For ten days in March 2015, FOR Peace Presence had the privilege of hosting a delegation from the Pacific School of Religion. On paper, the delegation consisted of 13 university students from a grant program known as the Changemaker Fellows and their professor from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. In person, the delegation was a dynamic and receptive group of individuals, eager to open their hearts and minds to some of Colombia’s most devastating realities.
The motivations for doing delegations are manifold. When we talk about the accompaniment we do at Peace Presence, we are usually referring to three main components: physical accompaniment, political accompaniment, and solidarity building. Hosting delegations helps us with each of these elements. By bringing delegates to the spaces and communities we accompany, we are leveraging our partners’ profiles and thereby increasing their security—this makes the deterrence we provide with our physical presence even more powerful. Political accompaniment is about increasing the visibility of marginalized populations and shifting the power structures that so often leave them voiceless. For us, delegations are powerful tools for opening more political space for our partners’ voices to be heard. Finally, there is solidarity building. As accompaniers, we are constantly moved, humbled, and awed by the stories we hear in our work. When we invite delegates into the field to hear these stories firsthand, an intimate link is built between people previously strangers. Our Colombian partners now know that they are not alone in their struggles for justice and dignity, and delegates return to their homes with a deep human connection to those struggles and concrete action plans for supporting them.
The PSR delegation dove right into the issues that define our work at FOR Peace Presence. On their first day, delegates met with Johana Rocha from Tierra Digna—a collective of mainly lawyers working for the promotion and defense of communities affected by economic policies that lead to human rights violations, which FOR Peace Presence has accompanied for several years. Johana talked about the displacement of rural communities driven by multinational corporations and commonly facilitated by paramilitaries. She explained how dire the situation currently is, and also gave some frightening projections for the future: while currently only 3-4% of Colombian territory is being exploited, within 30 years the number is expected to grow to over 60%. RECALCA (Colombian Action Network Facing Free Trade) gave further insight to the role of existing and upcoming international trade agreements in Colombian development plans and their adverse effects on many Colombian communities. The delegation was appalled and alarmed by the devastating reach of economic powers and the extractive industries, but their admiration of the Colombian defenders’ breathed life into their hope for a brighter future.
Before leaving Bogotá to head to northern Colombia, the Pacific School of Religion shared a deep discussion with the human rights lawyer and feminist peace activist Nancy Fiallo about topics including the racial dynamics of international accompaniment and ongoing problems in the prosecution of paramilitarism. The conversation shifted later to Colombia’s culture of militarism and practices of forced recruitment as the delegates had the opportunity to spend time with Mario Cardozo of ACOOC—the country’s first legally recognized conscientious objector on nonreligious ground. The delegates left the encounters feeling energized by the vibrancy of resistance in Colombia and eager to process all their new contextual insight. To bridge these insights with the realities rural communities all around Colombia face, the students met with various representatives of CONPAZ, a coalition of currently 122 communities who are building peace in and from their territories. With the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission, the Changemaker delegates, who are dedicated to social change and spirituality, were able to discuss the roles of liberation theology and Christian institutional churches in resistance movements as well as in the violence persisting in Colombia.
Later during the immersion, the delegation traveled to the community of Boquerón in Cesar, where we at FOR Peace Presence regularly accompany Tierra Digna. In Boquerón, delegates were able to witness what active extraction does to communities, as the region has already been subject to the arrival of various large companies over the last 20 years, including US-based Drummond Co. Inc. Even the US investment banking company Goldman Sachs owns and operates mines in the region. These companies practice open-pit coal mining—one of the most environmentally destructive forms of mining—almost entirely for export to the United States and Europe. In 2010, a government-commissioned study revealed that coal dust particles in the atmosphere had exceeded livable limits in the area.
Deemed unfit for human habitation, Boquerón was mandated for evacuation or forced displacement. Companies operating in the region were given two years to negotiate the conditions and resettle the villages. While the community of Boquerón is suffering everyday more and more from the pollution of air and soil, negotiations regarding the conditions of resettlements, which are to be held with the companies operating in the area, have not moved forward. Beyond alerting the delegates about the harsh realities the habitants of Boquerón are facing, community leaders shared their serious concerns about the fact that the communities’ deep rootedness in Afro-Colombian culture has not been recognized by the state, thus meaning that specific rights guaranteed by the Colombian constitution to Afro-Colombian communities have not been implemented.
Along with FOR Peace Presence, the delegation then traveled to Tamarindo in Atlántico, where we work with a community organized as ASOTRACAMPO. As in Boquerón, delegates heard directly from community leaders of Tamarindo, such as Juan Martinez, about their fights in the face of displacement related to free trade agreement policies. For the Pacific School of Religion, this was the second visit to Tamarindo. A year ago, a different group of PSR delegates witnessed the devastating results of eviction that had just happened on Tamarindo only days prior to the delegation’s arrival. One year later, many of the evicted community members have found shelter at friends’ and neighbors’ homes in the Temporal Humanitarian Space El Mirador, which has faced threats of further displacement throughout the last year and has been continuously supported by Changemaker Fellows’ letters and calls to Colombian and diplomatic authorities. The visit was an intimate and powerful part of the delegation, as delegates shared not only stories, but food, housing, music, tears, and embraces with community members.
While on the coast, the delegation also met with Edwin Nemes of Corporación Caribe Afirmativo and participated in the launching of Corporación Caribe Afirmativo’s annual report. Edwin and the Changemakers bonded as they talked about the struggles of the LGBTI community in northern Colombia. Many of the delegates recognized common experiences in their own lives and work—they also recognized the elevated physical dangers of being queer in Colombia.
On their final afternoon in Bogotá, the delegation had a meeting with Adam Lenert from the US Embassy. After an internal process in which the delegates reviewed all of the concerns they had confronted, the Changemaker Fellows guided Adam through a precise and pointed agenda. Critically, the delegates presented a clear set of ‘asks’: thus delineating specific desired outcomes from the meeting. Once the session wrapped up, the delegates and FOR Peace Presence discussed what we will all do for follow-up—both for the embassy meeting and for the visit as a whole.
For us as an organization, delegations have the additional benefit of challenging us to slow down and think really critically about the work we do: Who are we? What do we do? Why does it matter? These are questions we must consider when we present ourselves and our partners and accompanied organizations to delegates. Likewise, we want to challenge delegates to slow down and think really critically about the experiences they are having: Why are they here? How is what they are seeing in Colombia relevant to their lives back home? What can they do to remain engaged? We at FOR Peace Presence know that we learned and grew during the delegation, and we are confident that the delegates did as well. The story, however, is not over. When we hugged everyone goodbye at the airport, in many ways it was just the beginning of our delegation work. Now is the time for us to make sure that we maximize the delegation’s impact on the ground here in Colombia. Likewise, the delegates will organize to in the US to advocate for the people they met and to stay connected with the fight of Colombians for life, dignity, and justice.