How do ordinary civilians endure 50 years of brutal armed conflict? In contrast to many accounts that stress their impotence, civilians cannot simply be reduced to passive actors in armed conflict. While war often results in large numbers of civilian victims, civilians can – and often do – decide to take matters in their own hands by either siding with an existing armed group, organizing themselves into new ones, or, alternatively, choosing the path of nonviolent resistance.
This third way of nonviolence is an extraordinary undertaking that was pioneered in Colombia by the ATCC (Asociación de Trabajadores Campesinos del Carare in Spanish), a peasant worker association whose work earned them the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 1990. Britta and I had the honor of attending their 30-year commemoration ceremony last week (19 – 21 October 2017). Here’s their story:
The ATCC was born in 1987 in La India, a village in the South of the department of Santander, as a civilian resistance movement in search for peace. Its so-called area of influence spans 6 municipalities on the shores of the Carare river (see picture above), across a total of 100’000 hectares of land and 36 villages.
The Carare region has been one of the epicenters of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. Since the arrival of the FARC and the ELN (Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the former recently demobilized and the latter currently in peace negotiations with the State), in the 1970s, the region became a hotspot for both military and paramilitary counter-insurgent operations. Indeed, the 1980s saw the rise of paramilitaries in the neighboring city of Puerto Boyacá (a mere 60km bird flight from La India), where British and Israeli mercenaries financed by Escobar’s Medellín cartel helped train the ruthless paramilitary death squad MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores, Death to Kidnappers in English).
In the midst of this crossfire between guerrillas and paramilitaries, which left over 500 civilians – or 10% of its population – killed between 1975 and 1987, farmers of the Carare region decided to organize themselves to find a solution to the ultimatum they were presented with by several armed groups: side with the military, side with the guerrilla, leave the region or be killed.
In a secret meeting conducted in late February of 1987, leaders of the Carare sought a way out of this zero-sum game by proclaiming themselves peace communities committed to nonviolent mechanisms of conflict resolution, with the moto “the right to life, peace and work”.
Soon after its creation, the ATCC initiated direct dialogues with various armed groups of the region to express its new founding principles and find a solution for peaceful coexistence.
High-school teacher of La India Rosendo Córdoba Palacio, standing tall and proud on a dilapidated monument, the only remnant of this historic meeting, explains to us how members of the ATCC got together with representatives of the fronts 11 and 23 of the FARC in the village of La Zarca on 24 May 1987 to express their commitments to nonviolence and peace in the region.
On that historic day the ATCC reached the first peace accord between a non-State institution and the FARC and agreed on the following terms: no more guerrilla-imposed deaths, collaborations, conditions, surprise visits to farmers’ homes or forced involvements of peasants in the war.
The teacher recounts the fear that reigned that day as farmers allegedly assembled in the thousands to witness this historic reunion, unsure if the FARC was really interested in dialogue or if the armed guerrilla – or the Colombian military who might suspect them of sympathizing with the guerrilla – would use this opportunity to exterminate them. Fortunately, these fears did not concretize into reality.
Despite the multiple attempts to sabotage the organization, notably with the paramilitary-led assassinations of its three founding fathers and a BBC journalist in February of 1990 in a restaurant of Cimitarra, the ATCC not only managed to stand its ground but also drastically mitigated violence in the region, with no civilian deaths reported between 1991 and 2000.
Professor Oliver Kaplan, a political scientist who specializes in civilian nonviolence movements in the context of Colombia’s high levels of political violence, uses primary evidence collected in the field to show that most of this reduction in violence can be causally attributed to the ATCC and its mediation processes.
He compares violence in ATCC’s zone of influence and other, similar regions over time, and shows that the ATCC’s verification mechanisms short-circuited denunciations, since ‘suspected collaborators found to be innocent were less likely to be killed than those found to have collaborated’.
According to Kaplan, the ATCC’s recipe for success is its unwavering norms of nonviolence and nonparticipation in the conflict as well as its strong, institutional capacity, which sent a signal of their pacific stance and allowed for armed groups to distinguish ‘pacifist civilians from belligerents’.
