In Colombia, the real work of peacebuilding begins now

A rally calling for the release of community leader Álvaro Garcia in El Guyabo. (Christian Peacemaker Teams)

Edinson Garcia, president of the Community Action Committee of El Guayabo calls for the release of community member Alvaro Garcia at a demonstration in front of the court in Barrancabermeja on May 5, 2016. (CPT/Caldwell Manners)

The peace agreement signed on August 24 in Colombia, which ends a 52-year-long conflict between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, marks an end of a violent era in Colombia’s history. Many Colombians are celebrating, and the nation’s president has declared, in a New York Times editorial, that there is now no war in the Western Hemisphere.

This is very good news. Yet as poor, rural Colombians know, the reality is much more complex, and the work of building a just and enduring peace is only beginning.

Leave aside the obvious: Colombia’s second-largest guerilla group, the much smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, has not signed a peace deal. Likewise, the peace deal with the FARC must survive a national referendum vote on October 2, where its opponents will include former President Alvaro Uribe.

Such hurdles exist at the highest, and most obvious, levels of politics. Yet Colombian violence also persists at the granular — and often invisible — level of daily life in rural farming communities. That’s because the nation’s violence has always gone beyond “traditional” warfare between armed groups, and because it has never been only about the Cold War ideological conflict that once fueled insurgencies throughout Latin America. Instead, it’s also about control of Colombia’s lucrative resources — especially land.

Committed to nonviolence, Christian Peacemaker Teams, or CPT, is an international accompaniment organization that partners with local human rights activists and communities in resistance. In Colombia, CPT supports local struggles by using its international network to amplify local voices and advocate on their behalf. Furthermore, CPT offers protective physical presence to individuals and communities that face threats of death and violence.

Such accompaniment has long served as one way to protect Colombian human rights organizations and activists who endure death threats, murders, and clandestine “disappearances” on a daily basis. Between 1994 and 2014, 745 human rights activists were murdered in Colombia, according to the United Nations.

In order to make room for their work in the midst of vicious oppression, Colombian human rights activists have invited groups like Peace Brigades International, Witness For Peace, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, FOR Peace Presence and Christian Peacemaker Teams to partner with them. While each organization is different in its strategies and philosophies around the work of accompaniment, they have all stood alongside Colombia human rights defenders as they work for peace.

For the last 15 years, CPT has built partnerships to transform violence and oppression by accompanying rural communities in the middle part of the Magdalena River valley, a region with oil, lucrative mineral deposits, and valuable agricultural land, among other resources.

Its partners, however, are small farmers, raising subsistence crops like corn, beans and bananas, as well as modest amounts of cash crops, like cacao (the raw material for chocolate). They live in villages of wood-plank and tin-roofed homes, accessible by rough dirt paths and motorized canoes.

There is much money to be made in converting their subsistence plots into agribusiness plantations. To take perhaps the most important example in the part of Colombia where CPT operates, wealthy individuals, organizations and businesses covet the region’s farmland for mono-crop plantations of oil palm trees. The mono-cropped trees produce palm oil — a type of vegetable oil that is used as an ingredient in roughly half the products in an average grocery store, from make-up to packaged cookies.

Producing palm oil is very lucrative. The trick, of course, is to get control of the land to grow the trees.

In the past, gaining control of campesinos’ lands in the middle of Magdalena meant using extra-legal violence. Right-wing paramilitary groups, usually (if unofficially) allied with government forces, fought against left-wing insurgents. Caught in the middle, farming communities faced constant threats. Their crops were destroyed and their houses burned. Many were killed and disappeared.

As a result, Colombia currently has more that 6 million internally displaced people — roughly as many as Syria. The majority fled rural areas for cities, like Bogotá and Medellín.

Previous steps for reform, like the Victims and Land Restitution Law of 2012, have promised to restore displaced people to their land. Yet the system has rarely worked as advertised. Undermined by a lack of political will, the process works at a brutally slow pace. In some cases, the wealthy and well-connected have also used it as a tool to acquire “legal” title to lands — often based on fraudulent claims of victimhood.

Such fraudulent manipulations are part of the issue in El Guayabo, a community of 250 families that CPT accompanies. According to community testimony, in 2013, a man named Rodrigo Henao appeared in El Guayabo, claiming land that the community had worked for 30 years. Upon entering the region, Henao claimed that his father had fled the area during the 1980s, displaced by the community and the guerillas.

The community, however, has shown that it had no ties to guerilla movements and that the elder Henao abandoned the land for financial reasons.

On the other hand, the Henao family has attempted to seize El Guyabo’s lands before. In the early 2000s, community members report, Rodrigo Henao came to town with soldiers from one of Colombia’s most lethal paramilitary groups. The community survived the incident, but it continues to face death threats and police harassment.

Rodrigo continues to use violence to attempt to acquire the land. The community has reported various attacks on homes and crops — all without response from the authorities. Taking matters into their own hands, the community continues to organize. They have used nonviolent direct actions to retake the land. They have hired lawyers and filed official complaints with local and national authorities. They held vigil outside the mayor’s office and marched through the street demanding that their land be respected. These actions have been successful but come with a cost.

Recently, authorities have imprisoned one community leader, Álvaro Garcia, and issued warrants for three others — all on fake charges intended to intensify the pressure to abandon the struggle. It is a strategy used regularly in Colombia to paralyze grassroots communities. Communities get embroiled in complicated criminal cases and spend valuable resources to keep individuals out of jail rather than organizing to defend the land that they are being displaced from.

The new peace accord offers a foundation to build a peace centered on justice. In addition to addressing the drug trade and promising broadened political participation, the agreement promises rural development and land reform. Specifically, it creates a land bank, which will be in charge of giving titles to farmers and allocating land to those who have none, or not enough. Such steps would mean the possibility of a legal land title — a dream for so many Colombian farmers, including the people of El Guayabo.

Such promises are cause for hope — but the peace agreement is not perfect. Critics rightly note that it doesn’t go far enough to address the devastating effects of free market capitalism — which is the force that ultimately makes places like El Guayabo so valuable, and so tempting, to those with money, power and connections. For example, the agreement does not touch policies and laws that favor multinational corporations that mono-crop palm, mine gold or extract other resources for the global market.

Nonetheless, the agreement marks something that Colombians haven’t experienced in over 50 years — a commitment to stop killing each other. This alone offers new spaces for Colombia’s social movements to do their work.

Already, justice organizations are educating communities on the details of the peace process to help people vote responsibly. Around the country, trainings are teaching everyday Colombians how to document violations of the agreement. Others are planning to have a presence close to the areas where the FARC are demobilizing, aiming to provide spiritual and psychological accompaniment.

Will the accords bring peace to Colombia and return land back to thousands of communities like Guayabo? The proof will be in the pudding.

That is the work of building peace, which is harder than making war.

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