Generating a trusting environment in order to build lasting peace

What is it like to build peace in communities affected by violence for so many years? That is the mission of Sembrandopaz, an association that creates spaces of trust and builds sustainable communities in Montes de Maria in the Caribbean coast area of Colombia. An interview with social leader, Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas. Leer este artículo en español.

By Marcela Vásquez-León and Koleia Bungard
Translated by Lillian Hall
Edited by Daniela Moreno Ramírez

In Colombia there are many people who have been working in peace-building since much before the last peace accord between the national government and the ex-guerrillas of the FARC. Lawyer, social leader and human rights defender, Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas has been doing it for more than fifty-five years. Currently, he is the director of Sembrandopaz. In this interview, Ricardo Esquivia talks about the work of this association and the importance of rebuilding trust in areas that have been affected by the armed conflict.

Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, 2019

–What exactly does Sembrandopaz do and where do they do it?

–We work to strengthen civil society and build sustainable communities in the Caribbean coast area; specifically in a sub-zone we call Montes de Maria. This area is made up of fifteen municipalities spanning two provinces: Bolívar and Sucre. The capital of Bolivar is Cartagena, which is a little better known, and the capital of Sucre is Sincelejo. Today this area is part of the sixteen special boundaries created to implement the post-conflict agreements. (Note: these were the 16 territories hardest hit by the armed conflict).

Basically, we work with a vulnerable population: people who were displaced by the armed conflict in this region. A total of 136 massacres were committed here, and the peasants fled, but now they are returning. For that reason, we work with them to build a bridge between them and the government, as well as with exguerrillas.

–Can you explain to us what happened in this region of the country? Why was there so much violence in Montes de Maria? 

–One must look at several things. The Caribbean region has a flat surface. It has few mountains: the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, which is closest to the Venezuelan border, and other smaller mountains called Montes de Maria. The whole area is dedicated to extensive cattle production owned by large landowners. The peasant is a sharecropper and lives in the less fertile areas, which are the mountains.  

Some thirty years ago, the peasantry organized itself very well in an organization called the National Association of Peasant Farmers (ANUC). They worked hard, were very politically trained, and had organizational structures in each of the municipalities and in each rural hamlet. But the large landowners brought the conflict here and needed to remove them all and take apart the organization. So, they invited the paramilitaries who came and, later, the guerrillas appeared to protect the peasants from the paramilitaries.

That is how the conflict formed, the war. There were 136 massacres. They killed some 600 people. This broke the social fabric and destroyed all the trust there had been between the inhabitants. Chaos erupted in the area.

–How did Sembrandopaz come to this area?

–We started in the year 1996. We were developing all these topics of peace-building and someone who worked in the office of public order and citizen coexistence of the Ministry of Government invited us to bring this work to Montes de Maria.

In this area, there were eight armed groups: two legal (the police and the military), plus guerrilla fronts such as the EPL, ELN, the FARC, the PRT, and also the paramilitaries. Each group demanded loyalty and commitment in its area. This broke the relationship between the different communities and each became an enemy of the other.

Therefore, how can we turn all those individual interests into something that would unite them? We traveled to Montes de María and started building an infrastructure of peace between the people, so that when some peace accords would happen with the armed actors, there would be trained people who could help make these agreements reality.

‘Yo Soy Porque Nosotros Somos’ es un concepto sudafricano que Sembrandopaz comparte y promueve en los Montes de María. Foto: cortesía Sembrandopaz.

–After the various peace accords in the region and in the country, you have taken on the task, as your name implies, to plant peace. How have you done it?

–In my personal case, on the one hand, I am from the area. I was born in Cartagena, so we are not exactly strangers. On the other hand, the concern is: how can one get close enough to these communities to build trust? The difficult part is creating spaces that generate trust.

We see that, for example, this is an area that produces avocados; it is the area in the country that produces the most avocados. During the ten years that the small farmers abandoned their farms due to the violence, a fungus came in and killed almost four thousand acres of avocado trees. After the communities returned, they were thinking about avocados, but the State didn’t assist them. They needed the State to help, but because they were enemies, they thought they couldn’t work together.

Something had to bind them together, a concrete reality, such as avocados, which provided what they needed to live. Since that time, in the Alta Montaña area, the people have united, organized, and have a very interesting movement.

