San José de Apartadó, Colombia — This is a significant feat, given that it is the leading peace community in Colombia, born in the heart of a civil war between the Colombian government, right-wing paramilitaries and the guerrilla army of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-Ep). Dignitaries from around the country and the globe have gathered in San José de Apartadó, including high-level officials from the United Nations, European ambassadors and heads of international non-governmental organizations like Peace Brigades International. Despite the international awareness of this community among certain circles in the human rights movement, most notably Noam Chomsky’s deep admiration for the community’s work, most people have never heard of San José de Apartadó. A little history might help us better understand why this is the case.
A Peace Community in the Heart of a Civil War
Founded by 1,350 displaced farmers in March 1997, after paramilitaries roamed the region pillaging and massacring, the community came together to protect themselves and their land, declaring themselves neutral in the war. 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, largely trained by the US government, working in the service of local landowners and multinational corporations.
Despite the horrors they have faced, the members of this community have stood their ground and continue working together bound by a commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation. Eduar Lanchero, one of their late leaders, once said, “The power of the community consists of its ability to transform pain into hope …” With their community, the people of San José have shown other communities in the region and country how to break the vicious victim-perpetrator cycle and to create a self-sufficient community outside the dominant resource extraction economic model that surrounds them. This level of economic autonomy and independence from state influence has been seen as a grave threat to the interests of multinational corporations looking for development opportunities in the region.
Conscious of the larger systemic effects of their resistance, Lanchero further elucidated,
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 vs. “Development”
Despite international accompaniment through various non-governmental organizations, the persecution of the community has actually increased since the peace deal was signed. According to the February 24, 2017, newsletter of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, the community 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.
As Todd Howland, Colombia representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told Truthout, “Many claim that now there’s peace, there’s no longer any need for a peace community” and according to sources who wish to remain anonymous for their safety, the state has offered community members 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.”
Why is the Colombian state so worried about a community of peaceful farmers? And is the answer to this question the same reason the story of San José de Apartadó has been so hidden from international media? The Colombian army has been clear on this answer, 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 well-being, but rather the standard narrow definition of extractive-based GDP growth.
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.”
For 20 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 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 spokesperson for Colombia’s Indigenous nations in the Havana peace negotiations, mirrors those worries. “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’,” Quigua told Truthout. “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.”
The Possibility of Genuine Peace in Colombia
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.
One thing is clear: Peace will only be possible by addressing the root causes of the war. In other words, peace cannot be achieved without changing the rules of the global system that require perpetual exploitation of natural resources for maximum private profit, and therefore, necessitates the displacement of people from their lands.
Communities like San José de Apartadó can serve as living laboratories for the necessary next phase in the Colombian peace process: initiating a process of reconciliation and social peace-building in the country. They can also provide an alternative to traditional Western-led economic development. This is why knowing about this community and its peace work is an important part of creating a post-capitalist future. What better place to start than communities that have fostered reconciliation and resilience in the heart of violence and oppression?