Human nature as victim in Colombia


"We are part of nature – human and non-human. The relationship between both and in permanent interaction creates ‘the territory’."


Article by

Colombian landscape

Pedro Szekely @Flickr

Rosemary Bechler (RB):; So Lyda, please introduce yourself…

Lyda Fernanda Forero (LFF): I am originally from Colombia and I am at the Transnational Institute which is an organisation based in Amsterdam. I am part of the ‘Economic Justice and Corporate Power’ programme. We work on different topics, including environmental justice, agrarian justice, but also how those are affected by corporate power and trade and investment agreements. Being from Colombia, often in Colombia and working with Colombian organisations, I follow the political process closely and specifically, trade agreements between Colombia and the European Union and how they impact on that society. It is Colombian newspapers that I turn to first in the morning…

RB: Greetings from one shocked referendum survivor to another, Lyda. In Colombia, post-referendum, President Santos has just received the Nobel peace prize. How do you view this?

LFF: When we look at the awarding of this prize, we understand it as a way for the international community to support the negotiation process going on in our country, the so-called ‘peace process’. It came at a moment when all hopes were dashed by the results of the plebiscite, so in this context the supportive signal that is being given here is understandable.

However it is too concentrated in the person of President Santos, and even though it is important to acknowledge that he too is making an effort to move forward in these negotiations on behalf of the Colombian elite – he is not the only one who has significantly contributed to this process. And he is certainly not the party that has suffered most in the conflict over the last sixty years. Some of the representatives of the victims were also candidates for the Nobel peace prize, and it is also the case that both negotiation teams, those of the government and of FARC, could have been acknowledged.

But if the idea is building peace and moving towards a new moment in the country – that support should be given to all the parties involved and it could have been a very good way to do this, to acknowledge all the victims involved by giving the prize to them. On the one hand it is good to feel that the international community wants to support and help us find some space for moving forward, but at the same time, it is an affront not to acknowledge the full scale of what is involved in this national debate. There are many actors, and those most affected , who historically have been silenced, continue to be silenced.

RB: Of course this is not the first time that the Nobel peace prize has run into some criticism, to say the least…

LFF: Yes and when you look at the role the president has himself played in the conflict, even though he is now making a big effort, you have to recollect that previously he was the Minister for Defence.

RB: So tell me, you have been writing about the Pax Neoliberal that Santos is working on now – can you explain what this is?

LFF: This is a Colombian twist on the Pax Romana that several organisations find useful to describe a winner-take-all approach to the termination of the negotiations. From the perspective of Santos’ Government this also means to pursue results that accord with the development and expansion of neoliberal policies instead of trying to discuss the real causes of the armed conflict which were related to the social, political and environmental conflicts in the country.

When we look at the different ‘post-conflict policies’, they are a part of a corporate attempt to take over this so-called ‘peace’. One of these proposals concerns the naturally conserved or ‘protected areas’ which are the perfect scenario for setting carbon conserving or biodiversity targets. But as we have seen, these kinds of projects can also at the same time require communities to be pushed outside their territories. It is just a different way of doing that. The ‘green economy’ is presented as the environmental section of the post-conflict latest set of proposals, and in reality it is an exclusionary project aimed at displacing people and a takeover of the land. But we want to emphasise a different environmental truth that involves other actors, who are not included in these plans.

If we look at the specifics of this sixty-year-old history, it comes out of conflicts over access to land and property inequalities that were not properlysolved in the negotiations. There is a longer history of oppression and exclusion that goes back to the beginning of the republic let alone the colony. But with these actors, the conflict between FARC and the Colombian Government goes back sixty years and access to land has been the main issue. For example, the ‘Zidres law project’ is providing subsidies and a structure for giving big landowners access to ‘empty or uncultivated lands’ (baldíos). Legally they can have access to this land with protection and subsidies, and this was happening at exactly the same time as the agreement on rural development was being negotiated in Havana. So while farmers are expecting to have access to land and a final breakthrough in this historic problem of land claims, the Government is pursuing this legal outcome that goes in the opposite direction. It is contradictory viewed from a certain perspective, but in another way the Government is only continuing to preserve the ownership of the land for the big landowners.

RB: Of those who voted ‘no’ in the referendum, were many of them doing so because of this obvious contradiction in Santos’ aims?

