The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó continually turns displacement and victimhood into innovative sustainability and peaceful resistance.

A collective of over 500 peasant farmers in the Urabá region of North-West Colombia, this courageous community has faced threats, stigmatisation, assassinations and massacres because of its members’ choice to resist displacement and declare themselves neutral in the midst of a civil war.

With many economic interests in their lands and the continued presence of illegal paramilitary groups, the community remains in grave danger. Since its formation in 1997, over 200 farmers from the region have been murdered.

Neutrality in the midst of armed conflict

The community’s declaration of neutrality is a way of protecting itself. This idea is based on the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians in international humanitarian law.

Living spaces are clearly marked out as civilian, sending a message similar to that of a red cross on a hospital; members claim their right to non-involvement in the conflict and demand that armed actors do not enter their living areas. This principle of neutrality has enabled them to return to many of their settlements after displacement.

With the conflict present all around them, “staying returned” is a constant challenge for the community’s members. With armed actors continuing to do battle close to their settlements, there is the danger of being caught in crossfire or stepping on a landmine. (The community reports battles that occur very close to living areas; between January and June 2013 it reported at least 21 [1].)

Challenging human rights violations and impunity

The Peace Community denounces crimes against its members in regular communiqués, believing that crimes against humanity should be exposed. In 2005, eight people from the community were massacred, including three young children and community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra. In 2013, two military generals were indicted for the atrocity.

Their struggle for justice exposes the community members to reprisals and threats. Colombian authorities at the highest level have spread misinformation and publicly branded them as guerrillas. Such stigmatisation puts them at serious risk because it creates a justification for crimes committed against them; it can challenge their credibility and provide a green light for paramilitaries and other actors to attack.

Lack of protection from the Colombian government

In July 2012, Colombia’s Constitutional Court (order 164) ordered the government to implement protection measures for the community, retract dangerously stigmatising comments made by former president Álvaro Uribe, and carry out an inquiry into institutional corruption and impunity relating to the community.

These measures have yet to be carried out. The community hopes international pressure will encourage the government to comply with the ruling. The measures would help ensure protection for the community’s members in the future.

Fair trade is protection

The community aims to create alimentary, economic, energetic and educative autonomy. Part of this project is their exportation of fair trade organic cocoa to Europe, including to Lush Cosmetics. San José de Apartadó is in one of the best regions in the world for cocoa.

As well as sending a political message about the Peace Community to foreign consumers, they aim to create a more conscious, critically-minded market. They also get a better deal for the labour they use to produce their cocoa. The resulting sustainability of their project is a form of protection in itself.

The community is also able to buy cocoa from local farmers who aren’t members of the community or pay them to work on community-owned plantations, thus benefiting the local economy and protecting traditional ways of life and of working the land.

Defenders of the environment under threat

The Peace Community works to protect its members, but also to protect the whole territory and the way of life of those that live there. The land is extremely fertile and biodiverse, and the Peace Community and other farmers who live there have a special relationship with it.

“A farmer without land is like a child without a mother”, says Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, of the community’s Internal Council.

These farmers have traditional ways of working the land in sustainable and environmentally-friendly ways, passed down through generations of rural living. They have a respectful relationship to the earth, and they want to preserve their territory’s extraordinary biodiversity.

On a small, subsistence-farming scale, they grow rice, plantain, banana, beans, corn, and of course, cocoa.

Alternative education

The Peace Community runs a Farmers’ University, in which different communities get together and share knowledge. Subjects include political organisation, sustainable farming techniques, and environmentally-friendly energy production.

This is part of their non-materialist ethics – it is an alternative and autonomous education that isn’t exchanged for money, which they believe is dehumanizing, and is about educating people for the good of humanity.

Peace Brigades International

PBI has provided protective accompaniment to the Peace Community since 1997.

Notes

1 Peace Community Communiqués 1st January-12th June 2013