Connecting peace research, action, and education in Colombia

Connecting peace research, action, and education in Colombia

By Angela Lederach

(Original article: Notre Dame Global Development Fellowship blog.  September 14, 2016)

From September 7-9, 2016, the University of Cartagena’s Observatory for the Study of Displacement, Conflict, and Peacebuilding hosted the first annual International Forum on Peace Studies. The conference offered an unparalleled opportunity for critical analysis and collective reflection on the implications of the recently announced peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which marks a political end to nearly 60 years of internal armed conflict. For the participants that gathered, the conference offered a space to not only identify the current demands that this historic moment presents for the field of peace studies, but also a space to recognize the impact that civil society has had in their decades-long work for peace that made this agreement possible. As Rosa Jimenez, the Director of the Observatory for Displacement, Conflict, and Peacebuilding reflected in her opening remarks,

I was born into the war and grew up in a context of war, but today I can say it is ending. Those of us gathered here, we are not just colleagues, but friends, friends who share a common dream, a dream not just for the end of war but for transformation. We believe, not in an academia with 4-walls, but in research that is connected to action.

With a commitment to participatory action research and an approach to scholarship that moves beyond the “four walls” of the university, the conference brought together over 200 scholars, activists, and practitioners from a diverse range of geographical and social locations to explore the themes of justice, truth-telling, social movements, land rights and territorial peace, and peace pedagogy.

As Colombia prepares for a popular vote on October 2nd, which will decide the fate of the historic peace accords, the conference also provided the unique opportunity to illuminate the possibilities and challenges that peacebuilders will face in the coming weeks and years. Beyond the upcoming plebiscite vote, the need to continue working towards structural transformation of the root causes of war, including historical land struggles, was central in the keynote speeches and panel discussions. Nozizwe Madlala Routledge, former Vice-Minister of Defense of South Africa and a key leader in the struggle against apartheid, reflected on the need to hold hope together with critical reflection in the struggle for peace with social justice.

In his keynote address, Dr. George Lopez, professor emeritus of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, affirmed the key contributions civil society and grassroots peacebuilders in Colombia have made in laying a foundation for the peace accords – elaborating the ways in which the interdisciplinary field of peace studies enables innovative connections between research, action, and education to transform conflict and build lasting peace with justice. The unique contribution of peace studies was reflected in the primary commitment of the conference to create a space of critical reflection and collective knowledge production by bringing together not only academic scholars, but also local and regional peacebuilding leaders and activists.

The concluding panel of the three-day conference illuminated the creativity and transformation possible when research is not isolated from, but combined with community expertise. Naun Alvarez Gonzales and Omar Rodriguez, two leaders of a campesino (peasant farmer) social movement – the Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña – spoke about the ways in which their communities have worked to build peace and reconciliation even in the midst of violence. In 2013, the Peaceful Process formed to lead 1,000 campesinos on a weeklong march to demand collective reparations for the harm caused by war and violence. As a result of the march, they signed 91 agreements with the government to repair the harm of war. Sustainable implementation of peace agreements, Naun Alvarez Gonzalez asserted, requires community-led processes that can ensure a justpeace,

This is a grassroots experience, an experience that we have built together, since together we are building peace…. And it is from within this experience that the process of constructing our historical memory was born. As campesinos, we had demands. What were they? That the construction of memory come from the local communities. It has always been people from the outside who came to construct our historical memory but we said, no, we said, we will be the ones to construct our own memory, our own history … and this has been very beautiful. To know your own history is to know your identity…This is a space that has given us life again … Today, as campesinos, we are reclaiming our culture and our traditions. Through memory, we can build peace. 

By prioritizing the voices of grassroots experts who have committed their lives to building peace in Colombia and by connecting academic scholarship with community-based processes, the International Forum on Peace Studies at the University of Cartagena cultivated a space for innovation, collaboration, and critical analysis capable of confronting the challenges and opportunities that Colombia faces in this historic moment. In doing so, the University of Cartagena stands as an example not only for Colombia, but for peace studies institutions across the world

The Colombian state and the international community would do well to take seriously the words, experience, and expertise of grassroots leaders like Naun as they turn their attention to the implementation of peace accords. Forums like the one facilitated by the University of Cartagena’s Observatory for Displacement, Conflict, and Peacebuilding are critical in order to continue making the necessary linkages between the grassroots communities most affected by the armed conflict, and the institutions charged with implementing a truly victim-centered process.

In her concluding remarks, Nozizwe Madlala Routledge ended with the words of Colombian peacebuilder, Ricardo Esquivia, written the day the peace agreement was announced. It only seems fitting to also end this post with those same words,

We, as a people, from the grassroots, full of happiness and hope, with our hand on the plow and our feet firmly on the ground, look ahead with expectation and tempered enthusiasm. Upon looking ahead, we see the enormous challenges and obstacles on the path towards the horizon of justice, peace and reconciliation. We don’t want to think only with our desires, nor let the enthusiasm and joy of this moment dull our understanding and keep us from taking the opportune and pertinent steps that we need to in order to take advantage of this great opportunity… Popular wisdom says ‘he who sleeps on the floor never falls out of bed’. With our feet firmly on the ground and sleeping on the floor, we welcome these accords, and embody faith and hope as we continue to cultivate peace in our region as we have done for all these years.

Acknowledgments: I want to thank the USAID Fellowship program in partnership with the University of Cartagena’s Observatory for Displacement, Conflict, and Peacebuilding for supporting my dissertation research. I am also grateful for the generous support I receive from Fulbright and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies in partnership with Sembrandopaz. Finally, I want to thank the Proceso Pacífico de Reconciliación e Integración de la Alta Montaña, for their unending support and generosity.

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