Colombian National Army Promotes Healthcare in Indigenous Communities
By Geraldine Cook March 17, 2016
The Colombian National Army held 88 Ethnic Group Development Support Outreach Events in 2015, benefiting 78,543 indigenous persons, and plans to help tens of thousands more this year.
Colombia’s National Army promotes health in indigenous communities through Ethnic Group Development Support Outreach Events, a series of visits to provide a full range of healthcare services to communities that are far removed from the country’s urban centers. The Army has held six events in 2016, and plans on conducting another 101. In 2015, the Army held 88 such events, which benefitted 78,543 indigenous persons.
The National Army oversees the visits by a group of 40 professionals that includes physicians, dentists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and pediatricians, among others. The medical professionals offer their services for free during a weekend to those who do not have easy access to healthcare services.
Colonel Pedro Antonio García, deputy director of the Army’s Integrated Action Headquarters, explained that the Development Support Outreach Events are organized by the National Army as part of its mission to protect territorial integrity and to create a peaceful environment for development. “There are several populations in Colombia whose basic needs are left unsatisfied,” he said. “The Development Support Outreach Events were designed to create more opportunities for the country’s vulnerable populations.” Although there is no consolidated registry of all of the Development Support Outreach Events, Col. García said that “as a consequence of the decreased intensity of the armed conflict, we have been able to increase the outreach events in recent years in terms of coverage and frequency.”
Assisting indigenous populations
The National Army focuses its assistance on indigenous populations because they usually live in vulnerable conditions. Though the outreach events are held in each region to benefit the entire population, the National Army has been employing different logistics for indigenous and non-indigenous communities to provide medical attention more effectively since 2015.
“Indigenous communities require that we plan events earlier and more carefully,” said Carlos Candil, Army Ethnic Affairs Liaison. “There are protected communities where there is or was conflict, so many of them do not allow any armed group to enter. In order to undertake any activity with indigenous communities, a Preliminary Consultation is necessary; that is, we must ask the permission of the indigenous governor. This process can take up to two months.”
The Preliminary Consultation is a fundamental right of indigenous communities and other ethnic groups in Colombia when projects, public works, and other activities are held in their territory. This is intended to protect their cultural, social, and economic integrity while guaranteeing their right to participate.
The National Army has always conducted outreach events to comply with this protocol. The Military also provides interpreters as necessary, performs studies on each area to learn the community’s precise characteristics, and defines possible risks healthcare professionals could face during an event.
Of the 78,543 indigenous persons who benefited from events in 2015, the ethnic groups that received the most assistance were the Nasa in the department of Cauca with 7,200 beneficiaries; the Awá in the department of Nariño with 5,620 beneficiaries; the Wayuu in the department of Guajira with 4,505 beneficiaries; and the Pijao in the department of Tolima with 3,650 beneficiaries.
This year, the Integrated Action Headquarters reported that six outreach events have been conducted in benefit of the Wayuu communities in the departments of Guajira and Cesar; the Pijao in Meta; and the Pastos in Quindío and Risaralda. The number of persons who received benefits so far this year has not been finalized.
For the past two years, Candil, who also is the education and labor leader for an indigenous community of the Muisca ethnicity, serves as a liaison between the Military and the indigenous populations to help establish dynamics such as the Development Support Outreach Events and other Army initiatives.
In the community where Candil lives, within the municipality of Sesquilé, which is near Bogotá and in the department of Cundinamarca, he has already served as the indigenous governor and traditional authority. With his experience, he advises and trains members of the Army’s Ethnic Affairs Offices throughout the country to teach them how to interact with indigenous communities.
“My duties consist of teaching officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in Ethnic Affairs Offices about the cultures and traditions of the 102 indigenous communities in the country as well as those of African descent,” Candil said. “So that Military personnel can perform their duties as community liaisons, I focus on providing a general overview on each ethnic group – what its daily duties are, what its recognized territory is, how they interpret their sacred sites, and the appropriate way for service members to approach each community.”
The National Army assisted indigenous communities with outreach programs of this type since the Military created the Integrated Action Headquarters in 1974. Every one or two years, Armed Forces officials adjust this initiative based on the needs of indigenous populations, law enforcement circumstances, and the Army’s capacity to render assistance.
“Planning a visit begins with direct contact between a service member and the population,” Col. Garcia said. “At times, the Army is the only institution present in certain areas, so it knows the real needs in each region. This communication is escalated up to the division commander, where it is evaluated. Then, they begin to plan out the outreach event, analyzing the area in general and the population in particular to cover as many people as possible.”
Military commanders for each of the National Army’s eight divisions determine which populations require the most immediate attention. Scheduling the outreach events is a continual effort that requires bringing together Military units to provide transportation and logistical support, which includes teaming with healthcare institutions in Bogotá, finding volunteers in each region, and working with private businesses to donate medical supplies, clothes, and food.