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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

EiE Crisis Spotlight: Afro-Colombians in the Pacific Region


Location of Crisis

Different regions in Colombia have been affected by the Colombian conflict. However, the Pacific zone, one of the poorest region of Colombia and a strategic area for the war and the economy of the country, has been particularly affected. This region is composed by five different departments: Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño and Antioquia.

Timing of Crisis

The internal armed conflict has caused successive waves of violence since 1960. The Afro-Colombian population on the Colombian’s Pacific Coast have been systematically displaced from their communities since the mid-1990s and it is even called “an invisible war” against the Afro-Colombians. Since the 1996 and with more intensity in 1998, with the arrival in the Pacific region of the guerrilla groups and paramilitaries, the internal displacement attained high proportions.

Moreover, according to the Association Human Rights Everywhere, this region has been threatened by war for a long time and by the economic megaprojects in the last years. According to UNICEF, even though the Government of Colombia is officially on peace talks with the guerrilla’s movement FARC, Colombia’s humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.

Affected Populations

According to the ICRC, the internal conflict in Colombia has led to the displacement of between 2,650,000 and 4,360,000 people, making it the country with one of the largest number of internally displaced in the world. Even though, the Colombian army has regained control over large parts of the country, and security and freedom of movement have significantly improved, the conflict continue to affect the rural poor, especially the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations.

Afro-Colombian boy playing in one community of displaced persons in the Pacific Region.
According to UNHCR, as at January 2013, the number of officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country stood at 3.9 millions and according to other sources, like the Colombian NGO Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), 5 million of people have been internally displaced since the 1980s. According to the IDPVoices the Afro-Colombians correspond to 21 per cent and indigenous communities 3.7 per cent of the population of Colombia, but they represent a “considerate or disproportionate percentage of the displaced population in the country”.

The Reliefweb highlights that a Codhes report estimates that 92.596 persons have been forced to flee and leave their places of origin across the Pacific region, which represents 36% of the total of IDPs in the country. According to UNHCR Afro-Colombians represent 17% of all internally displaced persons in the country and Afro-Colombian women and children are included as some of those worst affected by the war. Furthermore, according to UNICEF 40% of the displaced population are children. The agency states that displacement is caused by a wide range of factors including combats, massacres and threats; the presence of landmines; the recruitment of children and adolescents; sexual violence; and denied access to supplies.

Furthermore, according to Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), children and youth account for more than half of Colombia’s internally displaced people and one out of every four guerrillas and paramilitary soldiers is under 18 years of age.

Brief Description of the Situation

The Colombian internal conflict has as a special characteristic a diverse range of actors. Poverty and inequalities led peasants to take direct action. Since the 1960s, different armed groups have been created such as the pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (ELN), the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (EPL) and in 1966 the pro-Soviet Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was founded and quickly became the largest guerrilla group.

In addition, the paramilitaries groups have formed part of the actual conflict in Colombia, which appeared as a private army to protect drug cartels and large landowners who were targeted by the guerrillas with extortion. Although the paramilitaries groups also emerged in the 1960s, it took its current form in the 1980s and in 1997, they formed the organization called “United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia”. However, in 2003 they declared a ceased fired and some paramilitaries’ blocks agreed to participate in demobilization programs which were sponsored by the Organization of American States. However, there has been the formation of new generation of paramilitary groups, which emerged after their demobilization as well as renewed violence by members of pre-existing paramilitary groups.

According to a BBC report, there has been the emergence of las Bandas Criminales Emergentes (BACRIM) (Emerging Criminal Bands). Many demobilized paramilitaries returned to smuggling drugs and have become new important actors in the generation of violence in Colombia.  As the Guerrillas groups, the later have pursued kidnappings, extortion, and predation on natural resource rents. Still nowadays there is a “three-sided conflict” between the FARC, the military and the paramilitary groups, which continues to affect some regions, creating insecurity and slowing down the country’s development. Thus, the conflict has impaired the governability of the state and has had as consequences the destruction of infrastructures as well as the impact on human and social capital, and human security.The Pacific coast and the Atlantic/Caribbean areas have been strategic for the production, the processing and drug trafficking. The guerrillas and paramilitary groups depend on this source of financing.

Even though the majority of the population living in the Pacific is confronted with poverty, the region is characterized by biodiversity wealth and geostrategic position which has awaked interests of national and international businesspeople. The social exclusion of the Afro-Colombians seems to be associated with the process of enrichment in the region. These megaprojects in the region are new variables in the dynamic of the conflict. The intensive sowing of oil palm, the exploitation of wood and the implementation of electric centrals are some of the examples of productive plans that have had an indirect influence towards the internal displacement of the population. The expansion of oil palm in this region has been accompanied by violence and armed actions by different armed groups, having interest in the region.