There are many other examples of grassroots peace movements in Colombia and they have been carried out by the traditionally marginalized sectors of society: not only the peasant communities like those of the ATCC but also Afro-Colombians, indigenous groups and women (see the article by Hernández (2004) for more examples of civilian peace initiatives in Colombia, broken down by their various types).
As stressed by Professor Kaplan, at least two conclusions can be drawn by the ATCC’s success story: first, civilians are not just passive actors in an armed conflict; they can, if they summon the necessary – and remarkable – courage to confront armed actors, actually shape conflict dynamics on the ground.
[As a side note on a topic that would surely deserve a doctoral student’s undivided attention, I think that the description of civilians as passive actors in civil war, enshrined in international humanitarian law, is not innocuous: by stripping civilians of all agency, it invisibilizes local peace movements and serves to reinforce and justify bellicose rhetoric and actions. What is more, total passivity of civilians is hard to argue given the increasingly blurry line between civilians and combatants in 21st-century armed conflicts (a result of the shift from inter- to intra-State conflicts since the end of the Cold war, the privatization of military forces and the forces of globalization, amongst other factors). Side note over.]
Second, peace does not fall from the sky. Although high-level peace negotiations between the State and armed groups are necessary, they are definitely not sufficient conditions for sustainable peace. Local peace (what Colombians call ‘paz desde la base’ or ‘paz desde las regiones’) results from the arduous work of an emboldened, unified and visionary civil society committed to nonviolent resistance.
However, as ATCC members emphasized repeatedly over the three-day commemoration ceremony, their work may not even be enough: there will be no peace in Colombia without a firm commitment of the State to invest in local capacities and development. After all, peace is not sustainable without secure economic livelihoods and strong, local institutions that ensure that the rule of law is upheld and that peoples’ basic human rights are met.
Although there is still some way to go, peace initiatives such as the one created by the members of the ATCC are a beacon of hope for Colombia today. Through their strength, political consciousness and sense of empowerment amidst unimaginable adversity, these ordinary civilians have managed to transform themselves from passive agents of conflict to proactive agents of peace. These are the peacemakers that will make Colombia’s peace a reality on the ground in the upcoming decades…
If you enjoyed reading this, do not hesitate to share this article. Thanks!
More readings (both in English and Spanish):
Alther, G. (2006). Colombian peace communities: the role of NGOs in supporting resistance to violence and oppression. Development in Practice, 16(3-4), 278-291.
Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (2011). El orden desarmado. La resistencia de la Asociación de los Trabajadores Campesinos del Carare (ATCC). Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica.
Chenoweth, E., & Cunningham, K. G. (2013). Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction. Journal of Peace Research, 50(3), 271-276.
Durán, M. G. (2006). Movimiento por la paz en Colombia. 1978-2003. UNDP Colombia.
Hernández, E. (2004). Compelled to act: Grassroots peace initiatives’. In Mauricio García Durán (Ed.), Alternatives to war: Colombia’s peace processes (pp. 24-29). London: Conciliation Resources.
Hernández, E. (2009). Resistencias para la paz en Colombia: significados, expresiones y alcances. Reflexión Política, 11(21).
Kaplan, O. (2013). Protecting civilians in civil war: The institution of the ATCC in Colombia. Journal of Peace Research, 50(3), 351-367.
Kaplan, O. (2017). Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves. Cambridge University Press.
Mouly, C., Idler, A., & Garrido, B. (2015). Zones of Peace in Colombia’s Borderland. International Journal of Peace Studies, 20(1).
Rojas, C. (2004). The people’s peace processes: Local resistance processes and the development of ‘zones of peace’ in Colombia. Reflexión Política, 6(11).
Valenzuela, P. (2007). Construcción de paz desde la base: La experiencia de la Asociación de Trabajadores Campesinos del Carare (ATCC). Las prácticas de la resolución de conflictos en América Latina, 119.
Wegner, D. (2017). Rethinking Civilian Protection: How Residents of the Colombian Peace Community in San José de Apartadó Resist Violence. PAX et BELLUM Journal, 18.