Colombia Holds National ‘Peace Congress’ To Find Solution To Conflict*
by William Lloyd George
19 August 2011
Over 15,000 Colombians descended on the oil rich city of Barrancabermeja in Central Colombia to attend a national ‘Peace Congress’. The slogan for the meeting was, ‘dialogue is the path’, and was attended by communities across the country who have been severely affected by the ongoing conflicts.
The meeting was attended by campesinos, or peasant farmers, members of the afro-colombian community and indigenous leaders from throughout the country. They all came hoping to find peace in their territories, which have destroyed by decades of fighting.
The main source of grief has come from fighting between the state military and FARC guerrillas who have been at war since the 1960s. The leftist rebel army claims to work as a bulwark against Colombia’s ruling class but has since been criticised for losing its original ideology.
For many of the communities another source of problems came from paramilitaries who were originally formed by the government and businessmen as an alleged form of protection from left-wing armed groups. They have since gained control of regions and are notorious for social cleansing, displacement and extra-judicial killings.
The meeting was centred around a local recreational centre, where different communities took it in turns to present the situations in their communities and discuss potential ‘paths to peace’. Dotted nearby, around the centre, big tents were set up where communities spoke about land, resources and other issues in the sweltering heat.
Barrancabermeja was a symbolic meeting place. The oil rich region has been home to paramilitaries for decades who have been accused of social cleansing and displacing communities to pave the way for oil companies. At the same time, the guerrillas have constantly tried to make their presence known by blowing up parts of oil refineries, kidnapping oil workers and attacking paramilitary and state military camps.
One community, which knows all too well about the problems the region faces, is nearby Port Matilda where about 30 local leaders travelled from. Due to the high presence of paramilitaries and guerrillas, the group required international escorts to safely leave their town to attend the meeting.
“Without the international escorts it would have been far too dangerous for us to come,” says Carlos Enrique Martinez Pulgarín, a leader from the community. He lists over 20 leaders from his community who have been killed for standing up against the armed groups. Sometimes, he says, innocent leaders are killed when wrongly accused of being guerrillas, or state informers.
“We came here to demand respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in the countrysides,” says Carlos. “We are joining people from all over Colombia, to release a statement to the world to let them know that we want a peaceful solution to the conflict after so many decades of war and suffering.”
Together with the rest of the communities they called on the government to provide more social investment in the rural areas, which they argue have been forgotten. They say the government must be more concerned with social development in order to give more ‘dignity’ to the rural communities.
“Every peasant, every indigenous, every Afro-Colombian deserves to live with dignity, we don’t want anything else, we don’t want to be rich, all we ask is to have necessities and live with basic human rights and dignity in our communities,” says Carlos, sitting at the back of one the discussions.
Carlos blamed natural resources and oil companies for fuelling the conflict. He criticised a national law, which states that everything below 25cm belongs to the state. As a result, oil companies, with the aid of security groups – often paramilitaries – will take land away, which often armed groups will fight over and kill any civilians who stand up to them.
“There is no private property in Colombia,” says Carlos. “When there is wealth and exploitation of resources, there is security and the huge presence of armed groups, not only the state ones but also the illegal ones, severely affects our lives.”
While some rural communities have managed to hold on to their land, countless others have been displaced by the conflict. Elena Hinestoza, an Afro-Colombian community and part of a social organisation called Intergracion Pacifica is one of over a million estimated to have been displaced.
She was driven off her land three years ago, from a valley in Cauca province to a slum on the outsides of Cali, in Southern Colombia. She says that in the cities it is very difficult for them to live because it is dangerous and they are living in cultures and environments they are not used to.
“This meeting is very important for Afro-Colombians because we are most affected by the conflict and live in remote regions,” she said, sitting at the back of the meeting with her colleagues. “We hope that this meeting will find peace in our country and we start to see positive changes”.
“If we do not find a solution to the conflict soon, then I believe the afro-colombian communities will eventually die out,” she added.
According to Nasa leader Feliciano Valencia, a representative for the indigenous communities the meeting is a massive achievement. “We are seeing people from all over the country uniting in spot and organising themselves to call for peace”.
The three different communities – peasant farmers, afro-colombian and indigenous – form the Cimitrra Valley Campesino Association, which was created to organise communities against displacement. The group won the 2010 peace prize for its efforts and was the organiser of the peace congress.
At the meeting leaders of the FARC guerrillas made video announcements to the audience. They said they still supported a political solution and stood by the meeting’s slogan, ‘dialogue is the path’.
While representatives from Santos’ government were scheduled to attend, they pulled out at the last minute. Santos later said that the FARC’s statements were not a reliable test of their willingness to lay down their arms.
After the meeting a vibrant march was led around the town. The chants were loud, clear and called for all armed groups to leave their territories.
“We are fed up with the way the government is dealing with the conflict so have come here to make it known publicly,” said Juan, a 22-year-old student who travelled from Bogota to attend the event. “They need to change, otherwise soon our country will be destroyed.”
The march ended in a football stadium where the meeting’s statement was read aloud. It called for a change of government policy towards the conflict, which they believe has failed, demilitarization of civilian territory, and a peaceful dialogue to be started between all armed groups.
Part of the statement read out received applause from the audience:
“We reject governmental policies that during the last decade have been implemented in our country to promote an economic model that propitiates the intensive exploitation of our territories and natural resources, favours transnational corporations and economic groups, accentuates conflicts for land and the struggle for territory, encourages new processes forced displacement, radically worsens social processes and compromises our conditions of sovereignty and food security. This economic model destroys peasant economy, the indigenous and afro-descendant communities’ territories and produces a scaling up of the social and armed conflicts that oppresses our country.”
While the communities will go back to their dangerous communities with no signs that the armed groups will listen to their demands, many are content that the foundations of a nationwide movement have started. “This is just the beginning of a positive change for our country,” said Feliciano Valencia.
* First published in Upside Down World