You may have heard us talking about the Casa Madre (in English, The Mother House), a gathering space for collective reflection and peacebuilding in Blanquita-Murrí. You may be wondering how we got here, what we are doing in Blanquita-Murrí, and why are we here.
Our First Visit to Blanquita-Murrí
We first came to Blanquita, Murrí in Frontino, Antioquia five years ago to meet the local community and hear their story. Shortly after, we started accompanying the Interethnic Commission for Peace of Blanquita-Murrí.
The Interethnic Commission for Peace was created in 2018 in the light of the 2016 peace agreement between the then-largest guerrilla group FARC-EP and the Colombian government. Under the slogans “three strands are stronger than one” and “peace is more than the silence of weapons”, the commission was formed to blend cultures and ideas — Afro-Colombian, Embera Eyabida and Campesina communities came together to co-create tactics for peaceful coexistence. Amongst them, former FARC fighters who arrived to the region after the signing of the peace treaties are also welcomed. Reconciliation plays an essential role in the collective construction of peace in Blanquita-Murrí. The Murrí region has suffered from the presence of illegal armed groups since the 1970s. Initially, it was mainly guerrilla groups. Then, paramilitaries arrived along with the state army. In the last three years, the latter two in particular have been active in the region along with an inadequate presence of civilian social state institutions has deeply impacted the area. Of the nearly 70 former FARC-EP fighters who originally settled in the region, more than 30 have already left, mostly due to violence, attacks and threats.
The Casa Madre is built
In the last few years, the Interethnic Commission for Peace, through countless meetings and discussions, has developed a guide towards a peaceful, collectively-oriented life. They call this guide their Plan de Vida (Plan for Life). This plan is intended to serve as a road map that can pave the way towards creating a dignified life for the inhabitants of the region in harmony with their environment, despite adverse circumstances. The long-term vision is to convert the entire territory, inhabited by about 10,000 indigenous people, small farmers and Afro-Colombians, into a protected, safe and peaceful space, transforming their territory itself into a “Casa Madre” (a Mother’s House) where one is safe and secure. Committing oneself to this is a dangerous undertaking in Colombia. Colombia, and in particular the department of Antioquia, is one of the areas with the highest killings of social leaders, human rights and environmental defenders in the world. For this very reason, non-violent protection mechanisms are essential for “Casa Madre”.
The project took years of planning and the construction of the house was seen as the planting of the first seed, which will grow over time into a bed of “peace seeds”. The Casa Madre – a roundhouse with a humanitarian character – is meant to serve as a meeting place for conversations around and for peace, as well as to serve the practice of collective farming to strengthen food sovereignty. These elements strengthen both community ties and food security, as well as provide a safe space in the case of threat, violence or conflict. The house was inaugurated on May 9.
“We had many discussions on how to name such a beautiful, important and significant place. In the end we wanted to call it ” Casa Madre”. […]. Casa Madre means a lot to us. In the center [for the opening] there is a figure that represents a uterus. The uterus is an organ that represents life. It is in us women, in our mothers […]. And today we are here. For us, Casa Madre means: our mother. She will protect us.”
-Blanca Bailarín, Supreme Authority of Embera Eyábida of Frontino, member of the Interethnic Commission for Peace
The Casa Madre intertwines three aspects that will create long term protection: the mother, the house, and the surrounding territory. Here, protection is created through strengthening community, fostering unity and providing a space to come together.
While the social construction and consolidation of these is an ongoing process, the building of the house is just the first step.
Construction plans took the importance of the surrounding territory into consideration as an essential element to creating lasting protection, as it is this surrounding territory that creates a foundation for the Casa Madre and its very existence, making the protection of the territory essential. This, however, is not an easy task, especially since gold has traditionally been mined in the area and copper is now to be explored as well. The land surrounding the Casa Madre is a heavily wooded, rain-fed high valley, crossed by rivers. Bamboo, which grows locally, was therefore used in the construction of the house.
