In June, Colombia’s federation of municipal ombudsmen (FENALPER) launched Recon, a site that brings together hundreds of grass roots projects trying to lay the foundations for a lasting peace. Recon hopes to showcase these initiatives, help them get sponsorship and technical assistance from the private, public and third sectors, and allow them to connect with each other to share experiences and expertise.
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‘If we want a sustainable and lasting peace we have to create a new narrative for the country, which we will only do by shining a light on civil society initiatives at the community level,’ says Camilo Fonseca, FENALPER executive director and the creator of Recon.
The Colombian state has been at war with left-wing guerilla groups since the 1960s. The conflict has been exacerbated by the drug trade, atrocities on both sides and the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, but is close to coming to an end after a peace treaty was signed last week between the government and the largest guerilla group, the FARC.
This agreement, which will need to be ratified in a referendum on 2 October, will only mark the beginning of a much longer and arduous process of reconciliation.
‘We can’t fall in the trap of thinking that peace will only be achieved with the signing of the Havana accords… building peace is about how we relate to each other on a day to day basis and how we coexist so that we do not create new conflicts,’ Fonseca says.
When Colombia signed a peace accord with right-wing paramilitary groups in 2005, a process of reintegration was started, but quickly fell apart as many of the former combatants joined criminal gangs.
‘If you have lived with a rifle since you are ten and that is all you know what are you going to do?’ Fonseca says.
If you then end up with a state that doesn’t guarantee healthcare or education and the salary you get doesn’t compare to what you were earning during the war, you start to have the roots of new conflicts.’
That is why Recon looks to bring together projects spanning a wide range: from education, technology and communication, to environment, entrepreneurship and employability, and culture, arts and sport.
Disfad, for example, is a sitting volleyball team for ex-combatants from all sides of the war that have lost the use of their legs. Besides offering the veterans a non-violent way to settle their differences, it has helped develop friendships among what were previously rivals.
‘Now they aren’t going to settle their differences with guns, but with a ball,’ says Fernando Aguirre Saria, the founder of the project, in a video uploaded to Recon.
At the other end of the spectrum there is Comproagro, a website that connects small scale farmers directly with consumers and stores, helping them bypass intermediaries and allowing them to increase their profits.
Colombia’s persisting levels of inequality are one of the main drivers of the war and by helping to alleviate this, even if it is in a small way, the project is planting the roots of a more sustainable peace.
If farmers are making more money from traditional crops they will also have fewer incentives to grow coca, the raw ingredient that goes into making cocaine, and one of the main sources of financing for many armed groups.
Both of these initiatives came to the attention of the Recon team in an early phase of the project, a competition for the country’s best peace projects. To reach entrants from even the most remote parts of the country, where some towns are buried deep in the Amazon rainforest, FENALPER aired TV adverts and teamed up with the country’s largest supermarket chain, Grupo Éxito, for promotion. As a result, the first round received 470 entries.
‘When I started this nobody believed me, but then we got this response and we thought that it might work,’ Fonseca says. The massive database of peace projects that came out of the awards sparked the idea of creating a community to help them interact.
That interaction can be very practical. One of the creators of Comproagro, Ginna Jimenez, who is only 18 years old and founded the project with her mother and brother, all three of whom are onion farmers, was contacted through the social network by another project called ‘Más sobre el agro’ (More on Agriculture), which is now helping them improve their website and develop a smartphone app.
‘The app will be like the website, any producer that wants to sign up can do it completely for free, he registers his products and the client can contact him directly.’ Jimenez says.
Comproagro has also been sponsored by Éxito, which agreed to directly buy some of their produce.
Besides private sector partners, Recon works with the support of the Embassy of Sweden, some local Colombian municipalities, and government agencies. Fonseca hopes to get greater involvement from both government and the private sector, including European and U.S. companies and get funding in order to have full-time staff manning the social network.
Recon also plans to launch a crowdfunding platform, but the project has been delayed due to Colombia’s money laundering laws. ‘Under Colombian law I can’t receive money without knowing where it comes from because it could come from narcotraffickers,’ Fonseca says.
This raises another question. What about companies that participated in the conflict by funding armed groups?
‘I think, why not? Why not let them participate in the project and compensate for the damage done?
‘I leave that to the courts and let them judge what they have to judge. At Recon we have to start to build another narrative without judging people, without looking at the past, but looking at the future, because if we continue looking at the past we will just create more disputes.’
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