‘In the Middle of Two Forces’: Rural Communities in Post-Peace-Process Colombia
The camera flickered on and into view came Sandra, an environment and human rights defender from Colombia, the country with the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world. Until recently she worked with campesinos (peasants – as self-identified) and Indigenous communities in the Valley of Las Hermosas, the region in rural southern Colombia that gave birth to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC – six decades ago. Communities there have borne the brunt of violent conflict in the area but following the initiation of the Colombian peace process in 2012 increased funds have helped these communities to rebuild. Together with local small farmers, Sandra established an association (formally recognised in 2017) to implement and promote agroecological practices. The association began with 10 families in 2012 and within seven years had grown to 300 families. As a result of death threats and violence perpetrated against her, however, Sandra has now fled Colombia with her two daughters and is currently seeking asylum in North America. The following article is based on an interview conducted in June 2022.
Dreaming new futures through a (re)turn to agroecological practices
‘We are working on healing, on changing this story and creating new realities. We try to provide the kids the opportunities to dream.’
Agroecology is about applying the principals of ecology to farming in a way that sustains the health of soil and biodiversity, thereby counteracting the climate and ecological crisis. The (re)turn to agroecology in the Valley of Las Hermosas is set against the backdrop of six decades of conflict and the ‘Green Revolution’ of the mid-20th century, both of which drastically altered village life and agricultural production in rural southern Colombia. The Green Revolution introduced genetically modified crops grown in a monoculture using fertilisers and pesticides, techniques that were embraced by both the government and the FARC. The latter forced farmers to grow coca crops to supply the illegal trade in narcotics that funded their insurgency. According to Sandra,
‘The ancestors were more conscious of the importance of protecting the environment, before the [Green Revolution] with agrochemicals and poison started to appear on our farms. We want to have the opportunity to live in peace and to have another kind of relation with the soil, with the earth, water, a kind of ancestral relation they used to have.’
In this case, agroecology is as much about helping communities heal from conflict as it is about environmental sustainability. As well as reconnecting to the land, pursuing agroecology has put more money in farmers’ pockets, which in turn has allowed for improved access to education. As Sandra explains:
‘We also implement international standards: certified organic coffee, Fairtrade standards, Rainforest Alliance standards. All these standards require sustainability in social and environmental practices and ensure that the product you are selling is a healthy product. This means the farmer will be healthy too because they are avoiding agrochemicals and protecting the soil. And these international markets pay a better price, so the livelihoods of these families were improving, which meant the kids could go to the school. If you want to create changes you need to ensure that children at least have access to education, you also need to empower women and give people opportunity to belong and to identify with the territory where they are.’
Peace without peace
‘The Colombian peace process is a beautiful peace process, but it’s just a beautiful document. Beautiful poetry, but it is not implemented yet. That’s the reason why I am out, and many environmentalists and many leaders of their communities have been murdered and attacked.’
The government signed a landmark peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, and from the start of negotiations in 2012, until the election of the new president in 2018, the communities of the Valley of Las Hermosas experienced a period of relative calm. This allowed the newly created association to lay the foundations of its work. However, the election of Ivan Marquez as president – a conservative who campaigned against the peace deal in 2016 – undermined the highly fragile new peace. Soon after he ceased implementing the peace agreement criminal bands began to re-emerge in rural areas, with a desire, amongst others, to re-vitalise their stake in the lucrative narcotics trade. Sandra describes how:
‘the communities alerted the government, but they denied that these are ex-guerrilla fighters coming back. The guerrilla dissidents arrive with weapons, and they follow other former members. You get the option to come back to this group or die. They have different commandants for each region, and they have specific rules for the way that the community should act; what they should produce, what time you can go out, what paths you can walk by, what activities you can do and what not. They also send someone weekly to your house [to collect] a fee. If you don’t pay it, you have two options: either leave your land and never return or die. That is the way they control the territory.’
As before, the farmers are being pushed to plant coca crops which is detrimental not only to the environment and to farmers livelihoods and subsistence but has historically also accompanied by increased violence against women and girls perpetrated by guerrilla fighters; by the planting of landmines around coca crops; and by the threat of a return to government bombings as they attempted to combat the rebel groups.
As farmers resisted, strengthened by encouragement from their community leaders and by environmental and human rights activists such as Sandra, the guerrilla fighters started to burn their organic crops and target community leaders and visible advocates of agroecology. Not only did the government fail to provide protection, but they targeted these same community leaders and environmentalists in their rhetoric. Sandra explains that the government:
‘was saying we were supporters of guerrillas because we are promoting the peace and reconciliation. The government doesn’t want that. So, you are in the middle of two forces. That’s the situation of the rural communities in Colombia. They are in the middle of two [..] powerful groups and they both want the conflict because it’s business.’
