While the correlation between poverty and inequality and social conflict is not simple, it is important to recall that the Colombian conflict has its origin, in part, in the absence of human security (security on the land, security of employment, security of access to quality health care and education).
This dynamic forms part of a vicious cycle, whereby the conflict also extends and deepens poverty and inequality. The lucrative drugs trade, which provides huge profits for paramilitary and guerrilla groups, is an important motor in the perpetuation of the conflict and the violence.
Grass-roots experience, often supported by international cooperation, shows that it is both possible and feasible to begin to redress inequality and exclusion and to alleviate poverty. Alternative development initiatives have been undertaken to help rural communities replace coca crop cultivation and guarantee sustainable livelihoods for small-scale farmers. Such efforts, if accompanied and strengthened by public policies that go beyond welfare aid, could have a real and lasting impact on levelling out persistent inequalities.
Photo credit: Sean Sprague
Colombia is a middle income country where a large proportion of the population live in poverty. The fact that between 45 and 64 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line is a reflection of the high levels of inequality that persist in the country. Colombia is the third most unequal county, in terms of income inequality, in the Americas after Bolivia and Haiti, while Latin America is the most unequal region in the world. Poverty and inequality affects women, children, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups and displaced persons disproportionately.
The poverty gap is most evident between rural and urban areas where 62 per cent of the rural population are poor compared to 39 per cent in urban areas. The is also true in the case of extreme poverty, in rural areas 22 per cent live in extreme poverty compared to 9 per cent in the urban sector.
Rural poverty is of particular concern given that poverty and exclusion in rural areas has traditionally been one of the root causes of socio-political violence in the country and continues to be an important conflict accelerator.
One area where rural inequality is most profoundly expressed is in the inequitable distribution of land. Land concentration in Colombia is biased towards large landowners at the expense of rural small-scale farmers: 0.4 per cent of landowners own 61 per cent of rural land.
Concentration of land ownership has increased over recent years, fuelled by the forced displacement of rural communities: it is estimated that around 6 million hectares of land have been abandoned by people fleeing the conflict. Unequal landownership deprives rural farmers of a livelihood and so perpetuates income inequality. Additionally, by reducing the land available for small-scale farmers to produce food for subsistence, unequal landownership contributes to food insecurity, with resulting health problems including malnutrition, anaemia, calcium deficiencies, and deficiencies in calorie intake.
Photo credit: CAFOD
Poverty involves the systematic violation of economic, social and cultural rights that affect almost every sphere of life, and which are frequently inter-dependent. Very few poor people work in the formal sector, which would allow them access to health care or pension benefits. Thus the income poverty from which they suffer is further aggravated by insecurity and by the inadequacy of the social services to which they have access.
In addition, poor quality and access to education disproportionately affect children from poor families, making it even harder for them to ever break the cycle of poverty.
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