“One type of peace is that of the bourgeoisie, another one is that of the people and the two will never be reconcilable. Peace for the bourgeoisie is that there can be external investment, that one can move freely on the highways, that you don’t get kidnapped […]. But peace for us is peace with a surname; a peace with social justice […] not just the silencing of the guns of the FARC […]. I mean, how can there be peace without decent housing? How can there be peace without public facilities […]? How can there be peace without the mitigation of risks? How can there be peace when people are dying from hunger? How can there be peace if public transport is more expensive than lunch? How can there be peace if the people are insecure because the ‘combos’ control the area? What type of peace are we actually talking about?!”
(Carlos, community leader of Comuna 8, Medellin)

 
After more than half-a-century of armed conflict, a peace-agreement between the Colombian Government, led by Juan Manuel Santos, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was signed at the end of 2016. However, and as reflected by the words of Carlos, a peace-agreement does not ensure that the country will be at peace any time soon. As history has proven, peace-agreements do not necessarily lead to more peaceful societies; in fact, other Latin-American countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador show quite the opposite, as homicide rates are nowadays higher than during the civil wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. While peace-agreements are important milestones for ending conflict at the macro-level, they are generally not designed to tackle the root causes of violent conflict at the micro-level. Yet it is often at this micro-level where violence persists after the end of a civil war [1].
In order to address the root causes of conflict at this micro-level, local expertise is of crucial importance. Luckily ‘local experts’ such as community leaders can be found anywhere. The question, however, is how exactly these grassroots leaders can support sustainable peacebuilding in their environments.

 

“Grassroots leaders occupy a special position in society, as they are not bound to fixed rules and can be relatively free in their actions, especially when they work on a voluntary basis”

 
Local Ownership in Peacebuilding
While local ownership of peacebuilding practices and the role of civil society have been found to be important in supporting the sustainability of peace [2], [3], [4], [5]] the role of grassroots leaders has largely remained neglected in existing peace literature[6]. Grassroots leaders can include, for example, local entrepreneurs, religious leaders, local political leaders, youngsters from the neighbourhood or single moms that want to make a change. These leaders occupy a special position in society, as they are not bound to fixed rules and can be relatively free in their actions, especially when they work on a voluntary basis [7]. According to Heifetz, these informal leaders “provide the capacity within the system, to see through the blind spots of the dominant viewpoint” [8]. Going back to the quote from Carlos, in which he contrasts the ‘elite vision’ on peace with the ‘peoples’ vision’ in Comuna 8, it becomes clear why it is crucial to incorporate these local visions in any integral peacebuilding process.

 

“Instead, for many of them ‘peace’ was a rather utopian concept that, in order to realize, would require serious structural changes over a long period of time”.

 

What’s so funny?
Perhaps the biggest surprise I found during my research on peace in Comuna 8, one of the historically most violent districts of Medellin, was that many local leaders started to laugh whenever I asked them what ‘peace’ meant to them. After more than 50 years of armed conflict, very few of them had ever experienced peace and even though the guerrilla groups had left about two decades ago, the violence had always persisted.
Over time, the political struggle in Medellin transformed into a territorial conflict between different neo-paramilitary groups involved in drug-trafficking. That is why a peace-agreement between the government and the FARC will have rather few direct repercussions for the people of Comuna 8, where currently the ‘combos’ are responsible for insecurity in the area. These small territorially limited gangs offer services to larger criminal structures and generate income through extortion and drug-trafficking. Hence, they are very different in nature than the political armed groups that were present in the city two decades ago.
Surprisingly however, none of the community leaders in Comuna 8 mentioned these groups as being the major obstacle to peace. Instead, they identified the limited access to basic services, the lack of education- and job opportunities and the lack of decent housing as the most important factors that obstructed sustainable peace. The ironic laughs of the community leaders were a polite way to say that ‘peace’ could not be negotiated at the top-level, even though Santo’s government had done a great job in selling this idea abroad. Instead, for many of them ‘peace’ was a rather utopian concept that, in order to realize, would require serious structural changes over a long period of time.

 

Peacebuilding Leadership
According to Johan Galtung sustainable peace, or has he calls it ‘positive peace’, can only be attained by the minimization of the root-causes of conflict [[9],[10],[11]]. These root-causes, or in Galtung’s words ‘cultural-’ and ‘structural violence’, are precisely the problems that community leaders in Comuna 8 often indicated as the biggest obstacles to attain peace; such as the limited access to basic needs and education- and job opportunities. It is safe to say that none of the community leaders had ever read a page of Galtung’s work, yet they shared the same vision on how to build sustainable peace in their neighbourhood.
Given the right tools, these local experts may have the potential to change the everyday reality of their habitats. There are numerous ways in which local leaders can contribute to peace at the local level. Although they cannot all be outlined here, there are at least three overlapping strategies that local leaders use to support peace:

 

1. Defending rights
Various rights are being violated in Comuna 8 on a daily basis, such as the right to life, children’s rights to a balanced diet, the right to protection and education of adolescents and the right to public services. Local leaders address these issues through different strategies ranging from organizing protests in the streets, to lobbying with politicians, to denouncing rights-violations.
 
