Episode 4: "La Violencia" - Colombia's Long Road to Peace

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Since the 1960s , Colombia has been the victim of armed conflict, displacing millions, taking the lives of thousands and internally displacing millions. In this episode, we speak with Manuel Renteria about his experience working in the Magdalena Medio region and how the impacts in his country.

 

 

Manuel Renteria is a Team Leader for Carers Queensland with a Bachelor in Agricultural Engineering and a Masters in Agricultural Development. He was born in Colombia during the armed conflict between the government, guerilla groups, crime syndicates and paramilitary groups. Before relocating to Australia, He worked for 8 years as a Project Coordinator for the Development and Peace Corporation of Magdalena Medio (CDPMM) in Colombia. Some of his areas of expertise include culture, health, poverty, human right violations and regional conflict.


Transcript

 

Manuel R

12% of all civilian death in the conflict were caused by FARC and ELN. The 80% was caused by paramilitary, and 8% from the Colombian army.

 

Peter M

The American approach was to fund the Colombian military whereas the European approach was very much grassroots to fund the local community and to empower them.

 

Manuel R

We need to support people living in remote areas. They are important like people living in urban areas, also give opportunities real opportunities for everyone. If we invest this money and education, health, employment, roads in the rural sector, we can have a better life in Colombia.

 

Peter M

Welcome to the third series of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'mPeter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency working across the Asia-Pacific region. Today we welcome Manuel Renteria a project development Practitioner with over 13 years experience in Colombia, mainly supporting disadvantaged communities living in poverty and in conflict zones. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I'm looking forward to this conversation.

 

Manuel R

Yeah, thank you so much for the invitation.

 

Peter M

So tell me a little bit about your work in the development sector.

 

Manuel R

Okay, my background is I'm an agricultural engineer. I studied my bachelor in a small region in Colombia; are region with a lot of issues, poverty, human rights violations, difficult quality of life for the people also this affected me in my personal life, and I decided to study agricultural engineering and see how to support people in my country and know really close the reality of Colombia, you know. I realised that we are a rich country, we have to do a lot for improving the quality of life of my people. So it was one of my main goals. And then when I started with all these process about development, I found that he was a really interesting sector for me, it still is my passion working in development and supporting people.

 

Peter M

I haven't heard of an agricultural engineer before. What does being an agricultural engineer mean?

 

Manuel R

Colombia is a country that produces a lot of crops; we have coffee and green bananas. More than 70% of people live in rural areas. And it is a sector that is no developed, it is a sector that for a long time has been affected because of the low incomes. So the plan in my region, the public sector created a university, a rural university and the plan was to support people from the region and give the opportunity to have better education, and after professional qualifications to support to the region. So I was one of these benefits with this programme. When I explore my first activities in the rural area. I found people have been spending a long time and spending a lot of resources trying to generate a good condition of quality for the families, but they're still living in poverty and agriculture is part of the solution.

 

Peter M

As an agricultural engineer, are you focused on increasing crop yields? Tell me about the engineering part

 

Manuel R

It's more to increase in the production, basically with production and better practices, reduce the cost, use the right equipment, and provide the right technology for a producer.

 

Peter M

Tell me about the environment in Colombia, especially where you're working in the development sector. Tell me about the history of that conflict.

 

Manuel R

In Colombia we've had a conflict for more than 50 years. Basically, the conflict os the result of a high social and economic inequality, you know, the lack of support from the Colombian government towards their citizens, especially in the rural areas. In rural areas, we have more than 70% of people living under poverty. An additional characteristic is the inequal distribution of land and wealth in the country. All these factors are generated that in 1964 Manuel Marulanda Velez formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC. It was when the conflict started in Colombia. However, FARC is not the only illegal armed group in my country. FARC was the largest or the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America. However, in Colombia we have additional guerrilla groups, 19th of April movement M19, People Revolutionary Army, and the National Liberation Army. Four different guerrilla groups, they were part of this conflict. Also, we have additional illegal groups like paramilitary, crime syndicate, and also drug trafficking organisation like cartels,

 

Peter M

From my very limited reading about FARC. They started with some very noble goals. This included fighting inequality, and a fair distribution of resources. But then they moved towards running drugs to fund their army and kidnapping, and quite a range of different criminal activities. What happened to FARC? What moves them from having reasonable goals to then moving into criminal activities?

