After a four-hour jeep ride through thick forest and passing over waterfalls, the valley of Blanquita-Murrí, Frontino, Antioquia opened up in front of us. Wide forests and grasslands surrounded the main settlement of the high mountain plain, which is the hub for the various communities which populate this rural district.
A very diverse area, the total population of about 8500 people includes: thirty indigenous communities grouped into seven reserves of the Embera Eyábada nation, seven Afro-Colombian communities who share a collective land title, and seven campesino (small-scale farming) communities. Throughout these communities, over seventy ex-combatants of the FARC have settled in Blanquita-Murrí since the signing of the Peace Accords between the FARC-EP and the government in 2016.
While visiting Blanquita-Murrí with community workers from the post-agreement project “de la guerra a la Paz” (from war to Peace) we met with the interethnic roundtable, which is an initiative of the different communities of the region to strengthen interconnectedness and construct peace. The interethnic roundtable has met regularly since November of 2018. Lately, its members have been working on a “plan de vida” (plan for life). As a form of community empowerment, this process includes a characterization of the population and the territory so that they can design their own projects for infrastructure, education, and health care and alike. This demonstrates the kind of long term planning which is considered an essential part of the authentic construction of peace.
But on August 8th, 2019, tragedy struck. Three people were killed in a dispute between armed groups over territorial control, one of whom was a sixteen year-old boy from one of the thirty local indigenous communities, who happened to be in the town at the time of the attack.
In response to the attack, the governor of Antioquia Luis Pérez said, ”These areas are full of coca. After the ex-combatants arrived, it started to become an area where even the residents can’t go. They are areas in control of delinquents with a criminal interest.” The governor further mentioned that certain authorities “recommended that Blanquita, where there are demobilized (guerrillas), candidates for elected office should not go, because the situation is complicated.” This is a dangerous stigmatization of the ex-combatants specifically and the civil population of Blanquita-Murrí more generally.
The civilian population of the zone has suffered violence throughout Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. In 1996, there was massive displacements in which almost everyone left, and some inhabitants never returned. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s they were stigmatized as being part of illegal armed groups, which led to violence and fueled the armed conflict. The community does not want to return to that.
In the midst of fear and anxiety, which we felt during our visit, the interethnic roundtable sent an open letter to the governor with the following demands:
On the last day of our visit, we shared chorizo and arepas with our friends from “de la guerra a la Paz” as people passed by on the way to work. We shared laughs and at the same time we feel a tense seriousness, which we attribute to the challenges they have to face. Despite the challenges, they remain optimistic that the interethnic roundtable and the plan for life – an attempt to sew social fabric in the midst of war – can contribute to a future without stigmatization and violence.
In early August, we were able to travel with our partner Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) to Bajo Calima and the San Juan River, in the rural region outside of Buenaventura. There we heard from various indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that the promised era of peace has not yet arrived. Armed groups remain active in the region and the government is doing little to protect people, leaving them with no other option than to build their own peace from the ground up.
Today we bring you one such account. Fabiola is from the indigenous community of Santa Rosa de Guayacán. They have been confined to their land – unable to travel for school or economic activities – following the murder of an Afro-Colombian woman in the area in early July. This community has suffered multiple displacements from their ancestral lands despite precautionary measures ordered in 2011 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Fabiola is one of the young leaders from the Wounaan indigenous community living on the Santa Rosa de Guayacán reservation. They declared their lands as a humanitarian biodiverse space.They were displaced three times (2004, 2010, and 2017) because of violence and combat between armed groups on the river.
Fabiola believes that in order to protect life, her community needs to be able to live on their ancestral lands without fear of displacement. Here, they will be able to remain united and strengthen the indigenous guard, two essential elements for the creation of long-lasting peace.
“Today, we are again worried… about invisible borders that prevent us from crossing from one neighborhood to another…”
Three years ago last Sunday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signed a historic ceasefire agreement, marking what was thought to be one of the last steps before the final Peace Accords and a laying down of arms in favor of peace. Today, we are reflecting on the changes that the Peace Accords has brought to Colombia. From our accompaniments in terrain and from the voices of our own partners, we have seen and heard renewed hope that the Accords would begin a new era of peace. Now, just three years later, many feel frustrated as attacks against social leaders continue to rise, and communities attempting to remain on their territories and build sustainable peace are continually put at risk.
But you don’t have to take our word it. Over the next few weeks we are bringing you Perspectives on Peace, videos of social leaders in different parts of Colombia sharing their first-hand accounts of what’s happening in their communities.
Coinciding with Pride Month, we start with two voices from the Punte Icaco Humanitarian Space in the city of Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. Members of the CONPAZ (Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories) network, they share their perspectives about the ongoing violence in Buenaventura, and in particular the harassment and violence against the LGBTQIA+ community.
(Make sure that subtitles are on when you watch the videos)
Karen is the legal representative for the LGBTI community in Buenaventura and a CONPAZ leader in Punte Icaco. She is concerned about paramilitary recruitment and recent threats against her personally.
Rubén Darío is part of the LGBTI community in Punte Icaco and a leader with CONPAZ. He is concerned about the ongoing violence against LGBTI people and the impunity for assailants.
