Don Gerardo talks slowly, and his relaxed way of speaking and the kindness that radiates from him are infectious. He wears a typical Colombian farmer’s hat and sleeps in a hammock. He is a man who follows rural traditions; he eats sancocho stew, drinks coffee with cane sugar and has a siesta in the afternoon. He has a great relationship with the younger people he works with, like a teacher inspiring his pupils, and in fact he is well-qualified for this role because the journey he has been on in his lifetime could be written down in the history books of Colombia.
He is one of the founders in 2004 of the Corporation for Humanitarian Action, Coexistence and Peace in North-Eastern Antioquia (Corporación Acción Humanitaria por la Convivencia y la Paz del Nordeste Antioqueño – Cahucopana), together with Don Macías and Don Pedro, and the very mention of these men’s names is now enough to command respect. It was these men, together with other small-scale farmers from North-Eastern Antioquia who decided to organise together to demand better conditions for a dignified life in rural areas. They also wanted to make visible the human rights issues in their region, as they were badly affected by the political and armed violence at the time, when people were scared to talk about, report or criticise the violence; they had been silenced through fear. Recently, Cahucopana has been celebrating its adolescence as the organisation has reached 13 years of age, and the farmers remember the old days with admiration and pride at how they overcame their struggles and how they never gave up their resistance. However, for Don Gerardo, it is too early to celebrate as there are still issues to be resolved. “The Peace Agreement has been signed, that’s all great, but what about social violence?”, he asks, on an evening where the full moon and the dim glow from the four street lamps in the village of Plaza Nueva (Antioquia department) shed light on the many needs that still exist in rural areas of Colombia.
Here the communities measure distance by the time it takes you to get from one place to another. From Remedios, the main municipal town, to this small village of some fifteen houses, it usually takes about three hours by motorbike. That is if you don’t run out of engine oil or your motorbike doesn’t break down. You have to know about mechanics and take everything you might need with you so you can carry on as quickly as possible. But what happens, for example, when the heavy rains come and the frequent mudslides block the main road, and you have to make a huge detour that could take up to twelve hours on the rural bus known as the chiva? There’s nothing else you can do except be patient and try to enjoy the countryside, until the obstacles on the road become more and more challenging and the dust becomes unbearable and the rocking of the chiva makes you feel sick: all you want to do is get to your destination!
“The people who are in government should have to make the same journey so that they can understand what we need in deepest Colombia”, says Don Gerardo while Alexa, Giordano, Carlos, Moncho, Víctor, Jonathan, Cristi and Ernesto, who make up Cahucopana’s team in the field, and Tommaso and myself from PBI, sit around him in a circle of chairs as we enjoy the freshness of what feels like a summer evening. He is of course right, they should come to the rural areas where it is so difficult to get around and takes such a long time, and find out for themselves how your whole body aches when you get to your destination. And they should see for themselves that the diet here is not very varied simply because there is not much food in the area. And they should talk to the two only teachers about what it is like to teach thirty-three young people of different ages from different villages. And what it is like to get toothache or be bitten by a snake and find that there is no health centre nearby and that instead you have to make the same journey back to Remedios, just so that you can be seen and get some kind of medicine.
For Don Gerardo, it is these “simple” things lacking from their everyday lives that constitute social violence in Colombia. Of course he is also worried about the paramilitaries who continue to threaten small-scale farmers in North-Eastern Antioquia, making them pay protection money for one reason or another and telling them that they have to keep quiet or else… And the young people who are recruited by illegal armed groups. And how they wear down the social fabric in rural communities… However, as long as people have difficulties feeding themselves, washing, accessing healthcare and education, peace in Colombia will be a long way from being guaranteed.
I have been asking myself the question “what kind of peace do we mean when we talk about Peace in Colombia?” over and over again for a long time, bearing in mind that the laying down of weapons is not the end of the conflict in this country. There is not only one answer to this question, because there are many social needs in a country marked by inequalities and the most cruel kinds of violence; especially as the answers come from such diverse places: urban and rural, marginalised neighbourhood and rich suburb, small-scale farmer and businessman, indigenous and mixed-ethnicity person, victim and perpetrator…
In spite of all the attempts so that little by little and very slowly there are glimmers of hope, ideas which could offer a way forward and respond to all the needs of society, suddenly something else happens that changes the apparent calm in Colombia and erases all the efforts made. Certain business interests, for example, are the source of much fear: mineral extraction, mono-crops, large-scale cattle farming, the construction of large-scale infrastructure, and even the infamous drug-trafficking routes. These scenarios bring negative consequences for the communities where they are implemented, despite the fact that each of these projects is presented to them as an opportunity for success, future and peace.
It is for this reason that Cahucopana continues to transform its members’ beliefs and traditions into struggles for the defence of land and resistance, to find alternatives to these scenarios which are designed to make profits without taking local people into account. All this was reiterated by the technical team, accompanied by some of its founder members who are the historical memory of the organisation, during their anniversary in Plaza Nueva, this village that has been hit by violence and abandonment for decades. We all managed to get there, despite the difficulties along the way, and we stayed there for five days, to work on collective reparation, to hear about the organisation’s journey, and to observe their work planning their future as an organisation. A future that is uncertain in Colombia but that Cahucopana will continue to work towards, supporting grassroots organisations and community processes in North-Eastern Antioquia to contribute to the end of political, social and armed violence.
Silvia Arjona M.
 PBI Colombia: Cahucopana
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