 

Manuel R

It was a big discussion during the peace agreement because they didn't want to recognise the illegal system. You mentioned before kidnapping, extortion, taxation of various forms of economic activities, you know, they were involved with production and illegal drugs . They needed to fund the movement and I think it was the reason they decided to include all these illegal activities within the group, also was distant with their actions because they affected these people, the people who they were talking about how to support quality of life. It's not a conflict based in a human rights strategy, we can see within the conflict a lot of violation of international human rights. This was something that affect enormously the FARC and they lost a lot of support from the community.

 

Peter M

So what you're saying is when facts started, they had a lot of support from the community, but then as time went on the community turned against them.

 

Manuel R

Yeah, that's correct.

All right.

 

Peter M

So Manuel, which region do you come from In Colombia?

 

Manuel R

I used to work in a region called Magdalena Medio. Magdalena Medio is a region composed by four departments or like states here in Australia. As I mentioned before it's a mainly rural area with one important centre, Barrancabermeja, my hometown. Something particularly is, this region is a rich region. We have a lot of natural resources. We have gold, we have goods, tropical good, we have oil. The main oil company is based in this region; however the people live in poverty. So why do we have in a rich region people living under poverty. So are you started in this region working in a programme supporting people who were affected by the Colombian government because of the aspersion of coca crops and my first step was supporting crops, legal crops like corn or green banana were affected. Then I found their condition a little bit complex. So I found in a programme called the development programme of the Magdalena Medio. I found a programme really interesting for me because we put in place projects not only to support the culture economy, it was about holistic support. We identify needs in health, in economy, education, different areas. It was for almost nine years, you know, before my travel to Australia.

 

Peter M

As you're working to try and help develop the crops and improve the yields. Surely there must have been a pull towards illegal crops because these communities could make more money from those illegal crops. Was that an issue when you were working with these communities?

 

Manuel R

My initial was supporting people who have illegal crops. But when I started in development, it was not only about crops, it was more about different fields. Yeah, but the coca was always present in this region. So we had a region with a high number of hectares of illegal crops in Colombia. And yet the coca affected the peace in this region because was normal to find illegal groups fighting for the power of this territory because of their benefit from the coca crops

 

Peter M

Were the farmers willing to farm the coca crops, or were they are under pressure from some of these groups?

 

Manuel R

This region is a remote region with no roads, with no access to different services. I'm going to give you an example. A peasant who produces corn, he receives for 125 kilos of corn, here receives almost 21 Australian dollars; and for one kilo of cocaine paste, this peasant receives 1400 Australian dollars. So it is a really big difference. A lot of people thought, why we don't receive support from the government, like with subsidies, why we don't have roads, why we don't have funding or resources to send our kids to school or universities, why our crops are not attractive, the profit is nothing, so they decided to cultivate coke. It was one of the reasons after the peasants decided to involve with legal crops, they found that illegals grew up in this region and started pushing to increase the area for coca crops.

 

Peter M

In other words, the peasants felt abandoned by the government because the government wasn't providing services. Then these illegal groups stepped in and were able to influence those farmers to be able to grow crops that they wanted them to grow because of the government's absence. Obviously, a farmer needs to feed their family, a farmer needs to provide and if they're not getting enough money for their crops, it's not really a hard decision to make.

 

Manuel R

When people had coca, you could see the economy running well, there was evidency, new business and smaller businesses. It sounds weird, but some people have benefited.

 

Peter M

Although I've travelled to Bolivia, I haven't been as far north as Colombia. In places like Bolivia, coca is actually a cultural crop. They have it in their tea and they chew it and there's a whole lot of uses for it. Is that also the case in Colombia?

 

Manuel R

In some areas. In the north of Colombia, you can find indigenous people that use coca like you mentioned before. However, when I used to work in this region, it was not cultural, it was just economic.

 

Peter M

As you know, there's been a number of governments in Bolivia trying to get people to move away from the coca crops. But the cultural pool of these crops makes it difficult for those people to move away.

 

Manuel R

No, it's just in a few areas. It's in the north, but basically the areas in Colombia are dedicated for producing cocaine paste. At the moment we have almost 200,000 hectares of coca in Colombia and is not related to the culture, it is related to economic benefit.

 

Peter M

What sort of pressure was put on you to stop doing what you were doing working with these farmers?

