Living among conflict: San José de Apartadó, Colombia

Report and Interview: Written by Javier Ramirez.

“I saw extraordinary humanity. I saw war, I saw death, I saw dead bodies. I heard bullets. I was in a cross fire. All kind of stuff. I was accompanying people that had lost their land, lost their houses, lost children, and their life projects. They were incredible, strong, dignified and so supportive of each other, and I thought this is something extraordinary.”

Colombia is experiencing a great moment in history. The Constitutional Court has given its approval for the upcoming referendum on the agreements between the government and the Farc rebels – a monumental milestone for peace within the country.

This announcement has initiated campaigns both against and in favour of the peace negotiations. However, ignorance towards points agreed in Havana within society is worrying for the organisations that are campaigning in favour of the peace process. This is why it’s very important to show to Colombia and the world that there are communities within the country that have been surviving in the midst of the war, influenced by the urgency of ending Colombia’s armed conflict.

One significant and noteworthy community is Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. This community is located in a small township of Urabá, North West Colombia. This community has been an example of tenacity and tolerance in light of the fear and desolation caused by the conflict. They are prime victims of the war, as the guerrilla groups, national army and paramilitaries assassinated many of their leaders. The community lives with daily threats, and the latent threat of forced displacement.

Gwen Burnyeat, British anthropologist and graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds, has been involved with Colombia and its peace process for six years. She first decided to do an internship within the country, and later a masters degree at one of the most highly regarded Universities, the National University of Colombia – where she was also a lecturer for a year.

Now, Burnyeat is back in London to do a PhD at UCL and to air her documentary about the peace community and their cocoa production. Her documentary “Chocolate of Peace” was launched a few weeks ago, and The Conflict Comment has spoken to the compelling activist and filmmaker about her experience in Colombia, her documentary and the peace process.

An Q&A Interview with Gwen Burnyeat

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Javier: Why did you chose Colombia as a place to study?

Gwen: I never chose it, it chose me. I first arrived in Colombia by accident, more than six years ago. I had undergraduate and master degrees in literature. I wanted to work in human rights, but I did not know what I could do in human rights apart from being a lawyer and it sounded boring. So I started doing different kinds of internships, short-term contracts. I worked with refuges in London. I did some translating for a Spanish NGO about Human Rights. And then I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity of a research internship with the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in the America office that is in Bogota in Colombia. I remember very clearly, on the first day, my boss, who is a very sophisticated Peruvian lawyer, said to me well what do you know about Colombia? And I said completely honestly, well I read the history section of the Lonely Planet on the plane, and he sent me to the Luis Angel Arango library in Bogota for one month where I studied the history of the armed conflict and the transnational justice theory. My research project then was on reparations to the victims of the armed conflict but I was only in Colombia for four months. I felt I had touched only the surface and I wanted to carry on learning.

J: As far as I know you had experience working in the field of the conflict at Uraba in Colombia. Could you explain to us what was your experience working such a difficult place as Uraba?

Gwen: After ICTJ, I wanted to find a new job in Colombia, and I applied to a job with an organization called Peace Brigades international which is an NGO that does international observation to the armed conflict and also protection to human rights defenders in different countries in conflict around the world, and they have been in Colombia for many years and they also had a team in Uraba, thus they sent me to Uraba. I was working with communities that have been affected by the Colombian conflict and have been displaced many times in Uraba. Traveling around the whole region was extraordinary, it has changed my life, it turned my life upside down because I really saw not only the effects of brutality and violence but also the consumerist life style.

Uraba is banana land. It is the place where the banana industry since the 1960s expanded in Colombia and that has been highly linked to paramilitary violence, and whenever I go to the corner shop here in London in Kentish Town I see bananas from Chiquita Brands, and as you know Chiquita Brands has been responsible in United States courts for financing paramilitaries groups. So by living in Uraba and seeing those sort of communities you see the effects of our life style on the people in the remote regions of the world that are usually invisible to our eyes. But I also saw extraordinary humanity. I saw war, I saw death, I saw death bodies. I heard bullets. I was in a cross fire. All kind of stuff. And I was accompanying people that lost their land, lost their houses, lost children, and their life projects. And they were incredible, strong, so dignified and they were so supportive of each other, and I thought this is something extraordinary.

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J: What is the peace community of San Jose de Apartado. Who are they?

