FC Barcelona scores goals with indigenous tribe in Colombia
A UNHCR staff member struggles to compete with the silky football skills of a Hitnü girl in the village of Selvas de Lipa.
SELVAS DE LIPA, Colombia, October 13 (UNHCR) – In the heart of the forest near Colombia's border with Venezuela, Spain's FC Barcelona is using football to teach life skills to young members of the indigenous Hitnü tribe and build bridges with neighbouring communities.
The FC Barcelona Foundation, under the MÉS campaign with Nike and UNHCR, has provided funding for a "Fair Play" initiative in four municipalities of the north-eastern department of Arauca, where outbreaks of conflict threaten the safety of the Hitnü and have forced many to flee their homes.
Some 350 people are benefitting from the six-month programme, which began in July and includes the Hitnü in the village of Selvas de Lipa (Lipa Forest) as well as neighbouring non-indigenous communities.
Marshalled by project implementer, CIDEMOS, members of the endangered tribe used machetes to hack out a football pitch from the dense tropical forest beside their palm-thatched homes. The goalposts were fashioned from bamboo and the players initially used a ball made from cloth.
CIDEMOS, based in the northern city of Bucaramanga, specializes in helping young Colombians and is working with UNHCR for the first time. Coaches sent by the non-governmental organization have been holding weekly football clinics and matches between the different communities. They have also distributed training bibs and more than 60 balls.
The team coaches explain the game to the players, but the aspiring soccer stars referee games by themselves, drawing on what they have learned. The whole experience teaches them about teamwork, discipline, rules, camaraderie and, of course, fair play. At the end of each session, they sit down and discuss the game.
"In this way, they link what they have experienced during the game with their daily lives and draw lessons for themselves and for the good of the community," said Hector Muñoz, one of the coaches.
The young have taken to the game with gusto, especially as it gives them space and recreation and helps them keep fit in an area that bears the scars of conflict.
The programme also promotes peaceful cooperation with neighbouring communities. For the first time in ages, children like 14-year-old Maria can play against youngsters from other villages and make new friends. "It is time to open new spaces and allow young people, especially those living in conflict zones, to play sport in their free time," said Munoz.
While none of Barcelona's star Premiera Liga players or coaches are directly involved in the programme, everyone taking part in the Fair Play initiative is immensely proud to be associated with the 2009 European champions.
"Although Barca plays very far away, we feel united with the European team," said coordinator Gustavo Gonzales, sporting an FC Barcelona shirt. The project will culminate in a football tournament in Selvas de Lipa in December.
"Our dream is that FC Barcelona will come to see us so we can show them not only how we play, but also how our way of life has changed [for the better] in this lost land," added Gonzales, who is a member of the Hitnü community.
Colombia's Constitutional Court last year listed 34 indigenous groups, including the remaining 500 or so Hitnü, as in danger of extinction and asked the government to take measures to protect them. In June last year, 86 Hitnü tribespeople fled their homes in Arauca after the assassination of a teacher.
Aside from the presence of illegal armed groups in their territory, the lives of the Hitnü are threatened by landmines and their young are at risk of forced recruitment. These dangers have restricted their freedom of movement, health, nomadic lifestyle and ability to hunt for food.
UNHCR and the FC Barcelona Foundation signed a cooperation agreement in 2008 aimed at promoting sport and education for refugee children and helping provide them with important life skills. The agreement, for an initial three years, has also been helping people in Ecuador, Rwanda and Nepal.
By Francesca Fontanini in Selvas de Lipa, Colombia