Gathering knowledge, protecting life: the Peoples’ Intercultural University

The situation in Colombia is cause for real concern. During the first half of 2019 Colombian civil society and the international community have once again witnessed the persistence of armed conflict[1] and patterns of violence with socio-economic roots throughout the different regions of the country: from the Caribbean to the eastern plains, passing through the Magdalena Medio and Santander regions, down to the southern border and the south-west, where this blog is focused. The country is experiencing a reconfiguration of the armed conflict which has been terrifying this corner of the planet for over half a century.

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In 2016, different organizations from the civil society started counting attacks against social leaders, which has sadly made Colombia famous[2]. 2016 was also the year in which the Peace Agreement was signed between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP guerrilla group, a year that raised the hopes of many Colombians who had only known war, or for whom peace felt like something relegated to the past. Despite this early promise, the reality has been a period filled with delays in the implementation of the agreements[3], attempts to modify them[4], worrying news about deadly orders within the Colombian army that put the civilian population at risk[5] and, finally, further attacks against leaders. These incidents have together buried any optimism: in May 2019 the murder count reached a chilling high point, with 702 leaders killed and murdered, according to figures from the NGO Indepaz[6]. The situation is so complex that in April and May thousands of leaders gathered together in a humanitarian shelter in the Plaza de La Macarena in Bogotá, demanding that the State build and implement a public policy to protect their lives[7]. That event is now over, yet the figures have not stopped increasing. Yet what does this data mean? Sometimes it can be complex to understand and, above all, feel what the figures are trying to represent. That is why we need to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about attacks on leaders.


As part of PBI’s field team, we have the great fortune of accompanying many of these people in their regions and we can´t help thinking, after getting to know them, that their leadership is, in one way or another, necessary for all of us and their protection is a right for all of us. After all, it is these leaders who protect ancestral memory and wisdom from which we can learn so much, even those of us who were born thousands of kilometres away from the Cauca department, or from the River Naya, places that are unfortunately identified more with violence than with the human rights that their communities been defending for so many years. These leaders are people who cultivate more humane ways of seeing the world and it is really tragic that because of this work they have to risk everything: not only their lives, but also the lives of their sons and daughters, the survival of their communities, and the existence of their traditions. This living knowledge that has been flowing for hundreds of years in places like San Juan, in a rural area of ​​Buenaventura, is what really brings colour to our great human society, in which we all have the right to look and feel recognised, but which will soon be gone if we do not protect it.


With each murder that fills the pages of the national and international press[8], not only is a number added to the list of killings, there is also a part of all of us that dies with each person, and that, although we may not see it, manages to cross borders, cultures and even languages. Their lives are the barrier reef, the roots that stop the destruction and deforestation of everything that makes us who we are as a species. Their loss calls into question the future of our rivers, our seas, our forests, our subsistence on the planet, our health and that of the people who will come after us and who, like us, also have the right to enjoy the wealth that our planet has to offer.

A social leader is a person who has decided, with the support of their community, to champion our rights. This seems to be the understanding of the Intercultural University of the Peoples (Universidad Intercultural de los Pueblos – UIP), an educational process focused on training leaders to build collective knowledge for the collective wellbeing (buen vivir) of the peoples of Colombia and Latin America.


The educational process that led to the creation of the University began in 1999, born out of the need to rebuild the social fabric which had been broken by political violence, selective killings, massacres and forced displacement caused by paramilitary groups known as the Pacífico, Farallones and Calima Blocs that operated in the area, who were part of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The direct forerunner of the University was a human rights education and research project in which 950 human rights defenders from the region graduated. This project was coordinated by the NOMADESC Association, founder of the UIP and currently coordinators of the Academic Council. The President of NOMADESC is called Berenice Celeita, a human rights defender who is currently accompanied by PBI. She believes that defending culture in its widest sense “is the most important thing”, because it is “culture that enables us to resist”.