Gwen: They are a community of peasant’s farmers. They declared themselves in 1997 neutral to the armed conflict as a strategy for self-protection. They were literally in the middle of the guerrilla, paramilitaries and the state. They were being involved in the conflict by all sides, and the involvement can be quite simple. It could just be a little farmer in a house and two hours walk from any of your neighbours, no phone signal, no roads, and a group of guerrilla members arrived to your house heavily armed and the commander says we are hungry give us a chicken and give us some water. What are you going to say? So basically they have to obey. On the other side is the military forces that seeing that the guerrilla groups go to your house and after they marked them out as guerrilla collaborator. This is terrible unfair. Thus they declared themselves neutral which is a kind of interpretation of international humanitarian law’s principal of distinction which stipulates that combatants must not make civilians a target in an armed conflict. So the community created special signs, living spaces marked out as civilian population only. They do not accept any armed group, even if they go for water, because they make them a target from the other side. They are an incredible community. They are well recognized by the international community circle. Additionally they export organic cocoa for a British multinational, Lush Cosmetics. So this multinational buys the organic cocoa from the peace community, 50 tonnes per year. They processes the cocoa butter and the multinational use it in their products. The company improve the production technics of the community cocoa production and also they speak out against violations, similar in some ways to the way a human rights NGO behaves. They have been campaigning among their customers for support for the community.

J: You have mentioned that a multinational is supporting the community. However Colombia has been having foreign investment since 1990. I would like to know how they do deal with those multinationals that already are set up in Colombia.

Gwen: They have only a relationship with Lush Cosmetics who is the main buyer and Lush just buy specifically from the peace community because it is an ethical thing. They do not want any old cocoa in Colombia. They want this cocoa with a political story. And in general in the world today we are seeing an increasing awareness in what is the political history behind the products that we buy and what it is the impact on human and non-human life from our consumerism practices.

J: This multinational has been aware of what is happening within the community. However, the role of the Colombian state is also important within some communities in the country. What has been the role of the state with this community? What has the state done for them?

G: This is a really sticky question. Basically the peace community has been, in their words, in ‘rupture’ by the Colombian state since 2005. This is due to a multiplicity of factors, very complex historical process, but the icing on the cake was a massacre in 2005 of 8 people of the community, including one of the prominent leaders and also three children, one of them only 18 month old. And this kind of tactics were very common in certain parts of Colombia in the paramilitary expansion because it was not just about killing people but using the bodies to terrorise the rest of the community and sending a strong message. And the massacre was carried out at the hands of the Colombian states, the army together with paramilitaries which was proved by legal sentences. And the community lost faith in the justice system; they lost faith in the military; so they decided to end all relationship with the Government, but they said they will put four conditions to resume dialogue.

J: What are the four conditions?

G: First, a commission to investigate the failures of the justice system to give them justice in the previous attempts. Second, the removal of a police station which the government put in their town, because it is a military target which involved the community. The third point is that the Government recognize a series of humanitarian zones they want to establish in their territory, which are safe houses in which the civilians can take refuge in case of armed confrontation and crossfire. And the forth condition is that the presidency restores the good name of the community and apologize, retract stigmatisations made by ex President Álvaro Uribe in 2004 and 2005, and restore the good name of the community as peaceful, legal, legitimate human rights defenders. This last point was fulfilled in December 2013, when President Santos apologised in the name of the state, and in his own personal name, for the multiple horrors that the community have lived at the hands of the state.

J: Colombia is having a historical moment. The peace process is the new reality in the Nation and the Government and Farc are close to ending the conflict. What does the peace community think about the peace process?

G: It is a really good question, and I think we need to see the peace community not as isolated group but as a community that is emblematic of the feelings of many communities around the country. They are generally sceptical about the peace process. However some of them recognized the importance, for example, it will put an end to crossfire. The security situation will improve in one way. However they are concerned about the paramilitaries groups and the real will of the Government to tackle this because they are worried that if the peace process happens, international attention will turned away from Colombia and then they will lose the international support which is their only protection against the crimes of paramilitary groups.

J: Let me ask you about your documentary Chocolate of Peace. A very informative documentary about the peace community and the cocoa business. Why have you done a documentary about the peace community?

G: During my masters degree at Universidad Nacional, my research was about the peace community, and kind of by accident the opportunity emerged to do a film about it. I worked with Pablo Mejia Trujillo who is my Colombian counterpart, he is my co-director, a very talented Colombian film-maker, and he and I decided that what we wanted to do was make a film that could contribute to the discussions that are ongoing at the moment in Colombia about the peace process and its importance. The peace community is very important in international human rights circle, but not many people knows about those human rights circles. So we wanted to make a film accessible to all Colombians. We made this films also for peace education and it tells the story of peace community through the narrative of the production of cocoa.

J: What do you think about the peace process in Colombia?

G: It is one of the few shining lines in a very dark world right now. I think it is going incredible well. I am very optimistic. There are many challenges they still have to face just to get the final agreement, and I think it is something that is becoming clearer to most Colombians. It has been unclear for long time and the source of much discussions and controversy. But I think one thing that basically is getting clear is that one thing is the signing of the final agreement and another thing is peace building, which will take generations and efforts from all sectors in civil society. So I think people are more or less getting on the same page about that now which is good.




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