Corruption, capitalism and climate injustice
‘There is a lot of financial support for climate change projects, [but] we need to arrive to social justice discussion […] creating beautiful parks in the cities will not generate a real impact in the society.
In addition to the threats from armed groups, that are compounded by government negligence, rural communities have large agri-business and extractive industries to contend with. These predominantly multinational corporations mine, frack and plant monocultures – acts which Sandra’s names ‘crimes against the environment’. She explains how many of these corporations financially support whoever is in power – be it local government or rebel groups:
– ‘to ensure that people are not making so much noise and the communities are muted, […] obeying the rules, so that they can take this natural resource, that they can develop their business without anyone saying anything against their interests.’
Corruption and lack of accountability, she explains, are widespread issues. Whilst international aid flows steadily to the Colombian government, very little reaches the communities that require it. Sandra called out Western donors for accepting at face value the project reports commissioned by the government, which claim that a significant impact was achieved. In reality, she says when:
‘you go directly to the communities, you will see the only thing that the government gave these communities could be a notebook and a pen just to take the picture. And they pay for a professional to write beautiful reports about their work and nothing changed in the communities. Nothing. There is not social justice or impact.’
She called on consumers and donors to educate themselves as much as possible on where their money actually goes:
‘we need to go back to the value chain and see who is behind this [product] and how are the communities really affected? […] like when you go and buy something that says it’s recycled, but you don’t want to see [whether the] production process was [completed under conditions of] slavery. Do we just want to go to sleep and think we are the good ones because we are sending money to that far, far and small country or do we really want to know if the communities who are in touch directly with earth, soil and water, […] are really positively impacted by our actions? […] When I was in COP26 I saw a lot of guilty big corporations interested in delivering climate change [mitigation]. Transform this into social justice for the communities which have been [tolerating their] actions. [They] have been doing this big damage to the earth and there are communities which have been facing this for years, for decades.’
On top of the social and environmental harm created by extractive industries and the false promises of government-run projects, the communities Sandra has worked with regularly face the existential threat of climate change. As she explains, ‘the floods, landslides and erosion directly affect their livelihoods, their relationship with the territory and with the environment.’ Compounding the loss and violence produced by decades of conflict, natural disasters increasingly claim their homes and family members. Nonetheless, Sandra says that ‘they have been holding out because they still try to produce our foods. They are still trying to take care of the biodiversity, the soil, the water, the air.’ In the past by ‘taking care of the environment, they were receiving their way to survive from the same environment but now the nature is against the communities.’ The particular injustice of this is, of course, that these communities have themselves played a negligible role in causing the climate crisis they are now on the frontlines of.
The way forward
As of June 19th, 2022, Colombia elected its first ever left-wing president in Gustavo Petro of the Historic Pact coalition. As a result, Sandra hopes to see more social policies, such as increased funding for rural development, including for the improvement of rural education services, infrastructure and other forms of support for peasants. Whilst she does not think that the situation will change ‘like magic’, she believes it will at least balance the scales somewhat – scales that have been tipped heavily against activists like her and the communities she works with. Sandra emphasised the ongoing need to ensure basic rights, like access to water:
‘how can you, as a mom of five, be interested in participating in workshops to empower women, if your kids are sick because they don’t have clean water and then your kid is not able to go to the school […]. So those small changes will make big changes, ensure these communities have access but really, really have access to basic rights.’
Finally, Sandra underlined the importance of continued international finance to support Colombia’s development. However, she said this should be accompanied by ‘people wanting to go to the communities’. Rather than handing all project implementation to the Colombian government, who ‘make beautiful speeches about Colombia Profunda (deep Colombia), but they don’t know what Colombia Profunda is. They don’t want to go there [because it is] far and isolated’, she would rather international organisations and government representatives go, ‘not […] to teach the communities what they need – because the communities know [what they need] – [but rather to] make the communities part of the decision making.’ Apart from anything, if they do this, Sandra is sure ‘it will come with protection for the environmentalists, for the social leaders, for the community leaders and Indigenous leaders.’
We can only hope that this becomes reality sooner rather than later, and not only so that Sandra can safely return from exile and continue her critical work. Social injustices, the results of (continued) colonial violence and capitalist exploitation, are at the heart of our current climate crisis and addressing them by collaborating ethically with the communities most affected is the only way to achieve an environmentally and socially sustainable future.
 Oliver Griffin. Sept. 13, 2021. ‘Killings of Colombia environmental activists hit record, NGO says, despite gov’t promises’. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/killings-colombia-environmental-activists-hit-record-ngo-says-despite-govt-2021-09-13/
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