Colombia’s unsung heroes


San José de Apartadó is committed to peace despite being surrounded by violence PHOTO/© 2018 Gwen Burnyeat

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó shows that victims of armed conflict are also producers and creators whose knowledge could contribute to a future-oriented understanding of peace-building that would benefit all Colombians, writes Gwen Burnyeat (University College London).

The first eighteen months of the implementation of Colombia’s peace accords have been disappointing.

The demobilisation of FARC was an important achievement, but a litany of assassinations of social and community leaders, as well as of demobilised FARC members and their families, allows us to see into the dark crystal ball of Colombia’s possible future: a post-conflict much like that of El Salvador, where old violence is simply recycled and rebranded.

Everyone knew that when the FARC withdrew from areas that they had controlled, power vacuums would be left. The government’s promise, at least discursively, in the Havana Accords, was that these would be filled by the presence of state institutions – both military and civilian. But this has not happened, and instead the vacuums are being filled by paramilitaries, the ELN guerrilla, and criminal gangs.

Despite the fact that everyone knew this would happen, there did not seem to be any kind of contingency plan, perhaps because of the government’s diminished political leverage after the failed peace referendum.

In August 2018, Colombia will have a new president. If Gustavo Petro wins in the second round of the presidential elections on 17 June 2018, there will continuity of the Santos administration’s policy on the peace process. But if Iván Duque prevails, the peace process could be substantially deconstructed, with a return to a hard-line military stance. It is not an exaggeration to say that the country’s future hangs in the balance.

But it is also important to remember that peace does not depend on a top-down negotiated solution, important though this may be. In reality, it depends on society.

Thus far, Colombian society has proven a poor ally in the search for an end to the armed conflict: after four years of negotiations, 50.2% of voters rejected the peace deal, 63% abstained from voting, and swathes of society viewed the peace process with inertia, suspicion, and cynicism rather than as a historic opportunity. These are the inevitable effects of a society polarised and paralysed by 50 years of war.

But it is Colombian civil society which holds the key to peace, not only through voting behaviour, but also through the possibility of defining and shaping what “peace” could mean.

Not only victims and defenders, but also producers and creators

In my recent book Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building, I tell the story of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in the north-western conflict zone of Urabá. Trapped between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian army, this community famously declared itself neutral to the armed conflict as a self-protection strategy.

The London School of Economics and Political Science for more

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