November 18, 2013
The Department of Arauca, on the northeastern edge of Colombia bordering Venezuela, is home to the Caño-Limón-Coveñas pipeline. The conflict over natural resources, territory, and autonomy here has involved all of Colombia’s armed actors–the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP), the Army of National Liberation (ELN), paramilitary organizations, drug-trafficking entities, and the Colombian Army, as well as complicit local politicians. Arauca society has suffered many of the travesties of Colombia’s armed conflict–displacement, kidnapping, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, mining, sexual violence, “false positives,” youth recruitment, bombardment, intimidation, extortion, and terror. (For more background on Arauca, click here.)
Nonetheless, there is also emerging in Arauca an incipient movement for peace and reconciliation. Increasingly, citizens are seeking ways to re-weave the social fabric and to recover from the ravages of war–even as the war rages about them. The region has a history of highly mobilized civil society and faith-based organizations on which to build, although these organizations have been hard-hit by the war. The newly formed Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation are a part of this incipient movement.
Arauca Organizes for Peace and Reconciliation
I flew into Arauca in the early morning hours of October 30th, at the end of what the local population was calling “Black October.” The previous month had been particularly violent, with a wave of attacks on oil pipelines and energy towers, bombardments, and shoot-outs. The local newspaper, El Mirador, reported that the Eastern Front of the ELN had issued a death threat against local journalists and political leaders in Arauca. The ELN claimed they had undertaken 50 military actions (including 5 attacks on the local police station) in the previous two weeks.
I was in Arauca to participate in two events–a national meeting of the Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation (CCRs) and the 2nd International Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Arauca. Both were organized by the Bridges for Peace Process, a project of the Mennonite Church, Justapaz, and the Asociación de Fundaciones Petroleras. These events were supported by a number of entities, including the U.S. Institute of Peace.
I had attended the First International Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Arauca in May 2012. That meeting culminated in the founding of seven Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation–one in each of the seven municipalities of the Department of Arauca. Arauca’s CCRs committed themselves to undertake a series of actions during the year that would culminate in the second international forum in 2013.
Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation (CCRs)
The prototype for Arauca’s CCRs was created by Ricardo Esquivia, director of Sembrandopaz, some five years ago. Under Ricardo’s quiet leadership, CCRs have blossomed in eight departments of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. All of the CCRs are exploring the meaning of reconciliation in the Colombian context and in their own communities. They have broad multisectorial participation from the churches, universities, civil society, the business community, and local authorities (with some departmental variation). Ricardo and several of the leaders from the Caribbean coast traveled to Arauca to participate in the national meeting of the CCRs and shared experiences with their newer counterparts.
National Meeting of CCRs
The national meeting of CCRs was held on October 30, 2013. The day included capacity building workshops and discussion of key concepts relating to reconciliation and justice. Each CCR reported on their activities from the previous year and outlined their dreams and goals for the next year. CCR representatives from Arauquita, for example, where there are 25 neighborhoods and 12,000 inhabitants, told of activities that included forums, workshops, dialogues, marches, participation in the Week for Peace, concerts, and meetings with the different organizations (ranchers, Accion Comunal, yucca growers, millworkers, fishermen, students, and the press (community radio). They described their plans to reach out to new members, create radio programs, print flyers, initiate inter-sectorial dialogues, and create linkages with the education sector, where they have already secured approval for a peace chair (Cátedra de Paz). The day ended with a “Caminata por la Paz“–a March for Peace. Hundreds of people dressed in white tee-shirts proclaiming the need for peace and carrying candles and banners wound through the streets of Arauca. The march ended at the Arauca Town Hall, where the delegates were received by a delegate from the Mayor’s Office, and youth from different schools, sometimes dressed in regional costume, performed a cultural program of song and dance.