You have been an essential part of our accompaniment project from afar, and we know that your love and support of our partners is just as strong as ours. As you may know, we (as well as many other accompaniment organizations) have been going through a period of financial difficulty. This, combined with a changing political context since Colombia’s peace accord, led us to take a moment to reflect upon our work. Consequently, we scaled back our accompaniment work and began evaluating and planning how to proceed in a more financially sustainable way, while still effectively responding to Colombia’s most urgent issues.
We have had a permanent presence in the Peace Community of San Jose for more than 16 years. Our partnership with the Peace Community is our longest standing to date, but we were forced to the painful decision to end our permanent presence in October. However, we believe this transition speaks to the changing political context in Colombia as well as to our own current capacity.
In post-peace accord Colombia, social leaders across the board have been increasingly threatened and attacked at alarming rates. Reports show that it has become especially dangerous for land and environmental defenders, as the country moves toward an economic model dependent on extractive and environmentally damaging industries like mining and large-scale agro-business. In this context, and with various limitations on our funding, it is urgent for us to focus our resources on these leaders and communities who are at high risk — and also play a critical role in global efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradation.
Therefore, in 2019 and 2020 we will work to increase visibility and advocacy for land and environmental defenders in Colombia. Together with CONPAZ communities on the front lines, we will design grassroots campaigns to strengthen international coalitions with fellow organizations that work for environmental justice, bridging these front line environmental defenders with international efforts for climate justice.
These changes do not mean we will stop collaborating with our long-standing partners. We will continue to provide political support for the Association of Conscientious Objectors of Colombia (ACOOC) and, make punctual visits to the farming community El Nilo. Although we will no longer provide a permanent accompaniment presence to the Peace Community of San José, we will continue to make periodic visits and provide ongoing political accompaniment.
This new direction speaks both to our own strengths as an international accompaniment organization, and also responds to the most pressing needs of our partners. The defense of land and environment is not only a Colombian issue–as temperatures rise and environmental disasters become increasingly devastating, the protection of our environment and lands has become an issue of increasingly pressing need across the globe.
As this new phase begins, we are working with our partners to expand the possible scope of our activities and looking to make co-created strategies. These strategies will include what we have always done– physical presence, political advocacy, and movement building– while also trying to be creative with our partners to see how our presence can be best used.
But we cannot do this without you! Please consider making your tax-deductible donation today online here or by sending a check.
And as always, we invite you to write us with your comments and questions. We would love to hear from you!
FOR Peace Presence
by Kati Hinman
When I started with FORPP in December of 2016, Colombia was in the midst of a peace process that was surrounded by promises of a definitive end to the conflict. Suddenly, the FARC were almost all gone from terrain. It felt as if rapid change was on the horizon.
However, as I began working as an international accompanier, I witnessed again and again how the conflict was rooted in problems much deeper than a few armed groups, as I had believed before. A peace agreement with the FARC could at best be a beginning to an end. Communities across Colombia were fighting for their rights to remain on their lands, which was consistently cited as a critical part not only of sustainable peace for the country, but also for global strategies to combat climate change and environmental degradation. Yet there were was a vested interest in displacing rural communities to exploit natural resources, not for Colombians but for people like me, in the US and Europe, who had no idea of the real cost behind these goods.
With FORPP, we have the chance to travel to some of the most remote regions of the country, and I was astounded by the natural beauty of Colombia. Rolling hills, crystal clear rivers, lush forests were all part of our day to day. I saw animals I never imagined seeing in the wild, from monkeys and parrots to boa constrictors and giant jungle rats. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and I was in awe to witness that bio-diversity first hand. The people living in these regions were proud to protect them, because lurking underneath their daily lives was the constant threat of displacement: oil, coal, and precious minerals are also abundant in Colombia, and various actors have tried to find a way to exploit these riches, a key factor in the ongoing violence.
I remember an accompaniment in Buenaventura, when we were visiting communities that had been displaced to the city from the surrounding rivers. They were living in a gymnasium tucked behind the port and a row of giant shipping containers, their lives quite literally overshadowed by the exports that would be sent from Colombia to the rest of the world. They had set up camp in the gym, put up drawings of their community along the San Juan river. They showed us the map of their territory and the different resources and waterways they protected by living there. The threats from paramilitary groups had made staying on the river too dangerous, but they were working hard at a strategy to return to their ancestral lands. It was startling to me to see how Colombia’s biggest port and all the riches moving through it operated over communities like those of the San Juan river and most of the city itself, who are still denied basic rights such as land, health care, and potable water.
I’ve stayed connected to FORPP because of the gratitude and admiration I feel for all of our partners. I learned so much more than I ever expected about human rights and environmental activism just by walking and talking with them. The challenges they face were not solved by the peace process, but their commitment to peace and sustainability has not wained. It is clear to me that their struggles to protect lands and their lives are also for my benefit, because we are all responsible for sharing the resources of this planet and protecting them for future generations. On Earth Day today, I am thinking of their sacrifices and what I can do to shoulder my share of the responsibility for our earth.