Colombia: a community resists land-grabbing and conflict

| 11th November 2013
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó - photo by Gwen Burnyeat.
Gwen Burnyeat tells of her encounter with a unique peace community in Colombia, who are promoting systems of local sustainability and guardianship that protect both people and the environment.

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is a collective of 500 rural farmers who were displaced from their remote mountain lands in the 1990s and 2000s due to a wave of violence and land-grabbing.

They decided to declare themselves neutral to the conflict that surrounded them, using an interpretation of International Humanitarian Law’s principle of distinction between civilians and combatants. This protection mechanism has enabled them to return to many of their settlements, and demand that armed actors do not enter their living spaces or involve them in the conflict in any way.

They refuse to remain silent about the many human rights abuses they have suffered - since their foundation in 1997 more than 200 local farmers have been killed - and they document violations systematically.

Resisting in their territory and speaking out brings many threats against them. This is intensified due to the large-scale economic interests present in their land, which is incredibly fertile and attractive to agroindustry, as well as having reserves of coal, oil, gold, minerals and water.

Human rights violations in this region have gone hand in hand with unscrupulous plundering of stolen lands - for example, in a 2005 interview, paramilitary chief Vicente Castaño admitted that he had actively recruited palm oil businesses to operate in stolen land.

Despite the many threats against them, by overcoming adversity on a daily basis the Peace Community has become the expression of an alternative life project. They have a series of principles which represent their sense of shared humanity, and they have political, social and economic strategies to put these principles into practice.

One of their activities is exporting fair trade organic cocoa to Europe, including to Lush Cosmetics. Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, one of the leaders of the Community, says, "whoever receives our products is also making us a political contribution. We would like to have a network of consumers with a political conscience".

This is a highly political act - a community of displaced farmers able to contravene local (and global) systems of exploitation of small-scale producers for the benefit of the capitalist market. It means sustainability of their project, which means protection.

By protecting their members and the way of life of other farmers in the region, the Peace Community is also protecting their whole territory. Unlike indigenous and afro-descendent communities in Colombia, there are no international or domestic laws that give special protection to mestizo rural farmers.

But their relationship with land is just as special, and the fact that there is no attention to this means they are increasingly vulnerable. "A farmer without land is like a child without a mother", said Jesús Emilio Tuberquia. They have traditional ways of sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming, which have been passed down through generations of rural living.

But the economic interests in their land are powerful – in April 2012 the Community denounced a meeting between interested mining parties, paramilitaries, and local authorities, planning to force the community off their land and exploit it. This would devastate the environment and displace hundreds of families. If the many threats to exterminate the Peace Community were to be carried out, there would be no barriers to the many interested multinational companies carrying out their projects in any way they liked.

Despite these hardships, the community continue to make their vision a reality, pioneering peace-building in Colombia. They run a farmers' university in which communities exchange knowledge about political organisation and sustainable farming. They organise themselves in groups, and have a principle of weekly community work.

Their non-materialist approach works for the redistribution of capital and resources. Not working for money, but rather for the good of the community. Building a school, fixing a neighbour’s house, keeping clear the difficult mountain paths - they get together every Thursday to put into practice the idea that humans don’t need to be dependent on money in order to get things done. This creates a society with a concept of life, rather than capital.

The Colombian government is currently involved in peace negotiations with the FARC guerrilla (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), with whom they have been fighting for over fifty years, in a war that has caused millions of civilian casualties, including the highest number of forcibly displaced people in the world, estimated between 4.9-5.5 million people.

However, peace does not mean just the absence of war, but the creation of a positive foundation for social, political, and economic growth, based on respect for fundamental human rights. The Peace Community provide us with lessons in what ‘community’ means, which should be important to all of us in a time in which globalisation leads to power and wealth being concentrated in increasingly fewer hands.

We live in a time in which globalisation makes the sense of community more and more uncertain. The Peace Community are keeping these values alive.

Gwen Burnyeat works for Peace Brigades International (PBI) – UK Section. Previously she worked for PBI in Colombia, where she spent two years accompanying the Peace Community getting to know first-hand their situation.

PBI is a non-governmental organisation that for over 30 years has been providing protective accompaniment to human rights defenders at risk, by sending teams of international observers to conflict zones, including to Africa, Latin America and Asia, to walk alongside human rights defenders.

The presence of international volunteers combined with a large international support network throughout Europe, USA and the Pacific, prevents threats from being carried out.

The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk and The Bar Human Rights Committee invite you to:

Neutrality in the Colombian Conflict: the Role of Peace Communities
Tuesday 19 November, 6.15 - 8.30pm
Middle Temple, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT

Panel Discussion chaired by
Sir Henry Brooke CMG
(PBI UK patron and founding member
of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk)

Kirsty Brimelow QC (Bar Human Rights Committee)
Gwen Burnyeat (PBI returned volunteer)
Jesús Emilio Tuberquia and
Arley Tuberquia (Internal Council, Peace
Community of San José de Apartadó)

Followed by wine reception

Please RSVP to

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