21 October 2015
“The policies of the state have always been aimed at violence, because for the governments of Colombia maintaining the war is business. It’s beneficial to big businessmen, so it’s a very big challenge, it’s a process that will take many years. Hopefully one day we will see peace, but I think there are lots of obstacles”.
So speaks Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, a peasant farmer from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, a community in the North-West region of Urabá that declared themselves ‘neutral’ in the five-decade Colombian internal armed conflict in 1997. This ‘neutrality’ was a strategy to try to protect themselves and remain on their land amidst violence and chaos as the FARC guerrilla (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) battled against the Colombian army and right-wing paramilitaries, and all three made use of rural civilians as pawns and resources in their war.
The Peace Community
I have been visiting the Peace Community and talking to members about how they perceive national-level political developments for over four years. As part of my research as an anthropologist, I have been talking to them about the peace process which began in October 2012 between the FARC and the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018).
The Peace Community is comprised of some 900 farmers who live in eleven settlements scattered across the low parts of the Abibe mountain range, seven in the department of Antioquia and four in the department of Córdoba. The settlements are between two hours and two days’ walk or mule-ride from each other. They are one of the groups that have suffered the most human rights violations in Colombia. They have lived through massacres, multiple forced displacements, selective assassinations of leaders and stigmatisation in local and national press. In contrast to three previous failed attempts to negotiate with the FARC, the current peace process has emphasised the importance of including as protagonists the more than seven million victims of the armed conflict (about 15 percent of the population). This emphasis has been celebrated as ground-breaking by many NGOs and international bodies and has set the bar for future models of conflict resolution around the world. Additionally, the first partial agreement on agrarian reform, published by the parties in May 2013, stipulates the need for a “territorial approach” in order to address differentially the needs in the regions of Colombia and permit community participation in the formulation of development policies.
But how much of what goes on at top level politics filters down to the people who are supposed to benefit? The sceptical narratives that I have heard from many members of the Peace Community, reflect the common perceptions of many victims’ groups and other sectors of society around the country.
The persistence of the paramilitaries
One of the concerns of Jesús Emilio and others from his community is that although a peace accord would make their lives safer because they would no longer risk being caught in crossfire when they go to farm their land, the paramilitary structures would still exist, and would still be at the service of the economic interests of the state and multinational businesses. The region of Urabá has been afflicted since the 1980s by violent abuses of human rights by the right-wing AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – United Self-defence Forces of Colombia). The AUC often collaborated with the army, imposing a reign of terror and quasi-military control. The government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) led a demobilisation process in 2003-6, which has been widely criticised by social movements and the international human rights community. Many of the paramilitary structures continue to exist, albeit mutated in different ways in each region, and one of the Peace Community’s most frequently expressed concerns is the threats that they receive from the inheritors of these structures.
Mistrust of the army is another element that causes fear. Many of the threats the Peace Community denounce are worded in such a way as to suggest that the paramilitaries continue to maintain their alliance with the Seventeenth Brigade of the Army, which has jurisdiction in their territory. The truth of this claim is not the point: this is a strongly-rooted perception that feeds the mistrust of the Community for an army which has in the recent past been responsible for massacres and other violations, in collaboration with paramilitaries. Convincing the Peace Community that the army has changed is going to be a tall order.
One member of the Community told me in May that his son had gone to work in his cocoa plantation and had crossed paths with a group of soldiers who told him that they didn’t want the FARC to demobilise because if the war ended, they would lose their jobs. They wrote on one of the cocoa trees, “guerrilleros, no se demovilicen”.
Urabá is a geographically isolated region where, ever since independence, the civil state institutions have been barely present. In the rural mountains and jungle where the Peace Community have their settlements, the only state presence they see regularly is the Armed Forces. The Community’s perception of the state is largely based on what they see of the army, which has been trained with a mentality of war, not of peace-building. A phrase I hear often in the Community is, “they are over there talking about peace, but here on the ground they keep violating human rights, and so what peace are they talking about?” One of the principles of the negotiations in Havana is that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, which means that implementation will not start until all the points on the six-point agenda have been covered. However there is a view commonly held throughout Colombia that the state is hypocritical because while it is making a grand media show about peace, it hasn’t changed anything yet on the ground.
