Armed Forces of Colombia and Ecuador Help Local Communities
By Marian Romero/Diálogo November 01, 2017The armed forces of Colombia and Ecuador united for an annual humanitarian operation that provided health, welfare, and recreational services to remote communities of both nations on the shores of the Putumayo River. The Colombia–Ecuador 2017 Binational Development Campaign Aid assisted the populations of Puerto El Carmen, in the province of Sucumbíos, Ecuador, and Puerto Ospina, in the department of Putumayo, Colombia.
“In general, we hold the aid campaign in the first half of the year, when the water levels in the Putumayo River rise and it’s optimal for navigation,” said Marine Corps Brigadier General Álvaro Augusto Cubillos Gómez, commander of the Colombian Navy’s Southern Naval Force. “This year  weather fluctuations kept us from getting out to the municipality of Puerto Asís [Colombia] on the ships; but we still fulfilled that commitment.”
At the campaign, 57 medical specialists from both countries provided general and family medicine services, as well as specialized treatment such as physical therapy, dentistry, maxillofacial surgery, gynecology, dermatology, urology, psychology, pediatrics, medical ultrasound, and ophthalmology, among others. In addition, they carried out health promotion and prevention services and delivered three tons of humanitarian aid.
“Ecuador and Colombia are sister nations that share the river on their border, and they also share the culture of these communities, their peculiarities, and in many cases the same nationality,” explained Colonel Wilson Tualombo Ortíz, commander of the Ecuadorean Army’s 19th Jungle Brigade and coordinator of the support campaign. “In Ecuador, a lot of Colombians came to live on this side of the river, but these are the same indigenous communities of Uitoto, Murui, and Siona, among others, which exist on both sides of the Putumayo River.”
The campaign that lasted only a weekend, August 25th–27th, required a huge logistics effort to bring the various units together. From Colombia, the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Police, and local and regional authorities participated. In Ecuador, the provincial government of Sucumbíos coordinated the support campaign with other government agencies and logistics support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Ecuadorean Army.
Recreation, a key point
Although health is the main focus of the campaign, the recreational aspect has become a huge attraction for the recipients. Getting needed medical attention from specialists can take all day and long lines form during the event.
“We have groups specialized in recreation, as we’ve learned from experience that thanks to them any activity with the community is more enjoyable,” Brig. Gen. Cubillos said. “Dressed up as clowns or through singing, they manage to entertain people, amuse the children and facilitate service outreach for those who are unfamiliar with this type of assistance.”
“In Ecuador, we’re impressed by the capacity for care they have in Colombia. Not only because of the health services they provide, but also because of their ability to entertain people throughout the event, keeping the campaign from becoming a tedious experience,” Col. Tualombo said. “We want to create the same recreation groups for our Armed Forces, because they completely change people’s attitude. We’re already in talks with the Colombian Navy to make such entertainment a reality.”
Origins of the campaign
The idea for holding a binational support campaign originated in 2011. The Colombian Navy already provided some assistance in its territory, but it was clear that many more residents in the region showed similar needs. At that time, the security conditions were risky, because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were still in the area and attacked health ships.
The Binational Development Campaign was created to assist the vulnerable populations of Puerto El Carmen and Puerto Ospina, municipalities where a large part of the area’s population is concentrated. These communities are tight-knit with many Colombians living on the Ecuadorean side of the border and vice versa. On the Colombian side, terrestrial mobilization to the urban centers is difficult due to their remoteness. As such, providing annual support to the region is a priority.
“For us, it is very important that the populations of this region identify with their country; that they feel Colombian, and that they are able to perceive the presence of the state,” Brig. Gen. Cubillos said. “Fortunately, the campaign had a wonderful reception and people are quick to respond to the invitation we make over the radio.”
The event’s reach has grown substantially since its launch. In 2011, the campaign touched 1,138 people from both countries. The number has more than doubled in 2017, with a total of 8,846 welfare services delivered — in addition to health promotion, disease prevention as well as hair styling, veterinary services, and entertainment. Area residents started associating the river’s rise during the month of May with the arrival of ships and prepare to welcome them.
The communities were eager for the 2017 support campaign, as in 2016, the earthquake that shook Ecuador prevented it from taking place. Both armed forces focused on relief efforts for the Ecuadorean people who are still recovering from the effects of the quake.
“These campaigns have become a lifesaver for many of the communities that live along our shared border with Ecuador,” Brig Gen. Cubillos said. “Unlike the Ecuadoreans, Colombia’s river communities are [geographically] cut off from the rest of the country, which makes it critical to ensure that this aid gets to them.”