Colombia: On the Path to Reconciliation?

Since 2014, I have visited Colombia regularly and the conversations I’ve had there with Colombians, at work, on the street, in the hotel and in taxis, have given me a little glimpse into the changes happening in the country. My most recent visit was in April, between two elections. Parliamentary elections were held in March and a new president will be elected at the end of May. Unsurprisingly, the future of the peace process was on everyone’s lips.

Colombia: On the Path to Reconciliation?


2018: The Uncertainty of an Election Year

It has been over a year since the peace deal with the Farc was reached, but unfortunately its implementation remains uncertain. Investments in socio-economic developments are urgently needed in the worst hit areas.

The peace agreement was signed at the end of 2016, bringing to an end 52 years of war, and with it the longest running civil conflict in South America. Over 7,000 Farc fighters handed in their weapons and in the same year president Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The Farc formed a political party and took part in the preliminary election round held this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, they only won 0.3 percent of the votes. Many Colombians do not agree with the amnesty granted to the rebels and the transformation of the Farc into a political party. Despite its election losses in March, the Farc will get ten seats in parliament, as agreed in the peace deal.

Key Points of the Peace Deal

The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Farc has six components:
1. Integral land reform and rural development (land reform was always one of the Farc’s most important political demands);
2. participation in the political process by the Farc;
3. end of the conflict (re-integration of Farc rebels);
4. fighting illegal drugs;
5. reparation for victims and the establishment of a special peace tribunal;
6. implementation and verification of the agreement. 

Right-Wing Liberals

Former president Alvaro Uribe’s right-wing liberal party Centro Democrático (CD), who oppose the peace deal, scored well in the March election. The 41-year-old leader of CD, Iván Duque Márquez, a vigorous opponent of the peace agreement, has accused president Santos of making it far too easy for the Farc to be let off the hook for its crimes, saying that he is taking advantage of the culture of fear. He warns of the danger of a communist state. Powerful politicians, landholders and multinationals are feeding these fears too. Even though during his presidency Uribe took a hardline military stance in his dealings with the Farc, it is unlikely that a CD-led government would adopt a military approach again. Uribe and his followers want peace in Colombia too, but they also want considerable changes to the peace deal. If they are elected, juridicial changes are likely to take place that favor the right-wing liberals and disadvantage civil society organizations.

A worrying development is the continuing violence against human rights activists in rural areas, in particular against those fighting for land rights, environmental activists, and indigenous and union leaders. According to the UN, at least 105 activists were murdered in Colombia in 2017, and most of these murders have gone unpunished. Former paramilitary private militias (many of whom are now members of ‘bacrims’, bandas criminales) are responsible for many of these crimes. The Farc’s success will depend, among other things, on how much its political opponents are prepared to cede in the name of peace.

Implementation Not Fast Enough for Many

The implementation of the peace deal has encountered severe delays. The former rebels say that the government is doing too little to help their re-integration into society. Transition camps were set up throughout the country to prepare the disarmed rebels for their re-entry into civilian life. But according to the UN-mission in Colombia over half of the Farc members had left these camps by the end of November 2017. Many of the rebels have returned to their families and villages in the countryside, or have joined new armed groups.

Development of these rural areas (infrastructure, education, health care, support to small-scale farmers) and guarantees of safety for social leaders are progressing very slowly. The division of land and farmland ownership in Colombia is extremely unequal. This and neglect of rural areas are the structural causes behind the armed conflict. Restitution of land to the victims of the conflict, the registration and formalization of property rights (for which the Dutch Kadaster is providing assistance) and the re-designation of derelict land are also being delayed. Powerful landowners and companies regard land reform as a threat to their land ownership.

The opposition has managed to torpedo the process by insisting on endless debates in parliament on details and politically sensitive issues. The special peace tribunal that was originally intended to try representatives of all sides (rebels, military, business leaders and politicians) for war crimes and human rights abuses has lost power under pressure from the opposition.

Nevertheless, many inspiring initiatives are emerging that are aimed at improving the country’s economy and the lives of the rural population and contributing to long-term peace.

Manq’a: Cooking Together for Peace

During my last visit I facilitated a strategic session between the founders of Manq’a: ICCO and Danish chef Claus Meyer’s Melting Pot Foundation. I am also privileged to have helped set up the Manq’a concept and its cookery schools in Colombia.

The Manq’a schools are located in the poorer neighborhoods of Bogotá and Cali, and train young people to become chefs with specific understanding of sustainable Colombian food and healthy nutritional choices. The training not only focuses on the technical aspects of being a chef, but also on personal development, creativity, problem-solving competencies and entrepreneurship. On completion, the newly qualified chefs are capable of starting their own business, for example catering, a restaurant or a ‘street-food car’. Manq’a is not only supported by an accredited national vocational education institute; top Colombian chefs have also put their name to it. They offer internships in their own restaurants, so that young people can gain work experience and they provide catering guidance too. Manq’a strengthens the relationship with local farmers, who gain access to a new market through the schools and the restaurant chefs. The dream of this project is to offer young people better employment opportunities and small-scale farmers income opportunities, as well as increasing Colombians’ pride in their own traditional cuisine and the country’s biodiversity.