Threatened by development
Finally, the Peace Community is worried about development. The Abibe mountain range is covered in virgin forest, home to birds and animals, interspersed with little farmsteads with subsistence crops and small-scale cattle farming. “This land grows anything”, they say, “it’s so fertile”. They also believe that there may be coal and mineral deposits in their land which multinationals would want to exploit. They have heard about companies being complicit in human rights violations in other parts of Colombia such as Chiquita Brands in Urabá and Drummond in César. This, together with the history of persecution by the state and paramilitaries, makes them fear that the Santos government’s national development policy, which puts extractive mining at its centre, means that the state, together with paramilitaries, will forcibly displace them from their land, in order to extract valuable minerals or establish agro-industrial projects.
It is understandable, given all they have suffered, that the Peace Community has an interpretative framework which means that they perceive all national-level politics, including the peace process, with suspicion. If the state is to implement the “territorial approach” agreed in the agrarian reform accord, state officials at national and local levels will have to be sensitive to the profound mistrust that this Community and many other groups of victims have in its good will and work to build meaningful civic relationships.
Last week I attended a ‘Peace Breakfast’ organised by transnational civil society network Rodeemos el Diálogo, in which twenty people, middle class Colombians, foreigners like myself, people who were knowledgeable about the peace process and others who just wanted more information, listened to Carlos Fernández who works at RedProdepaz, an organisation which has been involved in organising regional encounters together with the government’s High Commissioner’s Office for Peace. The breakfast included organic hot chocolate which I supply to Lapingachos, the restaurant where these Peace Breakfasts are held, from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in order to help the Community economically and also to raise awareness about the Community among urban communities interested in peace-building.
Carlos told us that these regional encounters aim to communicate to local communities and organisations what’s going on in the peace process and the implications for them, and hear their concerns. Communities across the country echo the narratives of the Peace Community: the continuance of paramilitary structures; negative experiences of partial or unsuccessful demobilisations; misinformation about the peace process; clashes between local and national visions of development; fear that the government will impose mining projects without respecting the communities’ right to decide about the use of their land; and mistrust of local authorities and politicians because of corruption. It is not common for the Colombian government to make alliances with NGO platforms, and I was impressed by Carlos’ sensitivity to local perceptions and concerns.
‘Reconciliation’ is the buzzword of the moment in Colombia. It commonly refers to two parallel processes: firstly, making reparations to the seven million victims of the armed conflict (currently ongoing under the charge of the government’s Victims’ Unit, though it faces many challenges); and secondly, the demobilisation and reintegration of guerrilla fighters into civil society.
However, there is arguably another essential component of peace-building in Colombia, as opposed to the negotiations between the government and FARC to end the armed conflict: social reconciliation between ordinary middle class Colombians living in the cities, such as the participants in the Peace Breakfast, and rural victims, such as the Peace Community. Many city-dwellers have never met a rural victim in their lives, and have no idea of what they have experienced. Many Peace Community members are mistrustful of bogotanos, preferring instead to build strategic alliances with the international community.
As a society polarised by war, in Colombia the gulf between city and countryside has been magnified. Peace-building means trying to bridge these gaps to some extent. Farmers, business-owners, ex-combatants, students and families from across the country must be able to sit down together and recognise one another as legitimate partners in the construction of a new nation-project.
‘Peace Chocolate’, a regular feature in the ‘Peace Breakfasts’, is a tiny example of building bridges across these gulfs. Hopefully, civil society will increasingly set its own stamp upon the peace process, expanding it beyond the resolution of the armed conflict between the state and the FARC, to become a broad and participatory process of social reconciliation, in which a new society can be built based on values of peace, and not of war.
Main image: The Peace Community conmemorates every year an emblematic massacre by military and paramilitary troops on 21st February 2005 in the settlement of Mulatos. All photos: Gwen Burnyeat
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.