Peace-building Through Dialogue: Why Engaging with Colombia’s Afro and Indigenous Communities Will Help End the Conflict

By Juan Andres Misle

The impeding peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC guerillas could usher in a whole decade of economic growth. This bold claim comes from a recent study by a group of economists at Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes that adds to increasing optimism towards a diplomatic end to the country’s civil war. However, as these negotiations gain steam, questions remain over what kind of growth the Andean nation will face and how that growth will be directed and distributed. No one has been hit harder by the ongoing conflict than indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and other communities concentrated in the largely impoverished Colombian countryside and Pacific Coast. These communities have been marginalized by historical scars deeply rooted within the country’s chosen path of development that prioritized urban growth over fully institutionalizing state and commercial presence in vast isolated areas. Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that only through a more robust dialogue between the state and marginalized social sectors within the context of a peace agreement will Colombians be able to best address historical identity-based grievances and thereby integrate and reconcile these communities towards a culture of formality and legality.

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The socioeconomic costs of the conflict on marginalized communities have been enormous. Currently, with ongoing attacks to infrastructure by insurgent rebels and induced massacres by armed militias, communities are suffering as the limited remaining resources flee to safer urban districts. Research shows that a 10% increase in attacks equals to a 10.3% possibility that a manufacturing firm abandons the region where the attack was performed. Given the conflict’s largely rural nature, this directly affects the impoverished majority living within regions where the state has been historically unable to remedy these attacks. A pacified countryside would create new opportunities for development in agricultural sectors long deprived from access to resources and logistics, in many cases due to forced displacements. According to economist Felipe Pinilla, the conflict causes an annual reduction of 3.1% in agricultural GDP, affecting the supply of food production for isolated areas. He claims that without the conflict, an additional 110,000 hectares of land would generate 700,000 tons of more food.

In other words, deepening social isolation has had negative consequences for both business development and those seeking to reap the benefits of their labor. At the same time, it has also hindered the abilities of marginalized communities in these areas to create a climate of reconciliation and coexistence. For indigenous populations, displacements from their ancestral lands has meant a shared sense of loss of their culture and way of life. The department of Chocó, for instance, a state with an ethnic majority population where state and economic presence is weak, currently has a poverty rate of 70.5%, almost double the national average. As a consequence, Afro-Colombians and the indigenous have become vulnerable targets for recruitment by armed actors. Some estimates claim that as many as 4,000 indigenous are believed to be among the ranks of the FARC. This represents a tremendous failure of rule of law in Colombia.  

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Weakening their prospects, is the fact that negotiators in Havana have so far been unable or unwilling to integrate Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples into the current talks. This lack of involvement has even been a recurring criticism evoked by the United Nations, who have called the lack of representation of their communities in the talks ‘unsustainable’ in relation to the fate of the peace agreements. Addressing their needs and concerns is essential before the talks can successfully tackle one of the main roots of the conflict: access to land. Their participation in the talks would positively impact the diminished likelihood of them engaging in illicit activities perpetrated by illegal groups.

As the talks proceed, solutions to these problems are either inadequately implemented, as is the case with the Land Restitution Law (Law 1448), or have not yet been put forward, such as the rural development reform that has only been agreed to on paper by negotiators. By selectively pushing states to open a dialogue between social sectors about how to prioritize which kinds of development suits each state, rural reform exemplifies one of the best opportunities that the state and marginalized communities have in reaching an understanding of what entails the specific needs of different regions.

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While these developments are promising, the absence of Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and other historically marginalized sectors in the talks torpedoes any hope of addressing the roots of the conflict. Lack of human and economic development in the Colombian countryside and Pacific Coast, where these communities are predominant, reflect one of the most important reasons why past peace processes failed and why the current talks may potentially redirect the kind of growth needed to heal historical identity-based grievances fueled by social isolation. Adding a decade of growth to Colombia’s economy will greatly benefit Colombia. But turning that decade of growth into a decade of inclusive growth, and thereby ending the marginalization of so many Colombians, is perhaps the best possible guarantee that this conflict will be put to rest.