When our grantee partners tell us what their communities need, we listen.
When our grantee partners in Colombia told us they wanted the opportunity to engage strategically with the peace process — to participate in local and national conversations about the country’s future — we listened. Many of these people had been working towards peace in their communities for years. In early 2016, the timing seemed right to try something new. We decided to develop a one-year funding initiative that would support the collective efforts of diverse partners located throughout Colombia. By the end of the year, we had awarded small grants to support peace-building efforts to a cohort of 18 organizations from among current and past partners.
The right moment for action
Almost a year ago, the Colombian government called for a public vote on its peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. Ratification failed on Oct. 2 by less than a percentage point, which took the country by surprise. For many of us at the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) that have been involved in grassroots development in Colombia for years, even the failed vote proved that Colombia was at a critical juncture to end the conflict and to relieve the misery and suffering that came with it.
The Colombian Congress approved a revised peace accord with the FARC in late November just as our peace-building cohort kicked off their projects. IAF foundation representative for Colombia Juanita Roca notes that the timing of the peace-building initiative was perfect: “By the time the negotiations reached a final approval, it was exactly the right moment for civil society. It’s at the local level where the peace agreement is going to be measured.”
For the last six months, members of our cohort have been working with their organizations and communities. They created public and private partnerships to create local development plans. They started campaigns to raise awareness about human rights and to prevent violence. They are promoting economic development beyond what was possible during the armed conflict.
Each of these individual activities has a role in a peace agenda. As one member from grantee partner Consorcio said, “The fundamental concept of peace is conceived as political, economic and social. It’s not enough to just stop the war.”
A great example of how young people engage with peace-building efforts comes from our grantee partner PRODESAL. This organization works with 750 young people from the departments of Atlántico, Bolívar, Córdoba and Sucre. In a region that was characterized by the emergence of paramilitary groups only to be replaced by criminal organized gangs, young people resist violence by engaging with municipal authorities and the private sector, such as the Surtigas corporation, to build municipal peace agendas.
These young people are making their priorities known on what it takes to make them less vulnerable to crime and violence. For example, they want local authorities to increase available resources such as transportation subsidies for travel to school, seed money to start businesses, and access to technical training to improve job skills.
Women have taken advantage of strategic alliances with local and regional authorities through IAF grantee partner Ecofuturo. This organization works with women associated with privately managed nature reserves near the municipality of Bolivar in the department of Valle de Cauca, an area that has seen a surge of violence in the past year. Our support to women members of Ecofuturo allows them to reaffirm their own value as peace builders. They teach each other about their rights and empower each other to design public programs for their benefit. As a recent example, many women received training and certificates in information technology and other skills to improve their businesses and to start new ones.
One participant in Ecofuturo’s programs, María de la Paz Pulido, exemplifies how women now recognize their strengths and contributions to the rural economy:
“Our business is a dream come true that allows us to educate our family through our efforts and happiness from working as we please. To see everything that we sow flourish is an inexplicable joy.”
The coffee cooperative Empresa Cooperativa del Sur del Cauca (COSURCA) was founded in 1993 in Popayan in the Cauca region. This is a region that saw heavy activity not only from FARC skirmishes but also in coca cultivation. When we first funded COSURCA in 2005, it had already established itself as a leader in reducing coca cultivation through alternative crop substitution programs. The IAF grant went toward improving organic production of coffee and Andean fruits.
As part of our peace-building cohort, COSURCA employs its skills to strengthen civil engagement at the grassroots level. They are setting up community museums that display the history of the conflict as a way to heal and move forward. In a region where several different ethnic groups coexist — and sometimes clash over land and other issues — this small investment is a crucial first step toward national reconciliation.
Moving forward with hope
Our IAF investments in peace-building have just begun. Achieving a future without conflict in Colombia will take more time. Where FARC guerillas demobilize and hand over weapons, new criminal actors or other armed groups move in to seize power.
However we believe our approach is effective because we place development in the hands of people best able to change their own destinies. These are our partners working in their territories and especially in areas where the central government has had little reach or access.
This is an historical moment in Colombia. It is an opportunity for Colombians to form a new social compact. We have seen civil society grow even as civil leaders emerged as targets for new enemies of peace. As Roca observes:
“People all of a sudden are feeling empowered, but the peace accords need to be something tangible that they can relate to in their everyday lives. How you accomplish that is in the territorios. Our peace initiatives confirm the idea that local solutions are important in the context of larger problems. These are the building blocks for peace in Colombia in the long term.”