In times where hate speech is finding its way back to polarizing politics and leaders who find their power in dividing and creating enemies are gaining more followers, the importance of peace-building is on the rise. However, before continuing, it is important to be on the same page when it comes to peace. Johan Galtung, one of the leading scholars in the area peace studies defines the concept of ‘negative peace’ and ‘positive peace’. Negative peace is the absence of violence while positive peace implies a step beyond, including the restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive approach to conflict. Positive peace, rather than just stopping the violence in a temporary way, fully addresses the root causes of conflict, to solve the challenges that generate uprising of the citizens and social unconformity.
To achieve peace –and especially in its positive conception– is then a challenge, because it encompasses many elements that should be addressed to fully attain it. One of its most salient aspects is collective violence, or the instrumental use of violence between groups to achieve political, economic, or social objectives; it is a kind of violence that can easily emerge as a response to the system conditions in a given territory. Moreover, the World Health Organization has been able to identify as some of its main causes, highlighting social inequality marked by the grossly unequal distribution of, and access to, resources. The country where I come from, Colombia, is among the top in this category. According to the World Bank, in 2016, Colombia’s Gini Coefficient was 53.5, placing it as the 7th most unequal country in the world. When it comes to the tenure of the land, 77.6% of it is controlled by 13.7% of the Colombia’s inhabitants.
Inequality being such a present aspect of Colombian reality, one needs to reflect upon the root cause of the current civil war that the country is facing. When the guerrillas originally rose up, their main claim was the fair access to the land, as one of the first steps to achieving social justice. Yet, after several land reforms and decades, not much has changed. The conflict has lasted more than 52 years. Although recently there was a peace agreement between the government and the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) and its implementation is ongoing. Nonetheless, the country also faces other illegal groups like the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the BACRIM (Criminal bands, mostly composed of the former members of the paramilitaries) which pose a threat to achieving peace in its negative sense.
The scars of war are deep and the country is polarized at the moment. The referendum of the 2nd of October, where less than 38% of the population voted, showed how the NO vote to implementing the peace agreement won. Beyond its political consequences, it was a signal of a deep indifference in one of the most transcendental decisions for the country with a majority of people not visiting the voting polls.
We, the youth took the leading role at this moment and realized that we need to be active citizens and lead by example, to encourage others to be more involved in the peace agenda. We started organizing marches, public meetings and symbolical actions, like the peace encampment in Bolívar Square, as a way to represent that even if that area of town is the center of the state power (legislative, executive and judicial branches are located there), people camping there are even more powerful exercising a direct democracy that asks for the bilateral ceasefire and quick implementation of the peace agreement. One thing that became obvious during these exercises, is that people are not listening to one another. When there is a substantial legacy of violence, and people tend to solve their conflicts in the most immediate way, it is harder to have a mindful dialogue, reach an agreement and be able to truly understand one another. Yet, it does not mean that it is more expensive. Beyond the economic terms, the cost of war is a price too high for all of us to afford. To waste resources in complex defense strategies is to take the money away from potential investments in healthcare, education, infrastructure and creating jobs, which are ultimately, a powerful mechanism to leverage the marginalized classes and promote more equity in society, thus breaking the vicious circle of war –at least, by the Colombian standards.
Moreover, when it comes to war, what is perhaps the highest cost that we pay when violent conflict arises is the loss of human lives. It is beyond what some economist might call an ‘externality’ of violent, because no matter how much we pay, we can never compensate all the damage done and come back to the starting point, to recover a life once it is gone. According to the 2016 World Report on Violence and Health created by the World Health Organization, violence is causing each year 1.6 million people to lose their lives, which is equivalent to vanishing the entire population of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay in the blink of an eye. Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15-44 worldwide, accounting for 14% of the deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.
We, the youth, have been heavily affected by violent conflict, yet, what is there for us to do? I believe that peace comes from an inner balance but as well from the collective mindset and culture of contributing towards the goal of nonviolent coexistence and cooperation for the collective development. And in that sense, the role that each one of us is vital, and we need to start with small actions, that might not be large individually, but when summed they can represent a meaningful impact. We can no longer think of a hero who is going to come and save us all and provide all the answers and solutions we have been always looking for. On the contrary, we need to realize the power of people coming together, the collective hero, and that we can be a part of it. Working together with young people from all over Colombia we launched the Cartas por la Reconciliación (Letters for the Reconciliation) campaign, as a strategy to change the mindset of ‘us vs. the other’ and to know one another from who we really are. We started a back-and-forth exchange of letters between the civil society and the ex-combatants from FARC. The results were quite impressive. Cristhian Arredondo, a student who attended an event to deliver the letters said: “I believe that the visit was a wonderful experience, all the prejudices, stigmas that I had against the FARC-EP militants were totally refuted, I never saw people who, despite having had a not very pleasant past, ended up being very kind, open-minded, formal; respectful people who have many stories to tell.” Luisa Villa, another student, adds the following: “Visiting the encampment zone absolutely changed my perception of the peace process. Unfortunately, we have a very deep misconception about the people who make up the FARC; If all the Colombians had the joy to get to know them, there would be no rejection and they would realize that they are our brothers, people with feelings, with dreams, families, fears and aspirations.”
Meanwhile, Federico Aguirre, a FARC member who received one of the letters said: “I receive this message with great affection and I think it is a message of encouragement for the entire guerrilla. We know we can count on all the Colombian people out there in the civil society, who are supporting us in one way or another.” Manuela Valbuena, a fariana adds: “it is very nice to receive letters and messages that arrive through the students, the people who live in the cities. We send them back a message of fraternity and gratitude.”
After more than 3 months running the campaign, I realize how relevant are the words of the Puerto Rican singer Residente in his song Guerra “War is rather weak than strong. It cannot support life so it hides on death. War loses all its fights when the enemies listen to one another.”