The flowers adorning the green hills of Cauca in Colombia made me think of paradise. But, unsure whether that would translate culturally, I remarked merely that the place was beautiful. I should have stuck with paradise. Yes, our indigenous hosts replied, it is beautiful, it’s our sacred mountain.
The first peoples of Colombia have struggled to hold on to their land and to their identity. “We are seen as being in the way, we are seen as an obstacle to development. We were already pushed aside, but then the big landowners decided that they wanted more. They took our land, and no one was there to help us. We took it back, in the only way we knew, by re-entering the land and refusing to leave. We were beaten. Many were killed. But to us to be without land is anyway to be dead.”
“If you had the world’s most intelligent computer,” one activist remarked to me, “and you asked it to design the worst agrarian system possible, it would flash up in bright lights the word ‘Colombia’.”
Those who live off the land – not only the indigenous but the campesino peasants too – have been squeezed: by landgrabbing, by a state apparatus that was placed at the service of the big landowners, and most recently by “free trade” agreements with North America which are bankrupting family farms.
“They do not want us to grow food – they want us to buy it from abroad with the money that we are supposed to make from mining and the big biofuel plantations. But of course that money never comes to us.”
Colombia ranks as one the world’s most unequal countries. Many say that it is not so much that Colombia has a handful of ultra-rich families as that a handful of ultra-rich families have Colombia. Rural people describe a lack of empathy amongst the urban elites: “We live in different universes. They do not see us as the same as them.”
It was in the context of this brutal inequality and exclusion that the conflict began – a conflict that has raged for 50 or 500 years depending on who you talk to. The advent of peace talks between the Government and the FARC is welcomed by community workers, but they also ask that the voices of those who have suffered most are heard. “Two men with guns are now talking. That’s better than when they were shooting. But we who never held a gun but absorbed the bullets have not been asked what we think.”
A comprehensive and lasting peace is more than a deal between two parties to the conflict. ”I lost my son,” a mother from a Bogota slum told me, “he was taken because soldiers were promised a reward for each guerrilla killed, and when they couldn’t find a guerrilla they killed my son instead. I’m not looking for punishment. I’m looking for truth, for acknowledgement, for accountability, for action to ensure that it cannot happen again to another mother.”
“Why did the war begin?”, explained an academic and activist, “Because of inequality. Because the land was taken. Because the farmers had no hope. Now a peace deal may be reached, but unless the causes of the conflict are addressed it will happen again.”
Colombia is at a historic moment, not just because of the talks between the Government and the FARC, but because people are demanding more. Urban residents have come out on to the streets in support of peasant farmers who blocked the roads. Movements of indigenous, afro-descendant, and rural and urban majority communities are making common cause. “Peace needs justice,” as one activist put it, “I don’t mean imprisonment. I mean justice.”