LFF: There were many strands and influences in this No vote. The majority of the population didn’t vote – it was the lowest turnout in twenty-two years. There has always been abstention, but this was the highest in two decades. The tradition of voting as a way of exercising democracy is not established in Colombian politics, and in that sense this abstention does amount to a protest in so far as people don’t seem themselves as empowered by the vote, but in this specific case this was not a feature of what happened.

A small section of those who voted no were aware of this contradiction, but the social movements and organisations that acknowledged this most clearly actively campaigned for support of the agreement and voted in favour. Land conflicts, mining and energy and territorial conflicts, will remain, but what these people feel is that the agreement is an opportunity to solve the problem in a new way, not through the use of weapons. That is what could make the difference.

So people were aware of Santos’ contradictory stance, but it was not a reason to oppose the agreement.

RB: So who voted no?

LFF: Many people were influenced by the manipulation and lies of right wing and even extreme right wing propaganda put out by Alvaro Uribe's party, the former president and Alejandro Ordonez the former attorney, while another group was heavily influenced by the Protestant churches who raised a furore over gender inclusion and rights for lesbians and gays. There was a small group of progressives, but the majority were right wing, whose political leaders brazenly admitted afterwards that they had used lies to get their votes.

RB: But you say nevertheless that a major gain from this process is how it has allowed new versions of the truth to come to the surface ?

LFF: When you look at how our official history is taught, the situation of the victims and the role of the bigger landowners in this violence has not been touched on. There are so many things that have happened in our history that haven't been officlally acknowledged.

The massacre of the Unión Patriótica party is another such emblematic moment – a previous attempt on the part of the FARC to demobilise and enter a peace process, on this occasion 5,000 people were murdered, as some organisations in Colombia have documented. This is only one moment out of so many in our history which remain unaccounted for.

There are many more such moments, and getting to know what happened is so important. This is why we need a Truth and Memory Process.

RB: Is this the Environmental Truth Commission that you are talking about?

LFF: We need a process of environmental memory to clarify the truth of the armed conflict in the country. One official Truth Commission is already taking place and they have published a series of interesting reports. But for the environmental memory, the narrative is still lacking. The process starts by asking whether we should consider nature as a victim as well, not distinct from the human beings that it supports, but in connection with communities – human nature if you like. We don’t want to see nature as something disconnected from us, because that just leads down a conservationist path where all you want to do is to take humans out of the picture. We are part of nature – human and non-human. The relationship between both and in permanent interaction creates ‘the territory’, and it is in the territory that we develop our history.

This is central to any investigation of how that territory has been affected by war, and we need to go into this in real depth so that we can arrive at a process of environmental memory. In this sense, nature has been scenario and victim of the conflict.

RB: So have you been following the Standing Rock protests? They seem to have something in common with your vision?

LFF: Yes, it is really good what they have been able to do so far… The idea of this relationship with the territory is common to both these cases and with many more around the world. In this moment of globalisation when everyone seems to be on the move we may be tempted to think that this connection has disappeared. But it has not. This linkage with our territory and with our roots is made even deeper by these changes, and you can see this in what is happening in Dakota.

People have been suffering all around from the extractive mining and big dam projects for a long time. But what is more visible now is that when these conflicts can be divorced from the armed conflict that takes place in the same territory, these causes can become more visible to anyone observing. For those others, they will have noticed in these last months is that people, activists, who are defending territories are being murdered even though we have a ceasefire in place. The number of murders is over eighty in recent months. So we have a contradiction, zero deaths arising from armed conflict over the last year, thanks to the bilateral ceasefire; but more than eighty deaths of activists and people defending their land rights. So it is not so much that it is more or less visible to those involved – but now what is going on over land has become evident, if you see the distinction. This is the challenge of our post-conflict scenario!

RB: I certainly see what you are saying.

Last December, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), in cooperation with openDemocracy and Armine Ishkanian from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and co-editors of the openMovements platform, hosted a small symposium on “World Protests and Political Economy” in their Berlin office. The aim is to create a space to exchange research results, maintaining a focus on the inter-connectedness between economics and politics, and carry them into organizations that work on global democracy. The FES is a German non-profit organization committed to supporting Social Democracy through more than 100 country offices.