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Lessons from the San José de Apartado Peace Community

In the year the UN declaration on Human Rights Defenders marks its 20th anniversary, campaigners recently called for this global community’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  In this piece, Elizabeth Wainwright talks to leaders from Colombia’s Peace Community of San José de Apartado who, in the face of extreme violence, have built a peaceful, pioneering and self-sufficient community. Here, we share their hard-won lessons – which could benefit us all.  

The Peace Community in the north west corner of Colombia formed in 1997 in a region affected by conflict between government, leftist guerrilla groups, and right-wing paramilitaries. Despite the ongoing conflict, they continue to live peacefully, growing and harvesting cocoa beans while resisting displacement and remaining neutral in the face of threats, stigmatisation, and murder.


German Graciano Posso, Morelis Arteaga Guerra, and José Roviro Lopez Rivera are three leaders in the community. The importance of harmony for resisting violence and building self-sufficiency is evident in the way they speak with such confidence in, and love for, their community; a kind of love that feels pragmatic more than idealised, and tested more than theorised. So, here are some of their lessons in community. We hope that by sharing these, this might take the Peace Community’s message even further, and perhaps help guide your own community.


1. We must think beyond individual ownership.


Morelis, one of the female growers of cocoa from the Peace Community, shares the idea that because “no individual owns any one thing”, they all benefit and all get to share in the results of the community’s work. “The community is very tight knit,” she says. “We all benefit, and we all want each other to benefit. We cannot do this as individuals.”


2. Community creates visibility.


German explains how being part of a community creates visibility for every member. “We are a remote community,” he says. “So if we’re not organised and if we don’t keep our connections strong, we’re all more exposed to violent attack, including rape, and nobody would find out. The ongoing threat that we live with tightens our community because it draws us closer; each looks out for the other. We are all more visible.”


3. Communication resolves things


I asked German about the threats to the harmony of their community. “The typical problems in the community are gossip and minor things but our biggest problems lie outside of the community,” he told me. He went on to explain that they have internal councils, and people go to the relevant council when issues arise. “Each day, councils get together to debate and talk; they communicate to resolve issues.”


4. Listening must come before acting


German explains more about how the councils are very involved with the people and why this is so important. They understand the people and are able to help them because they are with the people. “They too are members of the community. They listen and look and understand, before they discuss.”


5. Clear guidelines enable progress


The community has a set of rules that members adhere to. If rules are not respected, members are expelled from the community. Rules include no illicit harvesting, no taking illegal substances, and not participating in the war directly or indirectly. As Roviro explains, “People are aware of the rules of the community, and know why the rules exist. This keeps things running smoothly.”


6. Trust is important


Morelis says that community members trust themselves and each other, which is vital in resisting attacks. In December 2017, for example, German faced an assassination attempt, but community members quickly surrounded and disarmed the attackers, and captured two of them. “We acted quickly because we knew each other, and acted as one” she said.  


7. Being driven has an impact


“People are driven to succeed with our products,” Morelis said, confidently. “They do not need telling that they must work hard, they already do. So it is good to see our cocoa turned into products that Lush sells,” she adds, “it makes me see that this drive really leads to good things. We will share this when we get home. People will be amazed at the story of our cocoa.”


8. Awareness of surrounding reality is important


From a young age, children are taught about the importance of community, and of a relationship with the land. But they are also taught about violence. “It is a reality,” Morelis says. “They grow up knowing that violence is all around, and that we face it everyday. But they also learn about our ancestors, and about the memory of the place.” The Community created its own curriculum, which includes a subject called ‘memory and land’, and learning develops right through to the community’s own Farmers’ University. “People grow up loving the land and respecting it. Our reality is challenging but also full of good.”


9. A network and support is vital  


The international support that the Peace Community receives is crucial to the success of its message and persistence. “Knowing that people around the world listen and act drives us to keep going, and to keep sharing our experiences,” Roviro explains.


10. We are individuals within community


Morelis says that everyone has a role in the community, including in growing, commerce, production and education. German adds that for this to work, children are taught to be individuals so that they can better serve the community. “We are individuals, but we are not isolated; we are within community.”


11. Having few resources is not a limit


German says that the community’s resources are sustained predominantly by Lush, which buys their cocoa. These resources are used for education and healthcare, and mean that the whole community feels the benefit. “Our income is enough for us to be self-sustaining. You just need to start from where you are – like we did out of necessity in 1997, when we had nothing.”



We’d love you to share your own lessons in building and sustaining community by commenting below.


Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer and community coach, contributing editor at the Ecologist, and  co-leader of the Arukah Network. You can follow her on Twitter at @LizWainwright


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