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Villagers stand up for peace in Colombia’s civil war

A small farming community in Colombia has long championed civil resistance tactics. Its history is one of war and suffering, but also of solidarity and courage. Español.

PCSJA members honour those who lost their lives for standing up for peace in Colombia’s civil war. (www.cdpsanjose.org) PCSJA members honour those who lost their lives for standing up for peace in Colombia’s civil war. (www.cdpsanjose.org)Last summer – one year after finishing The Power of Staying Put  – I went back to La Holandita, Colombia, home to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (PCSJA). My admiration for the PCSJA’s perseverance, resourcefulness and commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of war had not diminished one bit. Still facing repression and stigmatization from armed groups stationed in their area, this small farming community in northwestern Colombia continues to engage in an impressive array of civil resistance tactics which have sustained the lives and livelihoods of its residents for almost two decades. As a peace community, the PCSJA does not cooperate with or rely on any group or entity that derives power from the barrel of a gun – state forces, the FARC, and paramilitary groups alike. 

First established in 1997 in San José de Apartadó, PCSJA villagers did not flee the violence these actors were perpetrating. Instead they stayed put as an act of nonviolent resistance, declaring total neutrality. Many villagers have paid the ultimate price for this choice. In 2005, they were forced to move their headquarters a few miles down the road to La Holandita, when a military outpost was built in San José de Apartadó (which overtly violated their raison d’être of neutrality). Nevertheless, the PCSJA today has grown into a robust, sophisticated peace community which operates its own school and self-sustained economic activities. Many major international actors, including the Fellowship for Reconciliation, Operazione Colomba, and Peace Brigades International, as well as burgeoning peace initiatives around the world recognize the PCSJA as a model and authentic, grassroots peacebuilder.

Returning to La Holandita this past summer felt like going back home; warm smiles and friendly greetings welcomed me. I had the chance to meet the new members of the Internal Council, play with the kids, help with the community vegetable garden, enjoy a few days refreshing community life, and learn about recent developments since my last visit in spring 2014.

The history: suffering, organizing, courage

The history of the PCSJA is one of war, violence and suffering, but also one of solidarity, organization and courage.

“It makes me happy when the community fights back.” PCSJA. Credit: Juan Masullo J. “It makes me happy when the community fights back.” PCSJA. Credit: Juan Masullo J.Situated at the foot of the Abibe Mountains, San José de Apartadó is a tight-knit rural village with a complex history of social and political tensions and acute violence. The agitation was in large part due to the village’s location – in the economically vibrant and geostrategic region of Urabá, which became one of the hearts of Colombia’s civil war over the course of the twentieth century. The residents are mainly campesinos (peasant farmers) – with poor access to education and surviving on meagre income.

Acting collectively and nonviolently was all the PCSJA had to try to protect each other from violence and to salvage what was left of their livelihoods in the midst of war.

War came to the village in the early 1970s with the arrival of left-wing guerrilla groups. After almost two decades of insurgent control, San José residents saw the arrival of right-wing paramilitaries subsequently in the mid-1990s. With the paramilitaries disputing guerilla territorial control, villagers were swept into a violent contest for domination of their land. Under these circumstances, and an increase in violence that campesinos increasingly perceived as inescapable, many villagers decided to flee the area. But a small group of farmers (around a thousand) instead stayed put and chose to collectively defy violent groups by engaging in organized nonviolent forms of noncooperation, self-organization and disruption. 

For San José villagers, acting collectively and nonviolently was all they had to try to protect each other from violence and to salvage what was left of their livelihoods in the midst of war. Many of the (primarily Catholic) villagers and leaders believe in the ethical value of nonviolence. But for them, outright rejection of violence was quite simply the best strategic way to guarantee a minimum of protection, and to signal to all armed groups their intention not to cooperate with them and to stay out of a war they did not feel was theirs.

Hamlet of La Unión, village of San José de Apartadó, situated in the geostrategic region of Urabá. Credit: Juan Masullo J. Hamlet of La Unión, village of San José de Apartadó, situated in the geostrategic region of Urabá. Credit: Juan Masullo J. The Power of Staying Put provides a near-comprehensive history of the PCSJA. What I would like to highlight in this article is, first, the unique contributions that this committed and organized peace community has to offer as a guide for other communities living in the midst of war; and second, the takeaways it offers to the national peace process for ensuring a long-lasting peace.  

The painted stone memorial to PCSJA members who had been killed in Colombia’s civil war, depicted on the mural in this photo, was purposefully destroyed by the military in the mid-2000s. Credit: Juan Masullo J.

Core values of the Peace Community

What makes the PCSJA particularly robust is its functional structure and the strict rules of behaviour members abide by. All this is clearly stipulated in its Declaration, which was publicly signed and presented on 23 March 1997, in the town centre of the village. This declaration was the result of a very risky and difficult process of consultation and coordination among villagers (with the support of third party actors at a later stage) in the mid-1990s amid heightened violence in the region. A symbolic act marking the official foundation of the Community, it communicated unmistakably to all parties present – campesinos, international representatives, members of national NGOs, representatives of the local church and the local government – villagers’ intentions to not cooperate with armed actors and to have absolutely nothing to do with the armed conflict. The process leading to the Declaration was in fact so complicated, and implied so much effort that it immediately became an achievement to celebrate – initially every three months, as they were uncertain how long the Community would last, and now every year.