Manq’a is also playing an important role in Colombia’s peace-building process. The protracted conflict has had devastating effects on the country’s youth. Many became dislocated after being forced to move to a safer area. Others fought in the civil war and are now trying to find their way in peacetime. After decades of conflict, rebuilding a harmonious society is a complex process. Cooking and eating together can sometimes help: these are activities that bring people together in a way that is conducive to dialogue about the new Colombia, without violence and with a new identity. At Manq’a schools young people from a wide variety of backgrounds come into contact with each other. Some were active in the conflict and want to re-join society, others were victims of the violence. The encounters are sometimes tense yet at the same time create a special way to restart dialogue.

Just how big an impact Manq’a can have on the lives of young Colombians and how it contributes to the peace dialogue became clear during a visit to one of the schools: a former rebel publicly, and totally unexpectedly for all those present, offered his apologies to a victim of the conflict and (both Manq’a students) they spontaneously shook hands. They declared that together as the young generation they will work towards a peaceful future for Colombia. It was a truly moving moment.

Rural Peace Project: EU Trust Fund Supports the Peace Process

I also attended the launch of Rural Peace, a project financed by the EU Trust Fund and which receives assistance from the Dutch Embassy. The project is implemented by the NGOs ICCO and Kerk in Actie, both of whom have continued to work in Colombia in the past decade despite the difficulties, and can count on 35 years’ experience and a wide network.

The project is being implemented in the southern departments of Nariño and Putumayo, areas that were hardest hit by the armed conflict. It aims to work with 2,500 farmers, young people and ethnic communities to improve their food security, income, and access to markets. Twelve companies in the agricultural sector receive finance, technical assistance and management support. Investments in these companies will have a positive knock-on effect in the region: businesses’ demand for local farm produce will increase, thus strengthening the whole value chain. In addition, the project supports the participation of women, indigenous and farming communities in the decision-making processes of regional development plans.

ICCO implements the Rural Peace project with seven partners: PAX, CETEC, RENACER Putumayo, the indigenous union of the Awá people – UNIPA, JUSTAPAZ, Truvalu and the national platform of rural women, in partnership with the ministries of agricultural and local government. An investment fund managed by Truvalu has been set up to attract private investment to the region, to stimulate promising value chains and thus help promote the development of agribusiness.

Dutch Cheese, Colombian Passion

Another inspiring initiative, of a totally different kind, is that of Dutch social entrepreneur Tobias Rijnsdorp. I accompanied him on a rainy Saturday to Monquentiva, a small village lying at 1,300 meters up in the tropical highlands, a two-hour drive from Bogotá.
Tobias came as a student to Colombia to do research in Cali on how to increase small-scale farmers’ access to the formal market, such as supermarkets and restaurants. The Gouda cheese that visiting friends and family brought from the Netherlands was highly appreciated by his Colombian circle of friends. And so the idea was born of making a tasty cheese in Colombia that would earn farmers an honest income. With no experience of cheese making or farming, Tobias first apprenticed himself to Van Vliet cheese makers in Oudewater, in the Netherlands. Armed with a recipe and his optimistic entrepreneurial spirit, he then returned to Colombia.

He was able to undertake a feasibility study of his plans thanks to a subsidy he was granted by the Dutch Good Growth Fund. This fund is one way in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives support to Dutch SMEs looking to invest sustainably in emerging markets and developing countries. After doing thorough market research Tobias embarked on a joint venture with a small dairy cooperative in Monquentiva, an area that had been affected by the conflict until ten years ago. Development is badly needed in these rural areas, if the hard-won peace is to be maintained.

The cooperative in Monquentiva, which has 54 small farmer members (each of whom has 10-30 cows), supplies milk to Tobias’ cheese making operation. Using machinery imported from the Netherlands, some of the milk from the cooperative is processed into handmade Gouda cheese, which adds value to the local milk chain. Young people from the area have been trained to follow the Dutch recipe, and the factory now produces beautiful yellow cheeses.

Called HolaAndes, the company supplies cheese online and offline, mainly to individual customers, restaurants and specialist shops in Bogotá. Farmers are now paid more for their milk, and extra jobs have been created for a number of young people: a fine contribution to economic stability and employment opportunities in the Monquentiva area.

Back to the Elections

While there are exceptional initiatives such as these, the peace process still has a long way to go. At the end of May it will become clear what course the country is likely to steer. Besides former president Uribe’s party mentioned above, there are other presidential candidates, such as the progressive Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and former guerrilla who is campaigning for a new economic model based on sustainability. His opponents, which include big oil and coal companies, are warning of a ‘second Venezuela’ and destabilization if he were to come into power. Then there is the center-left former mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo, a professor of math who brought about a social revolution in the once dangerous Medellín and who wants to put the peace deal into practice. The liberal centrist party of the current president Santos (Partido de la U) has not put forward a candidate.

Whatever the election result, it is vital that the new government gives priority to implementing the peace agreement – whether in a diluted form or otherwise – especially in the hardest hit communities. Hopefully the peace deal will survive the elections and the Colombians will be able to finally put the past five bloody decades behind them. For this to happen, political pressure and support for the peace-building process from the international community, including the Netherlands, remains crucial.

Machteld Ooijens
Owner of Partnering for Social Impact. Machteld works for ICCO as strategic advisor on projects in Colombia. 

Author Machteld Ooijens
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