Rural communities provide models for peacebuilding in Colombia
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Rural communities provide models for peacebuilding in Colombia

The community of El Garzal, in the south of Colombia’s Bolívar province, is one of resistance.

Not only are community members refusing to leave their land due to armed threats, they have also never give in to pressure to cultivate coca. This history, along with the community’s continued nonviolent struggle for their land, is emblematic of the challenges facing a post-conflict Colombia, but also provides an example of a positive, community-led peacebuilding process.

According to a new study released by the Department of National Planning, 90 percent of the Colombian campesino population lives in conditions of poverty and vulnerability. This situation, exacerbated by low market prices for food crops, encourages many campesino communities to cultivate coca, the source crop for cocaine production. Coca is one of the only crops in Colombia with high prices and guaranteed sales.

Coca cultivation, however, is also risky, as it involves increased contact with armed groups and the possibility of aerial fumigation by the Colombian military, which damages not only the coca but all other food crops — and occasionally water sources — located nearby. The production of cocaine is one of the main income sources for illegal armed groups and has fueled much of Colombia’s violence, especially in communities located along drug trafficking and production routes.

The way pastor and community leader Salvador Alcantara sees it, the community of El Garzal chose a different story.

“As a community, we decided that the production was too damaging to the social fabric,” he says. “I talked to the community and we decided not to accept the planting of coca. People decided not to exchange their food for a crop that would only bring destruction.”

“We are creating alternatives that improve the quality of life; food security contributes to peace,” says Alcantara, referring to El Garzal’s cooperative organization, which is based out of the local church. In a strategy to ensure higher profits, community members collectively sell crops such as cocoa, the fruit that forms the basis of chocolate production, as well as traditional staples of corn and yucca.

The organization also works with youth in cattle production so that, according to Salvador, “they will have a quality of life that does not make it necessary to leave the territory, so that they will have an occupation and a source of income.”

Living in fear and resistance

The situation in El Garzal, however, cannot be reduced to a simple productive project success story.

Like many communities throughout Colombia, El Garzal is in a legal battle for its land. Despite the fact that INCODER, the Colombian rural development institute, has recognized the agrarian community as landowners and issued 64 official titles, there are powerful economic interests with historical ties to drug trafficking and paramilitary groups that continue to threaten the community’s fight for self-determination.

For years, Alcantara has been leading the community’s battle to win legal rights to the land they farm. Neo-paramilitary groups, connected to massive palm plantations, have threatened him and his family for their activism, at one point even forcing them to flee the community. The community lives in fear of armed groups, yet members still refuse to leave or to engage in violence against their attackers.

As the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group continue their negotiations in Havana to bring an official end to Colombia’s fifty-year internal conflict, access to land and rural development are key components in resolving the roots of that conflict. New information released about the details of a potential peace deal emphasize the importance of land titles and legal ownership, along with the creation of subsidies, credit and commercialization for small farmers.

Read more: Colombian government, FARC release classified information from negotiations

In order for peace to actually be a lived reality, community-focused development and secure access to land must take priority. While many talk about these as novel concepts, the reality is that communities like El Garzal have already been engaging in alternative forms of development for years. A focus on the development and projects that communities are already engaged in, along with recognition of their right to their land, are key to creating a sustainable countryside and communities that are able to live with dignity.

It is communities like El Garzal that must be recognized as examples of alternative development and peacebuilding on a community level. Grassroots resistance to all forms of violence, both economic and armed, are fundamental best practices for a true post-conflict Colombia.