the city of Neiva, it seemed like the whole town had turned out to clean and renovate the primary school here. It is one of eight primary schools and a secondary school getting a new lease of life thanks to the EU funding; they will benefit 700 Nasa We children, including 120 in Gaitania.

The help is sorely needed in a beautiful, yet remote, lush green mountainous area, where the presence of competing armed groups makes life uncertain for the indigenous people as they try to maintain their tribal culture and lifestyle while embracing the best of the modern world, including education.

"The school was built 37 years ago and the roof is coming apart," Jeremías, a Nasa We tribesman and one of just two teachers at the school, told the UNHCR visitors. "We have a small library that lacks reading material for all students, and we have five computers in their boxes because there is no electricity here. If we don't offer them enough resources to learn, teenagers will drop out to go and work on farms," added the 58-year-old, who was born in a village near Gaitania.

Or worse: rival iIlegal armed groups are present in this strategic part of the department. In their competition for control of the territory and smuggling routes, the groups often occupy homes and schools as well as consuming water supplies and food stocks. This puts the local indigenous people at risk, while the youth are a target for recruitment especially if they have dropped out of school.

"When the farmers' children come to school, they often say: 'This boy or that one has been taken.' When those people find out that children are 12, they just take them. They don't let them study or go out," Kelly Johanna, a 17-year-old secondary school student in the area, told a Euronews documentary team taken to the area by UNHCR.

The high rate of recruitment of children in the region is the primary cause of displacement of affected families, according to the government. Between 1997 and 2012, some 16,710 people were forcibly displaced in the municipality of Planadas, which covers Gaitania. The figure included 733 last year and many of the displaced were members of the Nasa We.

UNHCR and the EU hope that by making school more attractive to children in this conflict-affected area, they will persuade them to spend more time on their education and thus improve their chances of a brighter future. "The project seeks to consolidate the ethno-education process of the Nasa We [partly] as a means to prevent recruitment and forced displacement," said Jovanny Salazar, head of the UNHCR office in Neiva.

His mention of an ethno-education referred to the curriculum's mix of a basic education arithmetics, reading, writing with lessons on the indigenous group's culture and heritage as well as their language, alongside the Spanish vital for communicating with government officials and other communities. Some of the EU funding is being used to print text books about the Nasa We.

Meanwhile, many of the students hope that the physical improvements will help increase capacity and attendance so that the school no longer has to run a two-shift system, with some students attending in the morning and the rest in the afternoon.

Johanna's greatest desire is to have an Internet classroom. "If we can get access to the Internet, I would like to use it to communicate with children from all over the world, complete my homework and further develop my knowledge," she said. Electricity supply is patchy, but one day soon it should come.

By Francesca Fontanini in Gaitania, Colombia