 

Manuel R

That was a difficult situation because we offered an alternative to the community and rural communities different to these illegal crop, because of this project that we put in place, we received threats from FARC, from ELN, from paramilitaries because we reduced the number of coca in the region and we affected their resource and we had to not negotiate but just talk, you know, or speak up on community's behalf and say they don't want to continue with these crops anymore. They want a different life. They want to reduce the conflict in the area and something important that they have to do is eliminate coca in the region. So yeah, it wasn't an easy strategy for us. However, we have a good support from different sectors, not only the communities. When the community has awareness about what they want is one of the most important steps, we have international support, NGOs from different parts of the world supporting the community, supporting us as a programme.

 

Peter M

As I remember during the 80s and 90s, the American government was heavily involved in monitoring and trying to influence what they called at the time the war on drugs in Colombia. Did that affect the work that you were doing? Were you seen as a proxy for the American government doing this type of work? Or did you escape this influence?

 

Manuel R

We had a different approach in the region. Before our main programme in the Magdalena Medio, the Colombian government implemented a plan, the Plan Colombia. It was a plan funded by the USA government, and this plan had a high military predominance in the region. Basically the funding was used to improve their army, the Colombian army and the eradication of crops manually and with aerial aspersion and we decided to put aside because we didn't share this way. We considered that this was the wrong way for our communities. We considered they deserve a different approach. After the Plan Colombia, the European Union decided to fund our programme with something that we call the Peace Laboratory. It was a different approach. It was a programme designed at a local level with a local, regional and national participation. So it was a different approach than the Plan Colombia, the plan funded by the USA.

 

Peter M

The American approach was to fund the Colombian military whereas the European approach was very much grassroots to fund the local community and to empower them. Is that a fair way to assess it?

 

Manuel R

Yes, with this programme, we have the option to increase the number of leaders in the region. We had people that wanted to speak up for the community but they didn't have the tools and the knowledge and expertise and with this programme, we provided education to the leaders and now we have a lot of leaders in the region speaking up for their communities. And that is something really important because before all these leaders, the illegal groups did everything that they wanted with their communities. Now after all this process, you can find leaders with capacity and speak up for the communities and say no, we don't want your presence in our region. We don't want to continue with these illegal activities. We need to look after our environment, and we need to have a better redistribution of the land. Unfortunately, at the moment, the illegal groups have killed more than 100 leaders just in six months, because as I mentioned before, they are people now who are fighting for the rights.

 

Peter M

How do these illegal groups justify the killing of farmers, or they don't? These groups such as FARC are based on fighting inequality. How do they say to the bigger community, we're a force for good and we're trying to help everyone by killing their leaders?

 

Manuel R

Because of their political perception. When people are disagree and they found this leader as an enemy. They have their goal but they are acting just with big distance from their goal and it was something that the leaders didn't accept. In all these 50 years we have more than 200,000 people who died because of the conflict, but in the conflict where we have FARC, paramilitary and the Colombian army. So when the illegal groups want to debilitate the community, the first point is the leaders.

 

Peter M

As they rule by fear, they're not getting to people's hearts and minds. What they're doing is changing behaviour through fear, it seems to be at odds with what their bigger agenda is, and then their existence doesn't seem to make sense. Their goal is more about money than equality.

 

Manuel R

When we compare the action from the guerilla and the actions from paramilitary we have a big difference. For example, according to United Nations, 12% of all civilian deaths in the conflict were caused by FARC, and ELN, the 80% was caused by paramilitaries, and 8% from the Colombian army.

 

Peter M

People might think they groups have the same purpose, but they don't. Is that correct?

 

Manuel R

Yeah, no, the attention was on the FARC because they're the oldest guerilla in Latin America. Basically the paramilitaries is a new organisation, they started in late 90s.

 

Peter M

When you were working the development sector, and you were pressured to stop supporting the community, were you threatened by FARC or other paramilitary groups?

 

Manuel R

Both.

 

Peter M

both.

And the techniques were the same or did that depend upon who you were dealing with?

 

Manuel R

Sometimes you realise that you can have conversations with some groups, you can have time to explain your actions, for example, our different projects. Having this conversation could be possible with some groups, but with some groups were not possible to have the opportunity to dialogue and have a conversation about the presence.

 

Peter M

How did you guard against being caught in the middle or any other type of retribution? What did you do in that situation?

 

Manuel R

It was difficult and we put on risk our lives and well being. I have memories about different situations that I lived in my country. Unfortunately, some armed groups killed people who used to work with us. It's not easy, you know, working in the middle of the conflict, it's not easy talking about human rights in the middle of the conflict, but the community needed support. So the program where I used to work, it was an agreement between the Oil Company Union and the Catholic Church and it was a good backup for us.

