Colombia: Grassroots Rural Movement Unites Behind Call for Peace Talks

Source: IPS News

“Dialogue is the Path” is the slogan that drew 25,000 people to this northern Colombian oil port city on the Magdalena river that has a history of social struggle. Most of the participants came from remote corners of the country where the brutality of war is experienced in daily life in ways unimagined by city dwellers.

Some people travelled with their entire families for up to 42 hours in motorboats and buses to come to the National Meeting of Rural Communities, Afro-Descendant and Indigenous Peoples for Land and Peace in Colombia, held Friday, Aug. 12 to Sunday, Aug. 14.

At Barrancabermeja, the participants camped in tents in Villa Olímpica, a large sports complex at the edge of Ciénaga Miramar, an intermittently flooded wetland.

A regiment of women laboured in the sweltering heat to prepare meals three times a day. A violent storm ripped down a tent early Sunday morning and the drinking water ran short, but nothing worse happened.

The main sessions were held in Club Infantas, a recreational facility that the Ecopetrol oil company provides for its workers and their well-known trade union, Unión Sindical Obrera.

The key achievement of the meeting was to establish unity – in spite of differences – between the three main pillars of the peace movement in this South American country, where civil wars have produced a mounting death toll since 1946.

There was also agreement that there can be military solution to the current armed conflict, which dates back to 1964, and that the immediate goal is to create a national movement to discuss a “road map” for ending the war through peace talks.

The design of the “road map” will be agreed by consensus. But, as Diego Pérez, adviser to the Network of Grassroots Peace Initiatives and Peace Communities, told IPS, they will seek “mechanisms for the government and the insurgents to play a direct role in the process.

“What these organisations are saying is that they want to be present as important actors in the negotiations, with their own proposals and analysis,” he said.

The three movements are basically made up of indigenous, black and campesino communities, but also include city dwellers.

The first is composed of native groups who have organised several “mingas” (an indigenous term that translates as collective work for the common good), or long protest marches against the armed internal conflict.

The second is the Afro-Colombian group Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March), which was formed in response to the bicentennial celebrations of Colombia’s independence, commemorated Jul. 20, 2010, when the movement held demonstrations around the country.

The Patriotic March is calling for a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution.

The third group, comprised of campesinos or peasant farmers, arose out of the “mingas”. It was founded in Bogotá in October 2010, with 10,000 people in attendance. Called the Peoples’ Congress, its aim is to develop legislation of its own that will benefit rural communities.

The host organisation, the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association (ACVC), was created in 1996 and represents 25,000 campesinos and fisherfolk in eight municipalities of the Magdalena Medio region (part of Magdalena province). It was awarded the 2010 National Peace Prize – and has now managed to unite the three pillars of the peace movement.

The prestigious Colombian award recognised ACVC’s community organising in the defence of life and access to justice, sustainable development for a decent environment, and peaceful civil resistance against being driven from their lands to join the more than 4.5 million people displaced by the armed conflict since 1985.

“We decided to hold a meeting where, in the first place, all the experiences could be openly shared, like ACVC’s, because there are thousands of stories across the country that are just like ours,” Mauricio Ramos, a member of the ACVC Political Commission, told IPS.

ACVC communities have stubbornly remained in the rural areas, at the cost of losing lives and being imprisoned and persecuted. But they have stuck together, farming the land in spite of threats and violence.

“The balance is a positive one,” said Ramos. “We have managed to demonstrate that Colombian campesinos, Afro-descendants and indigenous people have survived the recent military confrontations.

“In particular, we have built organisational, political and economic processes, right in the thick of the fighting,” he emphasised. “We have stayed on the land and have managed to establish dialogue with the warring forces, to insist on respect for the commitments entered into with the communities.

“The communities and the insurgents are bound together by commitments, but there are also binding commitments between the communities and the state, most of which are ignored,” he pointed out. “We do not believe in a military solution. That option is now ruled out.”

The vibrant testimonies of the rural men and women heard at the conference echoed Ramos’s views.

The government of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos originally promised to attend the meeting, but pulled out at the last minute.

IPS learned that during the two days preceding the meeting, the Santos administration asked ambassadors of foreign countries to refrain from travelling to Barrancabermeja. Judge Baltasar Garzón and prosecutor Dolores Delgado, from Spain, who were scheduled to give a speech on impunity, also missed the meeting for this reason, and postponed their visit and presentation.

What happened? Some people say the government is clinging to the elusive dream of a military victory over the leftwing guerrillas who took up arms in 1964, and who sent messages to the meeting that participants listened to intently and applauded.

Another view is that Santos has made a political blunder.

A highly reliable source with direct access to Santos told IPS that the president is concentrating on the most difficult aspect: neutralising the far-right paramilitary forces that have historically sought to stymie any progress towards peace.

Also notable for their absence were the agribusiness and landowners associations, although they were named as participants on the printed programme fliers. In contrast, distinguished intellectuals and peace activists followed the events with keen attention and afterwards granted interviews to IPS.