7th February 2016

“Conversation is a social practice that has been one of the victims of the armed conflict. Because there are many conversations that have been dominated by all of the armed actors, and even more conversations that have been silenced.” – Carlos Chica.

The Colombian peace process has started the new year with huge strides:

Meanwhile, Colombian civil society is not sitting back doing nothing. They are having ‘The Biggest Conversation in the World, a government initiative to link together and make visible the thousands of forums, demonstrations, seminars, conferences, public dialogues, workshops, classroom discussions, concerts and online debates about peace in Colombia, under one umbrella. Transnational group Rodeemos el Diálogo, who have been having weekly ‘peace breakfasts’ in Bogotá for two years, hosted Carlos Chica and Alejandra Villamizar from the Presidential team running the initiative and asked them to explain this ambitiously titled project.

Conversation has been one of the victims of the conflict

Carlos said: “To converse, in its Greek roots, means to live and dialogue with others; dialogue in the Aristotelian sense, meaning to persuade with reliable arguments. We must start to value the art of conversation. Conversation is a social practice that has been one of the victims of the armed conflict. Because there are many conversations that have been dominated by all of the armed actors, and even more conversations that have been silenced.”

Carlos and Alejandra were keen to emphasise that it was not about a government appropriation of civil society initiatives. “We are simply making an effort to raise the volume of thousands of conversations which are taking place every day in this country about peace,” explained Carlos. Alejandra added that it was not about defending President Santos, or persuading people about the relevance of the agreements being made in Havana. “It is, however, a scenario to persuade people of the importance of dialogue as a means of peaceful conflict resolution”.

They emphasised that people who were sceptical or even against the peace process should take part in the ‘Biggest Conversation in the World’. “We have to engage the sceptics,” Carlos said, “and above all, those who are indifferent. As Pope Francisco said in January this year, indifference is the greatest threat to peace.” This is especially significant given that the final deal will be put to a vote by the Colombian people in a referendum, and electoral indifference could endanger the legitimacy of the accords. The simple fact that a project exists which emphasizes the importance of conversation about peace, is a provocation to dialogue, in a positive sense.

Carlos explained that the ‘Biggest Conversation in the World’ was not intended to disseminate the Havana peace accords. Educating Colombians about the agreements was important, he said, but there were many organisations already doing that – including the governmental Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, international NGOs and grassroots organisations. It was meant to transcend Havana and the agreements, and transform society in such a way that people could learn to resolve conflict and accept differences through peaceful discussion.

What to do about hatred of the FARC?

“For example,” said Carlos, “what are we going to do with the nationwide hatred of the FARC? Intricate knowledge of the texts of the agreements won’t help. There is a culturally ingrained belief that they are the only bad guys in Colombia.” A striking comment, perhaps, from a government official. The Conversation goes beyond Havana into the cultural practices of daily life in Colombia which are affected by and contribute to the reproduction of violence. Alejandra said, “Many people promote tolerance, until we have to talk to intolerant people.” Carlos added, “This conflict has moulded the way we relate to each other. There are perverse ways of relating in this society and we have to start talking about that.”

Civil society group Rodeemos el Diálogo has for three years been promoting the need to cultivate a culture of dialogue as a method of civilian peace-building. After hearing Carlos and Alejandra’s presentation, the meeting was opened for discussion: this, at least, was a space in which the art of conversation was already practiced at a sophisticated level. People had many questions – how was the Biggest Conversation in the World going to reach the most remote and forgotten settlements in the country? What about the areas in which the conflict was still part of daily reality, how would the people in those areas be able to ‘converse’ in the midst of fear? How was the ‘Conversation’ going to include the media? One person confessed to being a sceptic about the real chances of peace, another person said she had been indifferent about the conflict but since joining Rodeemos el Diálogo had become an enthusiast for the importance of the peace process.

I asked what strategies they were going to use. Alejandra said, “The Conversation already exists. Many different people and organisations are already having them. If there’s already an organised conversation of some kind to do with provoking reflection about peace, that can be part of the Conversation.” She explained that the ‘Biggest Conversation in the World’ can offer public exposure to different events and initiatives, offer its logo, and if organisers choose they can have bits of their conversation transmitted on the Conversation’s media channels. Conversation can send people from the Presidency if organisers want them to be there, but “we don’t have to participate, it’s not about being appropriated by government”. They offer an online kit which provides various different possibilities, including teaching materials, help for local organisers choose and invite a guest speaker, and access to media coverage. There is also an online platform to which people can upload photos, videos, songs and participate in online forums. “The idea is to have a common experience,” said Alejandra, “Because we’ve had the common experience of war. But this experience is built through conversation”.

No top-down manipulation

Carlos added, “We don’t want to manipulate these discussions. The methodologies and main topics of the Conversations depend on the individual groups taking part. This country is full of creative methodologies. There are organisations already on the ground in the regions who know the people, know their concerns, we just want to link things up.”

Rodeemos el Diálogo. Photo: Gwen BurnyeatRodeemos el Diálogo were one of the pioneers in the development of dialogue spaces in Colombia. A country with a vibrant history of social movements, many groups have been discussing peace, politics and human rights for decades; but usually from specific ideological perspectives, not necessarily for the purpose of incorporating difference and learning to listen to the ‘other’. But it has become increasingly clear that civil society, as well as having had responsibilities in the perpetuation of the armed conflict – whether through paying extortion, being indifferent or benefitting from it economically – must play a definitive role in the transformation of a country from one in which a delicate bilateral ceasefire is finally achieved (no mean feat), to one where peace is ingrained in the day-to-day culture.

What is new about the ‘Biggest Conversation in the World’ is that the government has caught on to the importance of supporting dialogue as a mechanism of talking across political and social chasms, and is trying to find ways of helping these practices flourish, without taking ownership or imposing a political agenda.

Carlos concluded, “The Biggest Conversation in the World is a powerful tool to transform a society. To develop and identify leaders. To join people up. To allow individual and isolated conversations to converge and link together. To develop empathy; a human trait that we have lost in the war, the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. Conversation is a vehicle in which different perceptions of reality can be put on the table, and allow us to understand that reality is not absolute”.

What is happening in Colombia is unique. The convergence of the national political agenda with conversations amongst ordinary people and the development of a language that places dialogue at the core of political and social practice, is an extraordinary expression of what it means to strive for real democracy. It won’t be perfect, but the idea sets the bar high and encourages active citizenship. Something that could be a lesson to societies all over the world.

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’.

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Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book 'Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia' (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary 'Chocolate of Peace'. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International.