Members and international partners celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, March 23rd 2017. (Photo: Martin Winiecki)
Bogota, Colombia – At the end of last year, the world celebrated what seemed to be the end one of history's longest standing internal wars. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who had brokered a peace deal with the guerrillas of the FARC-Ep received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even after the narrow, but defeating plebiscite in October, Colombia’s Congress was still able to ratify an adapted version of the peace deal with the guerrilla troop in December.
The armed struggle between the Marxist-Leninist rebels and the Colombian state, persisting over 52 years, has killed more than 220,000 people, displaced over 5,700,000 and left the country traumatized. FARC-Ep, which had started out as defenders of the marginalized and silenced, became wrapped up in retaliation, the drug trade, vile kidnappings and blood-shedding as their movement mutated from one of resistance to survival, by any means necessary. After a tumultuous journey, they have now committed to renounce violence and participate nonviolently in the social and political process of the country.
Right now, all of the approximately 9000 FARC-Ep fighters remaining have gathered in twenty special concentration sites and begun handing in their weapons under the UN's watch. Yet, while the world believes that peace has arrived in Colombia, signing the peace deal is in reality the beginning, not the end of the story.
After more than half a century of continuous war, with hardly anyone in the country knowing life without it, shifting from a culture of brutality to one of cooperation, couldn't merely be done with a mere political contract. How do you make peace in a country that has been embroiled in war for two generations? Ending armed hostilities is one thing, building peace is another, and the latter will involve a profound process of reconciliation and restoring trust.
Colombia is a country at the tipping point, at a fragile moment of uncertainty pregnant with both the prospect of a genuine humane transformation and the imminent danger of a violent backlash that could be even more brutal than the violence of its recent past.
After four years of complicated negotiations, with political and economic power against them, most of FARC-Ep’s demands have been denied by the government. The guerrillas’ clear commitment for a new path of nonviolence comes close to a miracle.
Although the government has already failed to fulfill some of their initial promises, the FARC-Ep has been steadfast in their vow to put an end to warfare. In their camps, we've have seen moving scenes of reconciliation, ex-guerrillas dancing with police men and UN officials. They've committed for a national economic program based on small-scale cooperatives for farming and production, hoping to make Colombia, a country highly dependent on imports, food sovereign once again. And in one of the most progressive part of the peace contract with the FARC-Ep, the Colombian government obliged itself to return lands to seven million farmers that were displaced in the war.
The paramilitary state
Even with this hopeful backdrop, we have seen a massive resurgence of far-right paramilitary units expanding their reach throughout the country. For the past decades, these illegal right-wing death squads have been the most deadly force in the civil war, but they're also the least known actors in this tragic drama. Hired and commissioned by landowners and large multinational companies like Chiquita, the fruit extraction conglomerate, paramilitaries were formed as early as the 1960s to drive farmers and Indigenous people off their ancestral lands for large-scale agricultural, mining and mega-dam projects.
The use of paramilitaries, as opposed to other acquisition tactics, serve the purpose of crushing the massive popular resistance in the Colombian countryside against these projects. What has emerged is an unholy alliance of paramilitary units, the Colombian armed forces, the right-wing oligarchy and international corporate and military power. The paramilitary have become the hidden hand of the Colombian state and corporate power, many of them trained by the U.S. Army.
To justify the state’s strategy of “accumulation by dispossession”, as the eminent historian and geographer David Harvey describes it, politicians labeled all strains of resistance, be it armed or nonviolent, as “terrorist”, associating them with the guerrilla faction. In this sense, the battle with the FARC-Ep has served the Colombian oligarchy as a welcomed alibi, allowing the state-corporate complex to continue waging its war on nonviolent farmers, Indigenous people, human rights activists and trade unionists standing in the way of their neo-colonial agenda.
In the past few months, since FARC-Ep has abandoned their territories, there has been an increased brutality of the hidden hand – paramilitaries have silently intruded and occupied many of those areas, threatening and displacing farmers, killing activists, forcing people to accept their command as the new rulers – or else, face punishment. The number of assassinated community leaders has surpassed twenty in the first two months of 2017 – more than double the number during the same period in the year before.
The paramilitary have especially targeted social leaders involved in redistributing lands to farmers. Amnesty International, foreign governments, the Vatican and the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia have all expressed concern with the paramilitary re-awakening in Colombia. Yet, the Santos government, while acknowledging increased attacks on activists, has so far been very careful not the use the word “paramilitary.” In the government’s discourse, the paramilitary is a problem of the past, disarmed and non-existent. Yet, the state’s interests of acquiring these lands to sell or lease to multinational corporations in service of the neoliberal prime directive of “increase GDP by any means necessary” perfectly aligns with the paramilitaries actions.
