This article forms part of the quarterly Peace Dispatch series – a collection of articles sharing recent insights and analysis on conflict and peacebuilding from a network of local peacebuilding experts around the world. Explore other editions here.
Conducting peacebuilding work in Colombia is challenging even at the best of times. It has become all the more difficult to implement and sustain during a global pandemic, where the social and political impact is deepening fault lines and exacerbating social conflicts and violence. The pandemic has called into question the government’s commitments to the implementation of the peace accord, with indications that resources allocated to the peace agreement might be sacrificed and repurposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its economic impact. Indeed, the governing party has proposed that part of the peace process funds be prioritised for healthcare and saving businesses. However, this strategy fails to recognise the direct linkages that the peace process has with the pandemic response.
How peacebuilding is affected by the pandemic
Colombia’s peace process, which is the result of many years of negotiations carried out by the Colombian government under President Santos and the FARC guerrilla movement, introduced the important notion of ‘territorial peace’. Central to this concept is the idea of peace as development, which recognises the key drivers of conflict as historical exclusion and land inequality between groups at the community level. Indeed, this component has become integral to the peace process and is increasingly a core activity for many local organisations engaged in grassroots peacebuilding work – focusing on local empowerment through community-based processes and social leadership.
A demonstration for peace conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A major challenge to local empowerment continues to be targeted violence against social leaders. While it is assumed that community leadership is key to achieving territorial peace, the reality shows that local and community leaders are being systematically attacked by illegal armed groups as they are perceived as local threats to the growth of illicit economies. More than 400 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed since the beginning of the implementation of the peace accord, with over 100 killed since the start of 2020. The number of social leaders killed has actually increased during the pandemic; Somos Defensores reported up to 60 social leader killings over the first quarter of 2020, compared with 25 over the same period the previous year. Furthermore, in most of the territories, illegal armed groups have reinforced their control and have used the threat of a pandemic as a method to expand their influence and coerce local populations.
While some peacebuilding initiatives can tackle difficult challenges and keep working to empower social leadership and territorial peace, many other initiatives and community peacebuilding processes are being dramatically affected by violent actions against their community leaders. It goes without saying that when social leaders are killed, the community peacebuilding processes they were leading also struggle. This not only affects social cohesion in those communities, but represents a tremendous crack in Colombian democracy and any effort for an economic recovery strategy in a post-COVID-19 environment.
Adapting on the ground
Despite these challenges, local civil society are creating new opportunities for peace, recognising that the quarantine is a unique moment to innovate and develop skills in order to strengthen social leadership across the country and demonstrate local resilience and adaptability.
I would like to highlight three local initiatives that have shown both the challenge and importance of efforts to defend territorial peace within the context of a global pandemic:
Puentes para la Reconciliación (Reconciliation Bridges), an initiative being implemented by the Fundacion Compaz, supports territorial transformation through the development of a vast network – what they call a ‘peacebuilding ecosystem’. Their main mission is to connect social leaders across the country and share experiences and knowledge to increase the impact of peacebuilding work at the territorial level. Since the lockdown, two online training sessions have been carried out as part of this work, connecting 10 peacebuilding and social development initiatives led by social and community leaders.
The Tiendas de Paz (Peace Shops), a community-based programme developed in collaboration with the private sector and supported by USAID and ACDI/VOCA, has benefitted more than 9,000 people in different municipalities across Colombia. The initiative involves working with local grocery stores to continue supplying and selling community-based products during the pandemic, as well as providing social support through training, and technical and business advice. The programme builds on the role that local shops play not only in providing essential daily supplies, but as a meeting and training space that communities can share. The programme aims to strengthen community dynamics, support shop owners to generate income, and maintain conditions conducive to peace and community cohesion.
The Tienda de Paz in El Diamante, located in the Apartadó municipality, used to be a local grocery store serving a community of more than 300 inhabitants. Following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, the tienda adapted into a local space that uses social networks to supply goods and set up virtual groups to build solidarity among villagers. The local population could place orders through WhatsApp and engage with each other online to talk about peace and reconciliation and build trust through virtual spaces.
While some peacebuilding organisations have focused on adapting activities at the local level, other civil society actors are advocating for peace online, calling for the peace implementation process to remain a key priority for the government. Heeding the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, peacebuilders are pushing for the national government and the guerrilla group ELN (National Liberation Army) to reactivate peace negotiations. Furthermore, Defendamos la Paz (Defending Peace), CINEP, and the Colombian-German Peace Institute (CAPAZ) arranged virtual dialogues with government representatives and civil society to discuss the impacts of the pandemic on the peace process. Defendamos la Paz also sent a statement to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia warning them about the government’s instrumentalization of the pandemic to undermine the peace agreement.
Standing for peace
The COVID-19 context has taught us that local peacebuilding and community-based initiatives are fundamental to activate rapid response mechanisms and allow community resources to be adapted to humanitarian emergencies. Local initiatives and community leaders have the capacity to adapt peacebuilding efforts to deal with the conditions imposed by the pandemic without affecting the peace implementation process. In order to sustain local peacebuilding processes, it is essential that the central government recognise the key role of local civil society actors play in responding to COVID-19 and protecting the peace process. It is clear that though the pandemic poses major challenges, there is no bigger threat to the prospects for peace than the rooted violence that continues to target local peacebuilders and their essential work.