The signing of a historic rapprochment Monday between Colombia’s government and main rebel group Monday will be largely symbolic for the people hit hardest by more than five decades of civil war, as the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities gear up for a struggle in the face of the new challenges while the lasting legacy of the peace deal remains in question.
Carlos Rosero, a leader of the network of Afro-Colombian organizations known as Process of Black Communities, told teleSUR by phone from Bogota that the end of the war “means the possibility of being able to live without any anxiety.” The peace accords, he said, could signal a change in the government’s attitude toward land rights, but there is no question that Colombia's communities of color must continue to struggle for access to land and other resources that continue to be coveted by multinational corporations, and agri-businesses.
“We have to rise up in the daily battle knowing that like always we have to maintain our resistance,” he said.
Clemencia Herrera, a representative of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, shared a similar perspective on the beautiful new realities of peace, with cautious optimism amid the potential for rapid change in the countryside.
“For Indigenous peoples, the signing of peace means an opportunity to live more peacefully in our territories without being displaced, massacred, and violated as it's happened during the more than 50 years of conflict,” she said.
But as some 7,000 remaining FARC rebel fighters descend from their jungle camps to hand over their weapons and reintegrate into society for the first time in the groups 52-year history, new conflicts over land and resources could bubble up as conflict-ridden territories open up — possibly for business.
That’s exactly what Herrera, Rosero and their fellow leaders are worried about. They said that Indigenous and Afro-descendent groups expect that the default position of the peace treaty's land reform provisions is likely to follow a model of resource exploitation that traditionally has disadvantaged Black and Indigenous communities. That extractive model, they argued, would promote private economic interests on communal lands at the expense of environmental and humant rights.
“It could create more competition for the resources on our lands,” Herrera said.
“It is going to generate many more problems that have to do with the economic model promoted the territories,” Rosero added.
Laying the Groundwork for Peace
The FARC guerrilla army and the Colombian government unveiled the landmark final peace accords on Aug. 24 in Havana, Cuba, after nearly four years of long-awaited negotiations. Members of the FARC unanimously ratified the deal at the last armed national conference before they demobilize and take up new a brand new strategy as a legal political party. President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko will officially sign the historic 297-page document on Sept. 26 in the coastal city of Cartagena before the question is put to a popular vote on Oct. 2 asking Colombians to say “Yes” or “No” to the peace deal.
The “Ethnic Chapter” of Colombia’s peace accords between the FARC guerrilla army and the government outlines an inclusive approach to fomenting a durable peace. The agreement calls for “maximum guarantees” for these communities’ human and collective rights in light of the grave suffering they endured during the civil war and their “historical conditions of injustice resulting from colonialism, slavery, exclusion, and having been dispossessed of their land and resources.”
The “safeguards” detailed in the deal call for respect for Indigenous communities’ internationally-recognized right to free, prior and informed consent for development projects on ancestral land and guaranteed participation in various peace-promoting processes, such as measures to enshrine victims’ rights and combat drug trafficking. The text of the deal promotes an intercultural, intergenerational approach that recognizes the importance of collective land ownership and stresses that in no way should the implementation of the peace accords infringe on the rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples.
An Eye of Caution from the Margins
Despite the positive rhetoric championed in the deal and the unquestionable victory of ending more than half a century of armed conflict, history has taught Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-descendent groups that their rights, land, and resources must be defended, and that’s what community leaders are prepared to do in peace — just as they did in war.
According to local organizations, the Colombian government is sitting on at least 1,000 pending requests for legal recognition of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian title to their collective lands. For Omaira Bolaños, Latin American program director of the Rights and Resources Initiative, the “historical debt” of unrecognized traditional and ancestral territories weighs heavy on the country’s current page-turning moment. And whether or not authorities show the political will to act on pending titles could mark the difference between progress and setbacks for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, as well as the environment.
“Indigenous peoples are already mobilizing themselves to present their own proposals,” said Bolaños, highlighting movements struggling to protect the local environment and assert their rights to informed consent as tools of resistance against the economic policies that put mining exploitation at the top of the agenda.
She said that the peace accords “create new proposals for sustainable, agrarian development and land access that are going to greatly affect rural communities.” But for many, the question of what kind of development remains key.
