Building a territory of peace in Colombia's contested Cauca province
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Building a territory of peace in Colombia's contested Cauca province

For a moment, everyone’s eyes are once again on Colombia’s Pacific province of Cauca — a result of the recent confrontation between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian military that left 11 soldiers dead.

As usual, when attention is briefly focused on Cauca, the media portrayal is of a land of violence, armed confrontation and chaos. It’s true that violence is a reality of life there. All of Colombia’s armed groups — from the military, to guerrilla groups the FARC and ELN, to right wing neo-paramilitary groups — operate within the territory, leaving the civilian population trapped in the middle to bear the brunt of the violence.

Yet to characterize Cauca’s citizens as simply passive victims of armed conflict and their province as only one of violence is to do a great disservice to the peacebuilding and resistance work that caucanos have been engaged in for decades.

Read more: Caught amid conflict and police aggression, Colombia’s Cauca is in crisis

Didier Chirimuscay, a social communicator from Cauca, pointed out that the indigenous communities that make up more than 20 percent of Cauca’s population have engaged in organized resistance to demand territorial control, respect for their rights, and the defense of their culture and communities for decades.

“There are a number of movements, starting in 1971 with some strong leaders such as the Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), but also other movements in the ’80s, like the Indigenous Authorities of the Southwest,” he explained during a local radio program, Sintonizate con la Paz. “Throughout it all, the indigenous people from Cauca have worked for peace and resistance, bringing something global to the indigenous movement in Colombia.”

As Chirimuscay and many others see it, Cauca’s resistance has not only benefited the department itself but has also supported peace in Colombia.

In 2000, the United States proposed Plan Colombia, a military funding package aimed at combating drug trafficking and production, and relying heavily on aerial fumigation. In response, the indigenous governor of Cauca, Floro Tunubalá, was one of the first to propose “Plan Alternative,” based on manual eradication of coca to mitigate the social, economic and environmental damage fumigation would cause.

Read more: US-backed fumigation in Colombia uses cancer-causing chemicals

Although the alternative plan did not succeed in stopping Plan Colombia, it is still is an example of that fact that the region has a long history of organizing within communities.

Showing an example to society

For Alejandra Miller of the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, the resistance work of the province’s women goes beyond indigenous resistance to encompass a unified female voice that is tired of simply being acted upon.

The Ruta Pacífica, a feminist organization that has been working in Cauca for eighteen years, is seeking a negotiated end to the conflict.

“Women have been impacted in a dramatic way by the conflict, especially in Cauca,” Miller said during the same radio program. “That is why we work to push the fact that the only exit is a political solution.  Right now, our biggest challenge is preparing for peace. We do not simply want to be impacted by this peace; we ourselves want to impact the peace.”

“Together, as Afro-Colombians, indigenous women, rural women, campesina women, urban women and students, we have constructed a Peace Agenda for Cauca.”

In a two-year process, the Ruta Pacifica has joined 18 other women’s organizations in Cauca to work for a common goal.

“What is wonderful about this is that through different encounters, with over 70 women, we could advance and put aside our differences, which of course exist, to form a peace proposal from the women for our region,” Miller said.

“[It is] an example for society, not just in Cauca, that yes, it is possible to build in the middle of difference, in the middle of all of this ethnic and political diversity that we have in Cauca. As women we are showing an example, to the men of course, but also to society.”

There is no denying the prevalence of violence, armed groups and human rights violations in Cauca.

It is equally important, however, to recognize and speak about the resistance and capabilities of the local population living in the midst of this violence, acknowledging that the possibilities for a true, lasting peace are built on foundations that have already been laid.

“Despite the fact that we have all of the representations of the armed conflict, Cauca also has an enormous organizational strength that has allowed us to safeguard our social fabric that the war has tried to destroy and has not been able to,” said Chirimuscay.

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