Impact on education

The Pacific region has the worst poverty situation in Colombia with its level of poverty duplicating the national average. There structural exclusion results in marginalization and vulnerability. According to the Colombian Ministry of Education, many of the Afro-Colombians come from region marginalized and where there is still many challenges concerning the education and the quality of education. As an example the illiteracy rate in the Pacific region is 11,89% and for the department of Chocó is 20,89%, which is very high compared to the national percentage which is 8,40%.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 10% of Afro-descendant children aged 6 to 10 do not have access to education, which is 27% higher than the nonattendance rate of mestizo children.  In terms of secondary education, the coverage shortfall for Afro-descendant children aged 11 to 14 is 12%.  In all, 27% of Afro-Colombian children aged 15 and 16 do not attend secondary school. Furthermore, according to UNICEF, around 1,000 children have been affected by the suspension of classes. During 2012, 186 civilians, including 54 children, have been victims of antipersonnel landmines and explosive remnants of war of these, 40 died (13 children) and 146 were injured. Moreover, the agency highlights that armed groups have occupied schools and used them as military bases. The agency states that the occupation and attacks on schools is affecting the education of the Colombian children and youth

El Tiempo ©
Children and youth live amidst the Colombian conflict.
In this context, girls remain among the most vulnerable segments of the population. According to the NRC, the “on-going conflict in Colombia has resulted in difficult access to education and there are currently more than one million children out of school”. Moreover, it highlights that as a result of the armed conflict schools are closing down, and many are used for military purposes and arenas for recruitment of child soldiers. To make the situation worse, there are a shortage of teachers due to threats and attacks.

According to Watchlist, besides poverty, a range of factors related to the ongoing conflict has undermined children’s right to education, including the destruction, occupation and forced closure of school buildings, and the shortage of teachers.  Nearly 9,000 teachers were killed, about 3,000 were threatened, almost 1,100 forced to flee and 60 have been reported “missing” between 1991 and 2011. Furthermore, the abuse of educational spaces for military propaganda, the recruitment activities and forced displacement have resulted in more violence among students.

According to RET, armed conflict which significatly increases children's, adolescent's and youth's risks of dropping out of school and joining the armed groups. In order to respond to that, RET has developed protective school environments for the promotion and protection of the rights of vulnerable children and youth in Nariño.

Finally, according to the documentary “Stopping the Shakiro: How an Ethno-High School, in rural Colombia, stands up against the armed conflict” by Kevin O’Dowd, a large portion of the population has aged-out of the traditional education system in the Pacific region and the education system is greatly affected by the armed conflict. It is affected in terms of the quality of education since the conflict situation prevents teachers from doing all the range of activities they would like to do with students. Furthermore, in the documentary, Save the Children Colombia highlights that people when forced to flee, the first place they occupy in the new community is a school, one of the few pieces of infrastructure available. Moreover, European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) states that children and youth have to leave their normal routine, their education and have to face situations of combat and harassment or in many cases, face natural disasters simultaneously.

Education Actors Responding to the Crisis

The following are some of the education actors responding to the crisis in the Pacific Region:

Needs and Challenges

According to the Reliefweb there are urgent needs in education in emergencies, protection and mental health.

UNICEF highlights two unmet education needs:

  • Flexible educational programmes in safe child-friendly learning spaces
  • Provision of educational supplies to children, including those in temporary schools

The documentary “Stopping the Shakiro: How an Ethno-High School, in rural Colombia, stands up against the armed conflict” by Kevin O’Dowd highlights different unmet education needs and challenges, including:

  • Making education accessible for students (children, youth and adults) in formal and non-formal education
  • Addressing the needs of learners, in particular of girls, who do not have access to primary education and especially those with early pregnancies
  • Offering conflict sensitive education programs and projects

According to this documentary “Ethno- High schools” can help face the armed conflict by being a presence in these remote areas.

Tools and Resources

The following key INEE resources in English and Spanish can be used to support EiE efforts for Afro-Colombians in the Pacific Region

The following RET manuals in Spanish can be used to support EiE efforts for Afro-Colombians in the Pacific Region


Key Information Sources




  • Serrano Cardona, Nicolás. (2007) "Cuando el territorio no es el mismo: Estudio comparativo de los impactos psicosociales y culturales del desplazamiento forzado en asentamientos de Quibdó, Tumaco y Cartagena". Vol. 1:41.
  • Dube, Oeindrila and Suresh Naibu.(2010) “Bases, Bullets, and Ballots: The Effect of U.S Military Aid on Political Conflict in Colombia”. Center for Global Development. Working paper 197.



Key Words

Internal conflict, Internal displaced persons (IDPs), Afro-Colombians, primary and secondary education, and  Ethno- High schools


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