Responding to natural hazards in a conflict zone: MCC’s experience in Colombia

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[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Over the years, MCC Colombia has found that the most reliable way to respond to natural disasters in conflict zones is through respected local church groups with deep experience and a long-standing presence in conflicted regions.

For over 70 years, Mennonite Brethren communities have lived, worked and worshipped along the rivers of Colombia’s Chocó region, principally the San Juan, but also along smaller tributaries, and, more recently, the great Atrato. The Chocó region is the second-rainiest place in the world, and as the rain falls, the region’s rivers swell and slowly flow out into both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Chocó’s population is clustered along the rivers, which have long served as main transportation routes, sources of sustenance and the orienting social force. But they are also the source of frequent flooding, flooding exacerbated by climate change and changes in the riverbed brought on by industrial-scale dredge mining.

Especially in a region where the social fabric has been significantly frayed by the armed conflict, purchasing aid items from local merchants builds trust and relational collateral, rather than inviting suspicion by bringing in outside aid.

As the severity and frequency of flooding has increased, the Mennonite Brethren church has developed expertise in emergency response. MCC has supported the Colombian Mennonite Brethren church in Chocó in these efforts for three main reasons. First, since Mennonite Brethren communities in the region have often been affected by the flooding, they have become adept at conducting very accurate situation assessments. Secondly, the Colombian state has minimal presence in these communities, and any assistance arriving through international aid organizations or the state only reaches more urban areas and often gets corrupted by local politics. Finally, despite the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas, the armed conflict and presence of active armed groups remains an intractable reality in Chocó, making outside humanitarian relief efforts extremely difficult.

In this context, the Mennonite Brethren of Chocó have become experts at providing humanitarian relief in a conflict zone. Many of their strategies and practices mirror best practices for humanitarian relief operations more generally: the difference is simply that the stakes are raised in a conflict zone.

Through collaboration and cooperation with the Mennonite Brethren, MCC Colombia has found several practices to be crucial. First, it has been important to utilize local resources and supply chains, rather than bringing in goods from outside the region. By using local resources, the humanitarian response benefits the community in multiple ways, both by providing needed relief and by patronizing local merchants and vendors. This has helped to guarantee the cultural appropriateness of the aid being distributed, as well as to strengthen relational networks in the affected region. In a few cases, it was necessary to purchase the relief items in a larger urban area and transport them to the communities affected by the flooding, but the Mennonite Brethren have never brought in resources from outside the department or disconnected from the churches. Especially in a region where the social fabric has been significantly frayed by the armed conflict, purchasing aid items from local merchants builds trust and relational collateral, rather than inviting suspicion by bringing in outside aid.

A second strategy employed by the Mennonite Brethren has been to maintain clear communication with local municipal authorities, while simultaneously remaining independent of them in the distribution of aid. As is considered best practice, the Mennonite Brethren always clarify with municipal authorities which populations have received state aid and what further plans the municipality has for responding to the flooding. But rather than directly coordinating their response through the municipality, the Mennonite Brethren independently implement their emergency response. In this way, they have avoided having portions of their aid redirected along local patronage lines or used as a payout to different groups. This has been an especially important practice during election seasons. Because the Mennonite Brethren are committed to the region long-term and hold a distinct faith identity, they are extremely careful about associating their activities with any temporal political entity. This allows them to maintain a posture of non-collusion and independence that ultimately serves as a form of protection for both the church and its disaster response.

Third, in any conflict zone there will be long-term effects from the trauma experienced by the population, in addition to the trauma and stress generated by the natural disaster itself. The Mennonite Brethren recognize this dynamic and have tried to include psychosocial support and pastoral counseling as part of their disaster relief efforts. Traveling in Chocó, particularly in the rural regions, is both expensive and risky; it would be difficult to sustain a trauma support program that had the same geographic reach and scope as the humanitarian relief efforts have. By coupling trauma support with relief efforts, the church can address the emotional needs of far more communities than if they were to attempt a similar effort apart from a humanitarian response.

The Mennonite Brethren have consistently refused military escorts for their humanitarian missions, because then the illegal armed groups would no longer recognize them as a neutral, pacifist group.

Finally, and most crucially, emergency response in conflict zones cannot be done without clear communication and relationships with local community actors. This is true for both the situation assessment and implementation stages of humanitarian response. In the context of Chocó, main transportation routes are controlled and monitored by both the state and illegal armed groups. Moving large amounts of food and non-food aid along these routes requires that proper permission is obtained, that communities have approved the arrival of aid and that the local partner distributing the aid—in this case, the Mennonite Brethren Church—be respected and known by all local actors. In Chocó, for example, the Mennonite Brethren insist on clear communication, but in a way that emphasizes their neutrality as a religious, faith-based group. So, in order to transport fertilizer beyond a certain point, the church must have clearance from the government, because it is considered a monitored substance, due to its use in coca production. Other times, the church has had to register their boats with the government, along with the aid they transport, as a humanitarian mission. But the church has consistently refused military escorts for their humanitarian missions, because then they would no longer be seen as a neutral, pacifist group. Instead, they communicate directly with community leaders who can confirm when it would be safe to travel and deliver the humanitarian aid. If a community leader advises the Mennonite Brethren not travel at the proposed time, they will respect the recommendation and postpone their visit.

All of this is possible only because the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó has developed and nurtured an historic and consistent testimony in the region. By consistently presenting a peace witness, working for the benefit and well-being of the communities to which they belong and abstaining from open affiliations with armed groups, the military or local governments, the Mennonite Brethren adeptly and prudently respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises within their region. It has been an honor for MCC Colombia to learn from and work alongside them.

Elizabeth Miller is MCC Colombia representative and lives in Bogotá.