 

Peter M

Does working through the church offer some protection against the armed groups?

 

Manuel R

That's correct. Also in this difficult situation, we found the role of the leaders were really important for us. Many lives were saved by the leaders because they had to interact with every illegal group in the region. They supported us and said to the illegal groups. We haven't had the presence of the government here for many years and this programme has been working for 4 or 5 years with good outcomes, so this support from the leaders were really valuable for us as an organisation.

 

Peter M

As you know, most of us in the development sector here in Australia, we work in post conflict zones such as Asia and the Pacific, but most of these regions are fairly safe. Therefore, development work is seen as honourable work. It's seen as a good thing to do. But surely your family must not have been happy with you working in such dangerous situations. What did your parents say? What was your family's view on you working in those areas

 

Manuel R

It's complex. Sometimes you know that you have to go to a particular area and you don't know what will happen. Yeah, always the family concerned about our safety. I remember a particular situation, I was travelling to a rural area when I received a phone call. It's difficult to have a reception for phone calls in this area and I got a call from one of my colleagues and said, this organisation killed these people please come back to the town. It was difficult and I had to leave because of the situation and explain to the family what happened and I cannot come back in maybe one or two weeks. Wait until everything is settled again. It's difficult and sometimes I had to have my travels to this area by myself without company. Yeah, it's a high risk.

 

Peter M

When was the last time you're out in the field? When did you last work in Colombia?

 

Manuel R

11 years ago.

 

Peter M

Have you keep contact with these communities, what is the environment now that FARC have withdrawn?

 

Manuel R

I remember one of my trips to Colombia. I went to one of these towns and I visited some farmers and some rural communities. I had a conversation and checked how was everything with them and it was really interesting thing that some projects had good outcomes, people living a better life. People thought that the if the FARC signed the agreement, everything would be fine in Colombia, but it's not true. The conflict has changed. We have more illegal actors now. It's sad when you receive news about people who have been killed by this legal groups, so the conflict has not ended in Colombia, it's different now. We don't have the FARC anymore with guns and weapons. That's okay. And they are now in the political field. Still in Colombia, we have conflict. We have issues with illegal armed groups we have people still living under poverty. I'm not here just talking about the negative things in my country but I want to say their reality. You can see the inequality in my country. That is not fair.

 

Peter M

It's interesting that you mentioned that given that other groups that have filled the space that FARC have left after the peace agreement, the problem doesn't go away.

 

Manuel R

Yeah, we have seen one guerilla, ELN. They are trying to have conversations with the government to sign for peace. However the conversation has not been possible.

 

Peter M

Has the production of cocaine been reduced or does it remain the same as in previous years?

 

Manuel R

Unfortunately it has grown. The area is now almost 217,000 hectures in 2018. We can find different articles where the Colombian government say less, UN says more.

 

Peter M

To end this conversation, what is the answer? How does Colombia move forward to address these issues?

 

Manuel R

We need to support people living in remote areas. They are really important. They are important like people live in urban areas, also give opportunities, real opportunities for everyone. One particular thing that affects in Colombia is the corruption. Unfortunately, we are one of the most country with corruption, and we are pretty sure that if we invest this money and education, health, employment, roads in the rural sector, we can have a better life in Colombia. You can see that still we have less people in Colombia with more money. If we eliminate the corruption in Colombia, everyone can have a better life condition.

 

Peter M

So unless you change your politicians, this will continue to happen.

 

Manuel R

That's something important that we have to do, change our government, in my opinion. Unfortunately, just remember in 2016, when the government asked to the people if they agreed or not with the peace agreement and won the NO, people didnt want the agreement, the peace agreement, that is something that we need to change.

 

Peter M

What do you think the Colombian people voted NO to the peace referendum?

 

Manuel R

It was a lot of pushing from different sectors, political sectors with particular interests .If you see the map where people said YES, it was the region where the conflict was really cruel ,in regions where people lived or they lost their families. They were displaced you know, these people who were affected by the conflict, they said YES, we want the agreement. We want the reconciliation, because it's one step to peace. But people who haven't lived the war the same way like rural people they say, NO, we don't want. It was more pressure from particular sectors in my country.

 

Peter M

Wow. It's been such an interesting conversation. I've really enjoyed this talk. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it. It's been incredibly interesting.

 

Manuel R

Thank you so much, Peter. Thank you so much.