The complexity of the Colombian situation and the rise of the paramilitary reminds us of a stark fact: genuine peace will only be possible by addressing the root-causes of the war. In other words, it cannot be done without changing the rules of the global system that requires perpetual exploitation of the Earth for maximum private profit and therefore necessitates the displacement of people from their lands. And of course, requires human beings to become a dependent, cheap labor force.
Colombia finds itself at a crossroads: Will a true process of peace-building and reconciliation begin? Or will “peace” just be another word for continuing a hidden war taking place in the country’s hinterland?
Building community for lasting peace: The example of San José de Apartadó
Alongside the atrocious war, there also is another, more beautiful face to Colombia – the almost unbreakable perseverance of people on the grounds who have resisted the war by defending the values of community, solidarity and peace, aspiring to create a different, more humane reality.
Though President Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize, these less known people are the ones who most deserve international recognition, having taken the pains of working for peace for decades. One of these is the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
Founded by 1350 displaced farmers in March 1997, after paramilitaries roamed the entire region pillaging and massacring, the community came together to protect themselves and their land, declaring the community neutral in the war, saying that they would not give in to violence. The armed groups made them pay a huge price for this decision, killing more than 200 of their members, including most of their leaders. Almost all victims died by the hands of paramilitary and national armed forces, working closely with landowners and capital interests in the region.
Despite the horrors they have faced, they have stood their ground and continue working together bound by an unwavering commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation. It's the power of community, of building solidarity every day, of sharing life and collaborating for a common goal that allowed them to serve love instead of following revenge, under these most difficult conditions.
Eduar Lanchero, one of their late leaders once said, “The power of the community consists of its ability to transform pain into hope...” It's been through community that they could begin healing the wounds of war, activating the potential of empathy, forgiveness and collaboration amongst people that had been deeply traumatized by the horror they experienced. With their community, the people of San José show how to break the vicious victim-perpetrator bond, understanding that any further act of violence would just perpetuate the cycle that made them lose so many of their loved ones.
Lanchero further elucidated what's held them together and alive, stating, “The armed groups aren't the only ones who kill. It's the logic behind the whole system. The way people live generates this kind of death. This is why we decided to live in a way that our life generates life. One basic condition, which kept us alive was to not play the game of fear, which was imposed upon us by the murders of the armed forces. We have made our choice. We chose life. Life corrects us and guides us.”
Peace versus “development”
Despite of international accompaniment through Peace Brigades International, Fellowship of Reconciliation and Operazione Colomba, an Italian NGO, the persecution of the community continues and has augmented since the peace deal was signed. The community of San José, too, has faced paramilitary invasion, with their remote hamlets continually occupied, threats that the community remain silent about the atrocities they have been afflicted by or face further retaliation.
The army stands by tolerating the paramilitary, even threatening the community to face public slander if they continue to denounce the paramilitary presence. Recently, there have also been attempts by the state to turn down visa applications for international human rights workers accompanying the community. Additionally, some human rights organizations themselves are considering to defund or abandon their Colombia programs in the wake of the peace process. Without international accompaniment, uncounted communities and activists in Colombia would be at the mercy of the armed groups without any defense.
The state tells the people that now, as there's peace, there's no longer any need for a peace community and offers them money to lure them out of the community. Gloria Cuartas, the former mayor of Apartadó, the municipality governing the region, says, “Parts of the government and multinationals use the cover of apparent peace to manage what they so far haven't – ending the peace community.”
You may wonder, why are they so worried about a community of peaceful farmers? The Colombian army has been clear on this often stating that the community is in the way of “development.” What do they mean by development? Clearly they are not referring to peace and human development, but rather, the narrow neoliberal definition of extractive-based GDP growth.
For twenty years the community of San José de Apartadó has been living a working alternative of nonviolent resistance to the brutal agenda of displacement and oppression. It seems to be the imperative of the state and the power elites to dismantle it so it won't be replicated or emulated by other communities living through the same struggles across the country.
Ati Quigua, leader of the Arhuaco people, who served as a spokeswoman for Colombia's Indigenous nations in the Havana peace negotiations, mirrors those worries, stating, “They are making “peace” in order to get rid of the guerrillas, so that paramilitaries can take over the countryside, drive out farmers and Indigenous Peoples and carry on with what they call “economic development”. This isn't our peace. We want peace with the Earth. If things don't change, Colombia is going to face a cultural and ecological genocide.”
Healing the colonial trauma
Addressing modern-day “development,” we touch not only the political and economic system, but a traumatic chain repeating itself on this continent all the way since Christopher Columbus arrived here in 1492. Edward Goldsmith, one of the fathers of the British environmental movement, reminds us, “Development is just a new word for what Marxists called imperialism and what we can loosely refer to as colonialism – a more familiar and less loaded term.”
