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No time for an Easter break for displaced in Colombia's Chocó


No time for an Easter break for displaced in Colombia's Chocó

Children displaced by conflict in Colombia often end up doing dangerous work, such as logging, despite legislation aimed at protecting them.
20 March 2008
Young loggers pole a raft down a river in the Choco rainforest.

RIO SUCIO, Colombia, March 20 (UNHCR) - Most towns and cities in north-western Colombia's Chocó region come to a standstill at Easter as people head to the countryside for a family get-together or to the coast for a get-away break.

But for 14-year-old José Alexander* in the rundown town of Rio Sucio, Easter is no time for a holiday. He will be spending the next few weeks far upriver, working for a logging outfit in the vast Chocó rainforest to make enough money to support his five younger siblings.

They came to this warren of wooden houses and muddy streets with their mother some five years ago after fleeing fighting in their native village, but she has since disappeared and left them to fend for themselves. Kindly neighbours have offered the younger children a place to sleep while José Alexander is off on logging expeditions instead of going to school and investing in his future.

Logging is dangerous work, but there are few other employment opportunities for displaced men and boys in Rio Sucio and its environs. "Once you are out in the jungle, it's hard to know what can happen," noted José Alexander. Irregular armed groups fight for control of the territory and its rich natural resources.

Only last October, six young men were macheted to death and four injured during an attack on a logging camp. All were displaced people who accepted the seasonal work because it provided them with desperately needed income.

Both the UN Convention for the Rights of Children and Colombia's Children Code define the rights of all children to health, education and safe standards of living, as well as their rights to be protected from labour exploitation, hazardous work, forced recruitment and sexual exploitation.

But Saskia Loochkartt, who heads the Community Services Unit for UNHCR Colombia, said the protection risks that children like José Alexander faced during displacement were not sufficiently understood or taken into account.

"These risks must be more clearly stressed and addressed by the national authorities and responsible UN agencies," she said, adding that "unless something is done right from the start [of displacement], the risks usually go on multiplying." The high incidence of family break-up during displacement made children even more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, this will be the third Easter that José Alexander will spend cutting down trees and hauling logs out of the forest. He doesn't know who his employers are and he's not sure where he will be going, but he does know it will be back-breaking work.

"After we cut the trees, we carry the trunks back to the river. Sometimes it's a two-day walk in the jungle, then another two days to get back, then we go off again to cut more trees," said the teenager, who is happy that he will have the company of two friends of roughly the same age.

At night, they will set up camp. Dozens of these small camps - no more than two or three tents or plastic-covered shelters - can be spotted from the river. There are many more inside the sprawling Chocó rainforest, which extends more than 1,000 kilometres along Colombia's Pacific Coast, across the border to Panama and north to the Atlantic.

Colombians call the forest the lungs of the world, but it is rapidly dwindling. Every year, hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary forest are cleared off, legally or illegally. And while a few people make fortunes from the timber harvest, Chocó is also the poorest region in Colombia and one of the most badly hit by armed conflict and forced displacement.

After a few weeks' work, José Alexander will head back to Rio Sucio on a raft made of logs. The wood will eventually be sold inside Colombia or exported. The youngster is already planning for his first night back in town. "I am going to buy myself a new shirt and go dancing," he grinned.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Rio Sucio, Colombia