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Erin McFee, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development

Negotiators in Havana, Cuba ready their pens to sign a peace accord between the government of Colombia and the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which would end more than 50 years of war. More than 1,500 miles away, the Colombian department of Caquetá begins at the foot of the Western Andean mountains, where the jagged verdant peaks increasingly give way to rolling hills, vast expanses of cultivated land, and, eventually, dense Amazonian selva. Caquetá figures critically for post-conflict planners: it has suffered comparatively greater levels of violence and vulnerability than other areas of the country; it has a historically marginalized large rural population; it hosted part of the violently disastrous Zone of Distention between 1998–2002, in which the FARC took advantage of peace negotiations in order to regroup, terrorizing the civilian population in the process; and it will serve as one of seven Zones of Concentration for the eventual FARC demobilization.

Against the juxtaposed backdrop of dream-like landscapes and profound loss, a growing variety of community interventions attempt to make sense of suffering and contribute to sustainable peace over the long term. One such intervention includes a joint project between the Pastoral Social (community outreach team from the Catholic Church) and ACNUR (United Nations Refugee Agency), in which a team of five individuals—two psychologists, two anthropologists, and one lawyer—work with five communities displaced by conflict violence in Caquetá in order to realize collective reparations processes.

In early March, three members of the Pastoral Social set out to visit one of the participating communities: Roncesvalles.

Or was it Roncervalles?

Or Roncevalles?

No one is actually sure. Each person—including the community members themselves —remains more certain than the last that their spelling is, in fact, the correct one. The formal project proposal spells it with both the “r” and “s” throughout.

Orthographic concerns aside, Ronce/r/svalles comprises 55 families forcibly displaced by violence and relocated by the state to their current community, half of which floods in the event of heavy rains. The families did not know one another before they settled the partially soggy tract of land. This unfamiliarity, and the clear value differences between the two sections of the community, has resulted in significant tensions, which the project hopes to ameliorate through shared efforts to petition the state to repair the bridge leading to the community. This project was the order of the day for the Pastoral Social visit.

After half an hour on the main highway heading northeast out of Florencia (the department’s capital city, home to 140,000 persons), the branded ACNUR off-road vehicle turned into the entrance of Larandia military base. The army purchased the 3,375-hectare behemoth in 1965 in order to combat guerrilla threats in the region, and the massive training facility marked the beginning of the road to Ronce/r/svalles. In order to reach this community of many possible names, one must pass through the entirety of Larandia—including its three military checkpoints—enter the vehicle information in an Army registry, and return before six o’clock in the evening, when the checkpoint gates close for the day. Despite the official ACNUR vehicle status, branded with Agency logos and clear “No Weapons” decals, soldiers at each checkpoint questioned increasingly annoyed occupants as to their purpose, their number, and whether or not they were transporting weapons and/or hidden persons. Upon exiting the base, the pavement slowly deteriorated into the cratered single-lane roads shared with livestock, horses, and their owners, which mark most of the department’s more rural enclaves.

The team bounced along, silent due to difficulties maintaining conversation on such uneven terrain, and windows rolled up to avoid the dust swirling up from the little-used road. Half an hour later, the petite elderly woman who served as the group’s capable chauffeur, stretched up to look over the steering wheel as she slowed to veer around a group of three unexpected men: scouts for an international petroleum company running tests to look for oil. They rubbed the sweat off their faces with their branded denim long-sleeve shirts, and managed a wave, squinting out from under the shadows of their protective plastic helmets.

Closer to the community, the vehicle slowed in order to pass the children beginning the hour and a half walk home from the closest school, which just this year lost its budget for snacks, signifying a 8–9 hour stretch each day without food. One young boy, perhaps 12 years old, undertook the journey on the back of a cow whose skeleton stretched through the tufted hide. Judging by the passenger’s peals of laughter and teasing classmates, the transport was more for show than necessity.

The team arrived at the shared meeting space in the middle of the grass field, similar to those that mark the centers of most small rural communities in the region, and greeted one of the elderly community leaders.

¿Cómo está?

“Another day with hunger,” he replied. “But we have to move forward,” he added in the silence that followed his initial response, filling in the transition with hearty laughter, and gesturing to the team with a smile and an outstretched arm to enter the meeting space.

After roughly an hour of calls to community leaders who had forgotten about the meeting—calls made by walking around the grass field until one bar of cell signal appeared—chit-chat about the state of relations between the two parts of the community, excuses given for absences, and the arrival of new unexpected faces, all present began to get down to business. Over the next two hours participants sketched out how they would mobilize to petition various government agencies to meet state obligations of collective reparations to the community as part of the long process of building peace after war.

While one community does not a country make, the road to Ronce/r/svalles certainly illustrates the many challenges that Colombia faces with building a post-peace accord society in the most conflict-affected regions of the country.  First, re-victimization of those who have suffered greatly at the hands of all varieties of armed actors is not uncommon through poorly managed victims’ reparations processes (e.g., relocation to sites that flood). Second, competing and often urgent needs among different kinds of victims, as well as particularities in each case of victimization, undermine both large-scale collective action and small scale quotidian life (e.g., communities divided into factions, fighting over limited resources). Third, tense and, frankly, often bizarre relations with the state—e.g., having to pass through a military base to arrive at a community—stymie governmental attempts to build trust and provide services to those affected by the armed conflict. Rampant local corruption poisons whatever good-faith efforts emerge and land titling remains cripplingly contentious. Fourth, international oil and mining interests exploit the poorly-regulated lands and the often vulnerable—though by no means powerless—people who occupy them (e.g., speculators such as those encountered on the road). And fifth, organizing communities at the margins of sociopolitical, economic, and even geographic life is profoundly complicated for many reasons. These reasons include, though are certainly not limited to, long histories of exploitation at the hands of outsiders and damaging failures in basic domains of public life, such as education and public health. In the midst of it all, more and more domestic and international interventions have begun to crowd the landscape, navigating both the literal and metaphorical hostile terrain. And in the many inevitable successes and failures to follow, we will better understand the stakes of life in transition for those in regions such as Caquetá, Colombia.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.