Berenice Celeyta (Nomadesc) during one of the UIP workshop

The UIP classrooms are the territories themselves, and today, like yesterday, they are being threatened by illegal actors or mega-projects[9]. Alumni include renowned leaders such as Francia Márquez, recognised, among other things, as being the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in April 2018, awarded to defenders of nature and the environment[10]. The organisations, peoples and grassroots sectors who are members of the UIP hold the historical memory of serious human rights violations in the 1990s and 2000s. Some members of the Academic Council are survivors of the most cruel and inhuman eras that the region and country have experienced[11]. Unfortunately, these leaders are gathering new memories of attacks, like the one experienced by Francia Marquez on 4 May 2019, when she was subjected to a grenade attack in the north of Cauca, when she was with other leaders belonging to the Black Communities Process (Proceso Comunidades Negras – PCN), the Association of Community Councils of North Cauca (Asociación de Consejo Comunitarios del Norte del Cauca – ACONC) and the Association of Afro-descendant women of North Cauca (Asociación de Mujeres Afro-descendientes del Norte del Cauca – ASOM), during the national protest known as the Minga[12]. Because of the capacity for resilience of these leaders, driven and strengthened by pedagogical, investigative and psycho-social processes, they are known as elders by the other students, as a sign of affection and recognition, and are part of the fabric of teachers in the University. These elders have promoted intergenerational dialogues to understand, recognise and plan inter-cultural and inter-generational proposals for the region.


The UIP brings together the experience of more than 15 years of building this pathway, of dialogue about knowledge, experiences and education, hand in hand with the social, ethnic and grassroots organisations from the Colombian south-west region. The UIP’s work is focused on training young human rights defenders who are already active in their communities, especially in Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental rights, and in bringing together social, ethnic, small-scale farming and grassroots processes. To this end, the UIP has three training programs on human rights: Development Models and the Rights of Peoples; Life Plans and Social Humanism; and Sovereignties and Collective Wellbeing (Buen Vivir).


“The greatest achievement of the Peoples’ Intercultural University is the participation of communities in decisions about their life plans, harmony and balance, vital to encouraging us to continue the struggles for the rights of peoples”. This balance and harmony are represented in many ways, for example, by food sovereignty; that is, healthy food for everyone, and our version of trading with what we grow and produce. The right to our culture is also vital, to live according to our own values ​​and principles, to communicate in our own language. The UIP represents a fundamental space for collective process and leadership training. Via tours in different territories, the UIP proposes that its students learn through lived experience: a tour allows you to visit a UIP member’s community and understand the history of its territorial and organisational process. This is how we learn what we all know deep down: the cultivation of ancestral wisdom, the survival of our languages ​​and cultures, the health of our rivers and forests, and the health of our sons and daughters.

The people and communities most at risk continue to be those who are struggling against the destruction and looting of common land and resources, which would enable us to achieve and develop what communities call collective wellbeing (buen vivir). We should support projects such as the UIP that accompany new leaders from the south-west of Colombia and facilitate their continued work despite the ruthless attacks they experience.

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What are we waiting for to start sharing the burden that the leaders and communities in Colombia are carrying today? Among many other things, there is a lack of awareness. To have your consciousness raised on an issue is to “feel it” as your own. Just as we cannot fail to notice when we burn ourselves, we should all feel affected by the fire of the conflict that exists in Colombia today and the numbers of leaders that have been killed.

Sophie Helle and Adrián Carrillo


[1] El País: “Hay cinco conflictos armados hoy en Colombia: CICR”, 20 July 2019.

[2] El País, Colombia rechaza con contundencia el asesinato de líderes sociales. 7 July 2018.

[3] RCN Radio: ¿Qué tanto se ha avanzado en la implementación del acuerdo de paz?. 10 April 2019.

[4] El Heraldo: Duque objeta seis artículos de la JEP y anuncia reforma constitucional. 10 March 2019.

[5] The New York Times: Las órdenes de letalidad del ejército colombiano ponen en riesgo a los civiles, según oficiales.

[6] El Espectador: 702 líderes sociales y 135 excombatientes  habrían sido asesinados desde firma del Acuerdo, 18 May 2019.

[7] RCN Radio: Más de dos mil líderes sociales inician en Bogotá el refugio humanitario por la vida. 29 April 2019.

[8] El País: Colombia rechaza con contundencia el asesinato de líderes sociales, 7 July 2018; El País: Gritos colombianos (Tierralta, Córdoba), 26 June 2019.

[9] See for example, El Paí Viaje por el andén del Pacífico: amenazas han desplazado a los maestros de Iscuandé, 3

December 2018; Verdad Abierta: Reacomodo de grupos armados ilegales impacta con fuerza a Cauca, 10 April 2018

[10] Semana Sostenible: El “nobel ambiental” que ganó Francia Márquez por su lucha contra la minería ilegal, 23 April 2018

[11] Youtube: Asociación Nomadesc, Consejo Académico Territorial de la Universidad Intercultural de los Pueblos 2019. 8 July 2019.

[12] Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES): Atentado contra Francia Marquez en el Cauca. 5 May 2019

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