The Long Road Ahead: Social Movement Activism and Prospects for Peace in Colombia

By Angela Lederach

For the Spanish text of this article see here.

On Wednesday, August 24, 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced that they had reached a final peace agreement, marking a significant step towards a political end to 52 years of war. As Colombia and the international community turn towards the implementation of postaccord peacebuilding processes, close attention to the discourse and actions of rural, grassroots communities that have experienced the greatest impact of the internal armed conflict is particularly important. Although nearly half of all negotiated peace accords revert to armed conflict within five years, empirical evidence demonstrates that peace accords inclusive of local actors are more durable (Paffenholz 2010; Richmond 2011). In this essay, I draw on ethnographic research with the Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña, a nonviolent social movement comprised of campesinos (peasant farmers), to outline the challenges and possibilities of peace in Colombia.

The Alta Montaña del Carmen de Bolívar, comprised of rural farming communities, exemplifies the complexities and consequences of the internal armed conflict in Colombia. As a result of the rich topography, the Alta Montaña became a strategic base for multiple armed factions beginning in the late 80s (Esquivia 2009). Direct violence, including the systematic and selective assasinations of movement leaders as well as massacres, resulted in massive displacement of entire communities in the Alta Montaña. Throughout rural communities in Colombia, the paramilitaries, in collaboration with the state, normalized violent dispossession through the rubric of national security (Ramírez 2011). The framework of criminality that the paramilitaries invoked to accuse social organizations of being guerrilla collaborators also legitimized widespread violence in communities throughout the Alta Montaña, repressing social mobilization in the region.

Furthermore, at the height of the massive displacement of people from the Alta Montaña, a fungus entered the region, killing over 90% of the avocado trees. The death of the avocado tree, the primary income-generating crop in the region, has decimated not only the campesino economy, but also the fragile ecology of the Alta Montaña. The loss of shade for farming crops, the endangerment of native animal and plant species, and the dramatic depletion of waterways has fundamentally altered social, economic, and ecological life.

The death of the avocado reflects the multifaceted violence produced by forced displacement. Here, displacement is not experienced as a single event, but rather, an ongoing process that weaves itself into everyday life (Das 2007). For campesinos in the Alta Montaña, the experience of displacement requires attention to the ways in which the land itself is changed by violence, leaving people “stranded in place,” searching for ways to survive (Nixon 2011: 19).

In 2013 the Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña (PPRIAM) formed, leading over 1,000 campesinos in a weeklong nonviolent march towards the capital city in an effort to respond to past and continued violence. Working across the lines of enmity that had formed between communities during the armed conflict, the leaders of PPRIAM mobilized campesinos around the shared loss of the avocado. The march resulted in a signed agreement with the government and initiated one of the largest collective reparations processes in the country.

Over the last three years, PPRIAM has grown and strengthened across the region as movement leaders continue to work tirelessly to cultivate peace and integration between rural communities divided by the war. As a result, the movement has also garnered national attention. While state institutions and officials frequently invoke PPRIAM as an example of successful reparations in public discourse, their actions reflect a different reality. The vast majority of the reparations have not been implemented. The few reparations that the communities have received emerged as a result of the continued pressure PPRIAM leaders placed on state institutions through different forms of collective action.

The continued struggle for implementation has also created a double-bind for movement leaders (Cattelino 2010). Finding ways to agitate for collective reparations, guaranteed under the Victim’s Law, while remaining legible as actors, rather than passive subjects, remains a constant tension for PPRIAM leaders as they try to find creative ways to interface with the state. The state’s implementation of reparations obfuscates the successes and impact of PPRIAM’s organizing efforts as institutions take credit for new services and resources introduced into the region. This double-bind is further compounded by the state’s use of third-party intermediaries who manage the funding and implementation process, undermining the autonomy and leadership of PPRIAM actors.

Furthermore, reparations that specifically address the most significant harms caused by the war, including the death of the avocado and restitution of land, remain fiercely contested. The environmental impact of the violence is simply not legible within the state’s frame of victimhood. The harms defined under the Victim’s Law are also constrained by narrow timelines that elide the historic land struggles that campesinos have engaged in across multiple generations. Structural inequalities, historically and legally produced in relation to land, continue to reproduce the cycles of dispossession that have characterized social, economic, and political life for generations of campesino activists. Over 90% of peasant farmers on the northern coast lack land titles. Alarmingly, hundreds of grassroots activists engaged in the struggle for land rights have received death threats as a result of enacting processes of return, and over a dozen have been assassinated (Tate 2015). The complex entanglements of the paramilitaries, military, guerrilla factions, and criminal gangs with wider “development” projects spearheaded by multinational corporations only further exacerbate the challenges that PPRIAM leaders face when agitating for official land titles (Fattal and Vidart-Delgado 2015).

As the Colombian government and the international community prepare for postaccord reconstruction, careful attention to the experiences, lessons, and demands of campesino social movements are vital for sustainable peacebuilding processes. Drawing on ethnographic research with PPRIAM, I will outline just three key lessons here: First, reparations require greater recognition of the ecological impact that over a half-century of war has had in Colombia. Second, and relatedly, restitution of land requires acknowledgment of the historical and structural inequalities that infuse the legal and bureaucratic definitions of land rights. In particular, this requires acknowledging and legitimizing historic campesino land struggles as distinct from the armed, guerrilla rebellion. While a few promising alternatives legally exist, including the creation of a protected campesino reserve, they remain highly stigmatized as “guerrilla politics,” only further delegitimizing campesino claims to land. Finally, transforming the social and political culture to allow for grassroots mobilization and citizen advocacy without fear of repression and stigmatization requires increased and direct investment in social movement processes and collective organizing, rather than limited projects carried out by intermediaries in three-year cycles.

While this week marks a historic moment for Colombia, lessons garnered from the experience of the Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña illuminate the challenges and possibilities for peace in Colombia.


Cattelino, Jessica R. 2010. “The Double Bind of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty.”

Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 235-262.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley, CA:      University of California Press.

Esquivia, Ricardo. 2009. “The Local Community as a Creative Space for Transformation: The

View from Montes de María.” In Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War, edited by Virginia M. Bouvier, 295-311. Washington, D.C.: United Institute of Peace Press.

Fattal, Alex and Vidart-Delgado, Maria. 2015. “Introduction: The Colombian Peace Process: A     Possibility in Spite of Itself.” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Paffenholz, Thania, ed. 2010. Civil Society and Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment. Boulder,

CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Ramírez, María Clemencia. 2011. Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero

Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Richmond, Oliver. 2011. A Post-Liberal Peace. New York: Routledge.



Her research was made possible by Fulbright Colombia, USAID NDIGD, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the University of Cartagena, and Sembrandopaz




1 Comment

Filed under Activism in Latin America, Uncategorized

One response to “The Long Road Ahead: Social Movement Activism and Prospects for Peace in Colombia

  1. Pingback: A Letter from Colombia in the Aftermath of Charlottesville – Welcome to the AAA Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s