Good air, forest, water and fertile land are basic requirements for a dignified habitat in harmony with the cultural needs of the resident population and to achieve a certain degree of food security. The Plan for Life aims at food security through food sovereignty in harmony with cultural diets, including traditional fishing, gathering and hunting, and small-scale organic farming. An organic garden where vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs are grown has been planted next to the house. A protected nearby wooded area will grow staple crops such as corn and beans. The seeds and seedlings will be spread and exchanged throughout the territory. An agroecological school is part of the long-term plan.
“I’m waiting for these cucumbers to grow, and I’m going to take seeds to my garden. The ones that grow here should also grow in my village.”
-Community member of Altos de Murrí who lives one day by horseback from the Casa Madre
Deepening Protection: Three strands of support
“We always talk about being three strands. When we come together, we are much stronger than one strand. But we’re not just three strands anymore, we’ve become much more if we count all the people and organizations that support us and join us.”
-Roundtable member and former FARC-EP fighter
The national human rights project, Comunidades por la vida (Communities for Life) of the Lutheran Church of Colombia (IELCO) has supported the Interethnic Commission in organizing efforts and has increased the visibility of its peace initiatives. FOR Peace Presence accompanies this work primarily with protective accompaniment and advocacy at the national and international levels. IELCO is also part of the national network SIZOCC (Interreligious Solidarity with Conflict Zones of Colombia) which also accompanies the Interethnic Commission. The Catholic religious sisters of “Madre Laura”, who have been on site for many years, are also part of this network of supporters.
An additional strand, composed of grassroots initiatives, further strengthens protection. Connecting with other grassroots processes is essential for the work of the community. Some of these organizations have decades of experience in nonviolent resistance. Links exist with both the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and San José de León and their lengthy experience helps to orient organizational development and the context-adapted development of collective protection measures against possible threats. Individual transfer of experiences between members of different resistance communities provides vital input for the development of new resistance strategies.
International organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Verification Mission for Peace and FORPP have also accompanied the Interethnic Commission for several years. While the UN Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accompanies the Interethnic Commission with workshops on human rights, international humanitarian law and civilian collective self-protection measures, the UN Verification Mission focuses on the reintegration of former FARC-EP fighters and the security of those former fighters and the communities that have received them.
FOR Peace Presence and FOR Austria contribute through physical accompaniment, advocacy and outreach. Community networking with stakeholders and other grassroots processes, in addition to supporting social construction, is a contribution to self-protection mechanisms for Casa Madre. These accompaniments add an additional piece of protection for Casa Madre. International attention towards the Interethnic Commission and its peace work aims to protect human rights and international humanitarian law.
Civil, national, state contributions to the security of Casa Madres remain uncertain. After chronic neglect in terms of constructive state intervention and the lack of implementation of the 2016 peace treaty during the last government’s term, a state policy of “total peace” was proclaimed by the center-left alliance that has been in power since 2022. This policy aims to implement the entirety of the peace treaty. This state policy is based on the concept of human security as well as built off multiple peace talks, coupled with a renewed attempt to implement land reform and improve integration and legal status for the rural population. It is hoped that these efforts will be reflected in increasing the presence of state institutions. While this would provide additional support for Casa Madre, it remains to be seen whether the regional power structures, traditional rope networks, corruption and lack of resources will allow for this.
In the first light of dawn, the delegation leaves for Blanquita-Murrí. Representatives of Interethnic Commission and the community of Altos de Murrí, as well as FOR Peace Presence, FOR Austria and companions of the project Comunidades por la Vida (Communities for Life) set out for Altos de Murrí shortly after the opening of Casa Madre. Altos de Murrí is the only Afro-Colombian community in Murrí territory. It is one of the most remote settlements represented in the interethnic Commission.
The physical and geographic location, along with the activities at the Casa Madre create a bed of cultivation – a place from which the seeds of collective, peaceful and safe coexistence can be distributed throughout the territory. In order to make the soil fertile for these seeds, the inhabitants of the entire region are prioritized.