2. Creating consciousness and supporting empowerment
Through informal education, workshops and events, local leaders can share their knowledge and enhance community empowerment , for example by organizing recreational activities or by starting discussion groups for minority- or women’s groups. In Comuna 8 there are various LGBTI- and women groups that gather in order to improve their position in society and reduce rights violations. This has led to open discussions about taboo-topics such as domestic violence and homosexuality:
“We have gone to parks […] where we surprised people with our campaign by telling them ‘come, I will vaccinate you against homophobia, take these pills, they will make you immune to homophobia’.” (Alexis, community leader Comuna 8, Medellin)
Actions like these might have a limited effect on direct (physical) violence, but can influence people’s attitudes and behaviour in the long run and thereby promote more peaceful interactions within the community.
 
3. Providing opportunities
Ultimately, leaders can create opportunities for the population by providing education, training and by stimulating sports and other types of recreational and cultural activities. Since the municipal government has largely failed to provide the necessary infrastructure for basic education in Comuna 8, one of the principal activities of local leaders throughout the history has been to build schools together with the community. Moreover, sport- and cultural activities can support peace in multiple ways. On the one hand people can develop technical and social skills that increase their chances of accomplishing personal goals. On the other hand, and this is especially relevant for youth, recreational spaces can provide a ‘safe ground’, away from hazardous environments in problematic areas.

 

“Yet in today’s society, these ‘local experts’ are often neglected or overruled by large-scale government interventions or even by NGOs that have their own idea of what peace entails.”

 

Growing Sustainable Peace
Building sustainable peace is not something new and community leaders all over the world have probably, either consciously or not, been doing it for as long as they have existed. Yet in today’s society, these ‘local experts’ are often neglected or overruled by large-scale government interventions or even by NGOs that have their own idea of what peace entails. In Medellin for example, the municipality sometimes prefers to negotiate with local illegal armed groups about new projects in the community, rather than with community leaders. This is not surprising, considering that the local population probably has a broader range of interests and may be harder to satisfy than the illegal armed groups. Nevertheless, it are their rights that are being violated on a daily basis, especially in marginalized neighbourhoods such as Comuna 8.
If ‘real’ sustainable peace is to be attained, local initiatives and perspectives must be prioritized by any outside intervener. Knowledge about the most pressing issues in these areas is already available and possible solutions have often already been researched and proposed by the community. It is time to take local leadership seriously, in any shape or form, in order to grow sustainable peace; which can only start at the roots. It is time to create a community that is not only peaceful on paper.

 

“We don’t say ‘we are going to do this to build peace’, but we have been building peace for years and years […] In what way? With our organizations we are working on training and education, family issues and the important theme that we sometimes forget: political empowerment. […] In Comuna 8 people have been working for years and years on the protection of human rights. There is no need to say ‘we are building peace’. Before the negotiations in Havana, we were already building peace.” (Isela, community leader Comuna 8, Medellin)

 

References

[1] Ronderos, M. T. (2014) Guerras recicladas: una historia periodística del paramilitarismo en Colombia. Bogotá: Aguilar. A = Chapter I pages 29-76, B = Chapter II, pages 77-142, C = Chapter III, pages 143-224, D = Chapter VI, pages 349-381
[2] Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington DC, United States Institute for Peace Press.
[3] Mac Ginty, R., and Richmond O. P. (2013). The Local Turn in Peacebuilding: A Critical Agenda for Peace. Third World Quarterly, 34(5), 763–83.
[4] Peake, G., Gormley-Heenan, C., & Fitzduff, M. (2004). From warlords to peacelords: Local leadership capacity in peace processes. International Centre of Excellence for Conflict and Peace Studies/INCORE.
[5] Pearce, J. (1997). Sustainable Peace-building in the South. Development in Practice, 7(4), 438-455.
[6] Peake, G., Gormley-Heenan, C., & Fitzduff, M. (2004). From warlords to peacelords: Local leadership capacity in peace processes. International Centre of Excellence for Conflict and Peace Studies/INCORE.
[7] Reychler, L., & Stellamans, A. (2005). Researching peace building leadership. Cahiers internationale betrekkingen en vredesonderzoek, 23 (71), 1-79.
[8] Heifetz, 1998 in: Reychler, L., & Stellamans, A. (2005). Researching peace building leadership. Cahiers internationale betrekkingen en vredesonderzoek, 23 (71), 1-79.
[9] Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167–91.
[10] Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by peaceful means: Peace and conflict, development and civilization (Vol. 14). Sage.
[11] G altung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of peace research, 27(3), 291-305.

Johannes Chinchilla

Johannes Chinchilla

Johannes Chinchilla (1992) studeerde International Development Studies aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam. In 2016 schreef hij zijn masterscriptie over de rol van community leaders in het bevorderen van de vrede in de marginale wijken van Medellin. Hij won met zijn scriptie de WO prijs Visions on Peace. Momenteel werkt hij aan een documentaire waarin het verhaal verteld wordt over één van de community leaders die een belangrijke rol speelde tijdens zijn veldwerk, maar vlak na zijn onderzoek overleed. Zijn scriptie is te vinden op https://educationanddevelopment.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/thesis-growing-sustainable-peace-starting-at-the-roots.pdf