Generation after generation, colonial rulers uprooted people from their original home and ethical orientation that consisted in their natural connection to land, nature and community. More broadly speaking, patriarchy needed the isolated individual, separated from life, because this is when people are most “governable”. The uprooted, violated individual suffered profound trauma and will seek, if no healing outlets are offered, to pass its trauma on to the “other”, proceeding the cycle of violence.
To make people submit to their dominion, colonizers destroyed communities, not just for material acquisition, but also because they understood that community is the spiritual and ethical anchor connecting people with all of Life. All throughout patriarchal and colonial history, all types of authentic community have been dismantled – from the destruction of tribes during the colonization of Latin America to today's struggles in San José de Apartadó in Colombia to Standing Rock in the United States, where Indigenous water protectors have fiercely resisted an oil pipeline running through their native grounds, “defending the sacred” of water and Earth.
We see the same conflict everywhere in the world, in every country, every region. Everywhere, an emergent humane impulse for community, autonomy and healing clashes with the violence of state and capital power. How can the power of community finally prevail?
Let us imagine an alternative that could save us from the current collective suicide mission and provide us with the prospect for a post-capitalist world. The “concrete utopia” of a free Earth could be a global network of interconnected autonomous communities cooperating with all that lives.
To get there, we need to combine the many struggles and movements defending the sacred in a common global platform – a global alliance that comes together to develop a common vision for the future, a new vision for nonviolently inhabiting this planet. And, most importantly, an alliance of people no longer guided by ideologies, but reconnecting with and serving life's enormous powers of regeneration, healing and protection.
Life has survived all human aberrations. Life itself holds the power which allows the tiny seedling to break through the thick layer of asphalt, that is able to heal “incurable” diseases, that guides authentic communities, and that is able to prevent and stop violence. By building communities of trust that consciously heal the historic trauma and align themselves with the powers of life in all they do, we open the door for a process of global healing.
To dissolve the collective trauma, we must address its origin – the separation between human beings and Nature. This was first created through the Neolithic revolution, when our ancestors stopped relying on the bounty of Mother Earth to feed them and imposed what Daniel Quinn calls “totalitarian agriculture”. This was set into stone by the epochal divide between religion and Eros in patriarchal societies and further solidified through the rise of the city-state, hierarchy, empires and colonialism. And ultimately taken to it’s logical outcome in the ecological mega-crisis that is globalized capitalism.
Still today, after more than 500 years of colonial history, there are Indigenous communities in Colombia who are connected with sacred knowledge – the Original Wisdom if you will. They have preserved the memory of what human existence was like before the story of separation began. Patriarchal religions tore the human heart apart by making people believe they should seek God in some out-of-Earth dimension, while demeaning Earthly life, Eros, the feminine and the body as sinful and evil. A culture that prohibits people to follow what they long for and teaches them to hate what they love inevitably becomes the breeding ground of explosive violence.
On the other hand, communities that can build deep levels of trust can serve as “Healing Biotopes”, as the psychoanalyst Dieter Duhm calls them. (Duhm developed the “Healing Biotopes Plan,” a strategy for initiating global system change through complex small-scale models for a nonviolent future culture.) And what better place to start then communities that have fostered reconciliation in the heart of violence and oppression.
A vision for genuine peace
Indigenous groups and peace communities like San José de Apartadó could assume a key role for the future of Colombia. With everything they have suffered and experienced, with their profound knowledge about forgiveness and nonviolence, they could teach disarmed fighters the ways of nonviolent resistance, how to transform pain into hope, and hatred into empathy. They're already working with international partners in this direction. Sabine Lichtenfels of the Tamera Peace Research Center that has accompanied San José since 2005, says, “The revolution we need will emerge from communities in which people can foster profound trust among each other and cooperation with nature and all beings. That's why we're working with San José and other communities in establishing a Global Campus for a future without war.”
These communities can synthesize the best of Indigenous wisdom with Western technik, applying best practices to restore nature and create decentralized autonomy in water, energy and food, as well as deeper healing and community knowledge for social sustainability. In San José, for example, or the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, education and healing centers for a peaceful Colombia could arise. Self-sufficient, decentralized peace communities would thus arise in the demilitarized zones throughout the country. Former warriors would no longer serve the war, but the ecological and social restoration of the country. Colombia could become an example for genuine peace, which other countries could learn from. Peace communities, Indigenous people and former guerrillas could come together for a powerful nonviolent resistance movement. They would no longer fight against the system, but make it obsolete by establishing lived examples for a post-capitalist society.