The journey to Altos de Murrí is difficult and long. Due to lack of infrastructure, it is exhausting and dangerous, permitting few residents from Altos de Murrí to participate in the construction and opening of the Casa Madre. This is another reason why the delegation of the Interethnic Commission is making the journey. Guaranteeing the flow of information is an essential element in organizing grassroots groups based on nonviolence, especially in conflict zones where rumors and misinformation have far-reaching consequences and building trust is a delicate, long-term undertaking.
After several hours of horseback riding, passing through riverbeds and crossing six rivers – over bridges or through the water – the delegation reached the Gengamecodá River. Shimmering green water rapidly descends canyon-like narrows. The banks are connected by a suspension bridge built by local residents, which is only suitable for single passers who are not afraid of heights. The railing, which was still largely in place in 2020, no longer exists; two thin wire cords provide some support and various stepping stones are waiting for replacement.
The arrieros (muleteers) keep constant eye on the inexperienced delegation. On reaching the bridge, they begin to unsaddle the pack animals and mounts. Piece after piece, the muleteers bring everything across the bridge to the other bank.
Then, the animals cross. “Son aquáticos”, the locals explain. Indeed, the mules swim through the river in small groups before pushing up on the other bank.
It takes an hour until everything is saddled and loaded on the other bank. We continue on until the next river, the Penderisco. Twenty minutes later, we spot metal ropes blowing in the wind through the forest. They are the sole remains of an old suspension bridge. The bridge held for just one year until a flood swept along a giant tree, which destroyed the bridge.
The muleteers, once again, begin to unsaddle the mules. Piece after piece the muleteers bring everything to the other bank with a dugout canoe.
Finally, the delegation is brought in groups of two in the dugout across the turbulent river.
Now it is time for the horses to cross. “Son aquáticos” the locals explain. And, once again, they swim across the wide river.
From the arrival at the Penderisco River to the continuation of the ride, more than an hour passes again. The Penderisco and the Chaquenodá join after the crossing point to the Murrí River and, two hours downstream and ten hours after setting off, the delegation reaches its destination: Altos de Murrí.
Approximately sixty families live in Altos de Murrí. This lengthy route is their only option to get to the municipal capital. They depend on this journey, whether it is to go shopping, the doctor, or even to carry out official duties in Frontino, the capital city. Without bridges, the effort is disproportionate and dangerous. Moreover, on some days, the rivers carry so much water that they cannot be crossed at all without the bridges. Several indigenous villages located on the way to Altos de Murrí also share these conditions.
It is not only the inhabitants of Altos de Murrí that are eagerly awaiting the delegation. Many indigenous people and Afro-Colombians from surrounding settlements have also come. They are all eager for the meeting. Many have heard about the Interethnic Commission, some about Casa Madre. The ideas and expectations are very different.
The meeting place is overflowing, and only when the rain pattering on the corrugated iron roof calms down at night can the meeting begin. Three main topics are to be covered: What is the interethnic roundtable? What is Casa Madre? What has the Interethnic Commission achieved and what next common steps can be set.
Delegates receive complete attention from the audience. The concept of the Casa Madre – a civil meeting place, protective shelter, a breeding ground for peaceful coexistence – is a new concept for many.
When the Interethnic Commission came to Altos de Murrí for the first time in 2020 the number of malaria cases was very high. With the help of the Commission, a malaria health expert was permanently hired to provide both diagnosis and treatment on site. This was just one of the improvements that residents achieved together and is seen as a great improvement in the quality of life. The Commission is yet another opportunity to work together for the common good.
At the meeting, plans are made and priorities are set. The construction of river bridges is a top priority. Inhabitants in both Altos de Murrí and the surrounding indigenous villages would benefit greatly. Without them, many children are not able to attend school, and evacuation due to sickness or injury is time-consuming and difficult. Education is another important pillar in the Plan de Vida (Plan for Life) and the renovation of the outdated school of Altos de Murrí is another demand.
These meetings themselves are a very great achievement. The conversation between former FARC-EP fighters, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians and peasant farmers – all inhabitants of the territory – shifts to how best to apply specific rights and access resources for the common plan of life. There is an attempt to prepare together the ground for the seeds of Casa Madre.