–Sembrandopaz promotes Creative Spaces of Trust-building. What does this mean?

-One of the first effects of war is the rupture of trust, so our role is to create what we call Creative Spaces of Trust-Building, where not only can people talk, but also re-encounter their peers with whom they were at odds. Trust is so easy to break; the difficult part is re-building it. It is built through life experiences. We don’t talk so much about reconciliation; we talk about re-encountering, which is the first step to reconciliation. So how do people come together again?

Besides, the problem is not just with the industrialists, or the ranchers, or the Army, etc.; the main problem is within the same community because my neighbor broke my fence line, it is my neighbor’s pig that got into my garden and ate my cassava. So, it is imperative to work on that level. Our work is to get close to the communities and search for those spaces that generate trust.

La asociación Sembrandopaz atiende sectores comunitarios. Libertad, en el municipio de San Onofre; Pichilin en el municipio de Morroa; Manpuján, del municipio de Maria la Baja; Alta Montaña, en el municipio de Carmen de Bolivar, y San Jacinto.

How is the relationship of Sembrandopaz with the work of other communities, both regionally and nationally?

We believe that it is imperative to have models; that people say ‘if it exists, then it’s possible’, ‘If they could, then we can.’ These spaces of trust-building we have called Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation and Peace, and we have taken them to different regions of the country.

We started the task on the Caribbean coast, in several continental provinces and on the island of San Andrés. We traveled to Arauca, on the Venezuelan border, which is a very difficult area. As a result, we established Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation and Peace. We started to work with the ELN and FARC guerrilla groups, but structuring civil society so that it could be the foundation for all these tasks. Then we headed to Nariño. Nariño now has a CCRP. Later we created one in Urabá and in a part of northeast Antioquia.

So, we have tried to make these small groups in such a way that they could motivate and inspire the rest of the community.

–How do you get people to believe in these initiatives for peace?

–People have to see that it is possible; however, one of the problems is that people lose trust in themselves, so they say «That’s not realistic. We will only be listened to if we burn tires and use violence. This will ensure that they will send in the police and the press, etc.»

The purpose is that through organized, nonviolent grassroots actions, the voice of the community is heard, government takes notice and the community is transformed.

–How are these processes sustained?

– A big challenge in a community like ours is how to sustain itself, because our people are very simple and they do what serves them. They listen to our workshops, but only that which is useful to them is what they take from them. We work with a model and we say it is like a bird: one wing is political culture and the other is economics for good-living.

We also seek to ensure regions do not remain excluded. In fact, it is linked to national movements. Another challenge is how to make sure the region is not pulled into such strong violence, how do we have a kind of community, human security that permits us to come together

Faced with a national reality that is so worrying, how do we remain hopeful?

–I believe that we have to find a way to weave together and rescue not only hope but also faith in humanity. Faith that it is possible to unite, to come together, and that like it or not, little by little the world is integrating. This is the time to make progress. It is important not only to enclose ourselves in our own countries, our own languages, and our own cultures, but also to open up to the globalizing era.

On the other hand, we have always thought that the people with whom we work- the overwhelming majority vulnerable, people who were displaced by the conflict and who now are returning to their territories- need a lot of help, especially a voice of hope.

There is a short story I would like to tell you. They say that once, when the day was ending, the Sun declared: ‘Well, I’m leaving for the night. Who will replace me?’ And they say there was a small candle illuminating the cave, and it promised: «it will do what we can»

So, we believe that it is extremely valuable to build these small groups that show signs of hope, to say it is possible, that it can be done. Even though it can’t shine like the sun or do the job of the State, it can start from all these places.

Our organization is something like that. It’s a start. It is saying: “we will do what can be done.” Somehow, we have to always be lookouts for hope.

Esta entrevista ha sido traducida del original en español por Lillian Hall y editada por Daniela Moreno.

Para conocer más sobre los Montes de María, visita:

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En Diario de Paz Colombia pensamos al país de manera constructiva. Difundimos textos que invitan a conocer y a reflexionar sobre la realidad nacional y que, desde diversas áreas y perspectivas, promueven una cultura de paz. ¡Escribe con nosotros! Envía tu colaboración a Leer nos une.

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