Rosero argued that the armed conflict deepened historical inequalities battering those at the margins of society and “served to impose a set of economic, social, cultural policies while the people were focused on survival.” He emphasized that Colombia’s poorest and most vulnerable communities have suffered widespread forced displacement and runaway poverty, while a proliferation of mining exploitation and drug trafficking has taken a toll on the environment.
The imposed development model Rosero talked about — and fears will get another boost with the peace deal — is directly at odds with the collective, sustainable, low-carbon way of life practiced by native communities spread across Colombia’s ecologically-rich Amazon rainforest, Andes mountains, Orinoco savannas, Caribbean plains, and other regions. Together, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities legally hold 37 million hectares of land across the country, and about half of Colombia’s total forest area is located in designated Indigenous and Afro-descendent reserves, known as resguardos.
A growing body of research shows that collective land rights of Indigenous groups has the power to support local economic development, improve community well being, strengthen environmental preservation, slash carbon emissions, and ward off deforestation. Underlining the centrality of questions of communal land tenure, the first chapter of the peace agreement identifies unresolved land ownership issues as one of key the reasons for the outbreak of the conflict with the FARC in the first place in the 1960’s.
At the crossroads of critical and complex issues, land ownership is a matter that urgently needs to be addressed, not only for the Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities whose territories are in question, and not only for the climate, but also for a future free of conflict with guarantees that the war will not repeat itself.
Learning from the Past
The challenges facing Colombia may be new to the country after decades of war, but the looming questions, particularly about the inclusion of diverse groups and protection of their rights, don’t come as a surprise to those who have observed similar peace processes elsewhere in the region.
Rodolfo Cardona, a representative of a nature conservancy and community well-being program in Guatemala’s Peten region, told teleSUR by phone from Bogota that Guatemala’s peace deal — and its shortcomings — can offer many lessons to Colombia as it navigates this historic moment. Importantly, he stressed that even though Guatemala ended its 36-year civil war with the signing of the peace accords in 1996, the Central American country failed to transform its culture of violence, while sidelining Indigenous issues in the agreements. Now, Guatemalan society still struggles under the weight of the root problems of inequality that spurred the war, epitomized today in soaring levels of outmigration, rampant gang activity, and unfinished fights for justice.
While the process in Colombia has significant differences from Guatemala’s, the history can still offer a warning sign, Cardona argued. Critics say that lawmakers in Guatemala dragged their feet after the 1996 accords, betraying a lack of political commitment among elites to build — as it has been called in Colombia — “true and lasting peace.” The 50 proposed constitutional amendments born directly and indirectly out of the peace accords were struck down at the ballot box in 1999 — three years after the 1996 accords — as confusion and disillusionment discouraged over 80 percent of voters from going to the polls. As a result, Guatemala’s dictatorship-era constitution hasn’t been updated since the final years of the 36-year civil war in 1993, leaving cornerstones of the peace process unprotected by the constitution.
The historical lessons hangs heavy for Cardona as Colombians prepare to vote in the Oct. 2 plebiscite on the question or whether or not they accept the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. Unlike in Guatemala, the plebiscite comes quick on the heels of the signing of the agreement and is aimed at giving democratic legitimacy to Congress to make legal reforms after the vote, but it is still pivotal in defining the tone of the path forward.
“The ‘Yes’ represents approval for carrying out changes in a concerted way,” said Cardona, adding that he sees it as a question of completing a process that started with the outbreak of the conflict 52 years ago. “A ‘No’ represents leaving the process in the middle and incomplete.”
He expressed hope in Colombians to vote “Yes” to the deal, predicting it could play a part in helping to prevent future social conflicts, violence, and even unnecessary deaths.
Cardona was pleased to see the “Ethnic Chapter” in Colombia’s peace accords, a preliminary remedy to the problem of Indigenous issues being “forgotten” in Guatemala’s peace deal after the Maya population suffered a brutal genocide under the dictatorships. Nevertheless, as a leader of a successful community forest management project that has borne great benefits for the environment and local rural Indigenous population in Peten, Cardona warned that government dialogue strategies don’t always mesh with Indigenous practices. He stressed following the will of the people, not imposing technocratic solutions from above, is essential.
While offering advice for Colombia, Cardona also said he hopes that the end of the longest war in the Western Hemisphere will cause his own government to reflect on its progress — and lack thereof — toward peace.
“Now Colombians have inspired us once again,” he said. “We hope Colombians will take into account the problems and experiences we had in Guatemala, so as to not take the same path.”
It’s a challenge Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have already accepted.