2nd International Forum for Reconciliation in Arauca
The two-day international forum began the next day, on October 31. It brought together some 200 delegates from the CCRs in Arauca, as well as delegates from the Caribbean CCRs, and international guests representing a variety of organizations including the United Nations, U.S. Institute of Peace, and Partnership for Democratic Change (Argentina). Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, was to be one of our featured speakers, but when the government and FARC-EP peace delegates in Havana decided to extend the last round of talks in order to finalize agreement on the accord on political participation (see my previous blog posts on the agreement they reached on November 6), he sent a video message instead. (The next round of talks, originally scheduled to begin today, has been postponed to November 28).
In his video message to the forum, Jaramillo predicted that “Arauca will be one of the great scenarios for peace-building.” Indeed, the participants in the forum said more than once, “If peace can be built in Arauca, it can be built anywhere.” Jaramillo underscored the importance of the regions, Arauca, and local peace-building initiatives in the construction of peace and reconciliation. Here is the link to his message:
Peace in the Regions and in the Borderlands
The issue of peace in the regions is a critical one for the future of a peace accord. Once a national accord is signed, each region will need to have its own process to implement the accord and there is likely to be an adjustment period as the national vision becomes operationalized in particular local contexts. As would be expected, each region in Colombia has its own history, with different conflict drivers, variations in terms of the armed actors and diverse demographic composition, and variety in the history of local organizations and leadership. Thus, each CCR responds to its own particular context and takes on its own unique characteristics. While the CCRs on Colombia’s Caribbean coast have developed a strong regional identity, the Arauca CCRs are organized by municipality rather than region. Also, Arauca’s CCRs are promoting an intentional process of dialogue within and between three key sectors–civil society, government, and mining and energy companies–that have been particularly polarized in Arauca.
Of the border regions that have most suffered neglect by the State, Arauca is perhaps one of the most abandoned. It is a site of both social and armed conflict, with, as Socorro Ramírez has noted, “a precarious or distorted State presence, marginalization, disjunctures and interactions exacerbated by the flow of irregular groups, and all types of contraband.” These border regions, where armed actors have often sought refuge, will be strongly impacted by a negotiated settlement in particular ways that were explored in the event in Arauca. Participants expressed hope that a peace agreement would soon be reached in Havana –“con prisa y sin pausa” (with speed and without interruption). They acknowledged that a political solution could provide an opening at long last to address the social conflicts underlying the armed conflict, including agrarian issues, drug-trafficking issues, and regional development models more broadly. There was nonetheless consensus that the negotiations will be insufficient to bring peace and reconciliation to the regions. That task will fall to all Colombians.
Progress in Peace-Building
The changes I saw since my last visit to Arauca were striking. When I facilitated workshops at the first international forum in May 2012, participants from the same small municipalities of Arauca did not know one another, and there was relatively little interaction between members of the indigenous communities and other participants. (See my post on “Hitnu Concerns in Arauca.”) Energies seemed to be rather dispersed and programmatic ideas were plentiful, but without a clear sense of priorities. Since then, there have been more than a year’s worth of activities organizing events, establishing priorities, and of course, preparing for the second international forum. The CCRs in Arauca have made impressive progress since 2012, though each municipality has faced its own challenges. In particular, it has been hard in some communities to engage local authorities. Click on the following link to see a video documenting some of the CCR preparatory activities for the Second International Forum: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4yD3aCyXatjbldCSURZSzBuZjQ/edit?usp=drive_web.
Through these activities, the CCRs have been creating their own group identity, driven by a clear sense of common purpose. Indigenous voices and those of other groups have become more visible within the CCR agendas. This year, with a peace process in place, furthermore, there seems to be a better understanding of the role the CCRs might play both in channeling local and regional inputs into the national process and also providing linkages with the national level for implementation. The action plans produced and presented during this year’s international forum were clear, coherent, and manageable (though still ambitious). This local infrastructure for peace, although incipient, can potentially help ground a national peace accord at the local level.
(Photos in Slide Show Courtesy of Christian Voelkel).
- Read the final “Declaración del Encuentro Nacional de Comisiones Ciudadanas de Reconciliation,” Oct. 30, 2013.
- Read the final “Declaración del II Foro Internacional para la Paz y Reconciliación en Arauca, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2013.