The PCSJA Declaration opens with a description of the conditions that pushed campesinos of San José to create the PCSJA, codifies the rules and expectations that govern life within the Community, and closes with a list of principles, internal structure and formal procedures of the Community.  Article 3 of the Declaration explicitly lays out the villagers’ strategic principles and nonviolent methods (quotes below are adapted from The Power of Staying Put):

There is intrinsic value in bringing a community together to spell out their suffering on paper – in essence, creating a list of grievances. 

 

  1. “Not to participate, directly or indirectly, in hostilities” [non-involvement]
  2. “Not to carry or own arms, ammunitions and/or explosives” [nonviolent discipline]
  3. “Not to provide logistical support to any of the armed groups” [noncooperation]
  4. “Not to turn to any of the armed groups to manage or resolve internal, personal or communal disputes” [rejection of armed actors’ involvement in favour of conflict resolution at the community level]
  5. “Commit to participate in community work projects” [self-organization, sometimes known as the constructive programme]
  6. “Commit to fight against injustice and impunity” [values/cause]

San José villagers also abstain from selling or consuming alcohol on Community grounds. This rule, an example of self-restraint, is a way to avoid conflicts, further close inroads into the community, and reinforce nonviolent discipline. 

Furthermore, the declaration carries significant, inherent, symbolic and practical value. First, there is intrinsic value in bringing a community together to spell out their suffering on paper – in essence, creating a list of grievances. This strengthens the sense of unity, which is an essential ingredient to ensuring a nonviolent movement’s success. Second, publicly presenting a collective declaration lends an element of formality to a community’s actions. Third, in more practical terms, it spells out the fundamental elements of the Community’s self-organization (a central component of civil resistance), which includes the composition and procedures of the Internal Council, and the existence and role of thematic working groups and committees.

All this together, plus several years of resistance and community work, have forged a strong collective identity which today is the strongest weapon they have to face the multiplicity of challenges that emerge almost on a daily basis when one opts for noncooperation with armed actors in the midst of a civil war.

The peace process, issue du jour

The peace process in Havana was an important conversation topic during my visit this summer. In a group conversation with the members of the Internal Council, including some who were recently elected, leaders stressed the importance of actively involving local groups and grassroots social organizations in the peace process. While some such groups were invited to the talks in Havana, not all felt their views carried weight as official parties present at the talks.

I spoke with a leader of the Community who went to Havana as an individual victim and also to represent the PCSJA. After highlighting the not-so-easy internal consultation process the Community held in deciding whether to go or not, given the relationship they have with the government, he said the experience was valuable in that the victims met face-to-face with the victimizers. He stressed the plural in victimizers, as for him it is clear that both the FARC and the Colombian government are responsible for the violence that has affected San José de Apartadó. He told me:

“We [the victims] were invited and that is very important. My family has been strongly affected by this war, and all armed groups have done things to us. That is why we thought that I was the right person to go, both as an individual victim and as part of the Peace Community. We have to be central in the process. That process can only be successful if they take us seriously, if they really incorporate the views of social organizations, of victim organizations. It is not a matter of going there once and that’s it….”

The focus during the talks in Havana was on one simple message: The PCSJA embodied a living, breathing example of how peace can be achieved nonviolently.

Risking accusations of traveling to Havana as FARC “friends”, he and the PCSJA focused on delivering one simple message during the talks: that the Community embodied a living, breathing example of how peace can be achieved nonviolently. And they brought with them the proposal of designating humanitarian areas that both sides would respect, where villagers could carry on their lives in safety and tranquility while real and sustained peace arrives. The PCSJA had put forth this proposal many years ago, but it was never taken into consideration. Given the fact that now both parties are reaching agreements, they were hopeful that this time the proposal could succeed. 

The proposal was neither accepted nor rejected. The officials said that they were going to evaluate the proposal and continue to discuss it. San José de Apartadó cited this as the perfect example of why a mere invitation to the talks is not enough, and that what was needed to produce long-lasting results was deeper, more long-term involvement of social organizations in the entire process.

Challenges looking forward: violence, stigmatization, extractive industry interests

My visit this summer coincided with the Community’s celebration of 18 years of nonviolent resistance in the midst of Colombia’s longstanding civil war – a war that, although changing constantly, sadly does not cease to affect San José villagers.

Many challenges lie ahead for this peace community. Armed groups still disturb villagers and disrespect their neutrality. The Community’s latest communiqué denounced how in the month of October (2015) they have had to deal with regular incursions and the presence of armed groups (mainly paramilitaries) in their territory. Moreover, part of an old strategy of stigmatization, villagers constantly face defamatory claims by different actors, including armed state forces and various media outlets.

Beyond these rather classic forms of repression, the PCSJA must also struggle with increasing extractive industry interest in their land. Members of the Community have repeatedly reported being pressured by armed organizations, some with links with multinational corporations, to leave or sell their lands for virtually nothing. But the Community is equipped with the self-organization, unity, nonviolent discipline and adaptability they need to face any new challenge.

I would like to thank Amber French for helping me put together this article and ICNC in general for its support in drafting The Power of Staying Put.

About the author

Juan Masullo Jiménez is a Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute (EUI). He studied political science and sociology at Javeriana University (Bogotá, Colombia), and holds Master’s degrees in International Relations (International Peace and Security) from the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and Political Science (Comparative Politics) from the Central European University (CEU). Juan is a recipient of the 2014 ICNC Research Monograph Award. 

Click here for more information on Juan’s publication, The Power of Staying Put: Nonviolent Resistance Against Armed Groups in Colombia and other publications in the 2015 ICNC Monograph Series.

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