Rebels agree to lay down arms after more than 50 years of conflict that left 220,000 people dead and displaced millions.
Bogota, Colombia – A chocolate-producing community of peasant farmers who faced deadly violence after declaring themselves neutral in Colombia’s five-decades-long civil war could hold the key to a lasting peace as a historic ceasefire approaches this month.
The San Jose de Apartado peace community is the subject of a timely documentary by British anthropologist Gwen Burnyeat.
Timely because Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist guerrilla leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will sign a historic peace deal in a few weeks after four years of talks in Cuba.
The often dirty war between guerrilla groups and government forces and their paramilitary allies has claimed more than 220,000 mostly civilian lives, and displaced six million more since peasant farmers first took up arms over land inequality in the mid-1960s.
Since it was established in 1997, at least a quarter of the 1,200-strong San Jose peace community has been assassinated, mostly by government-backed paramilitary death squads.
Burnyeat, who spent two years living among the cacao farmers, says Chocolate for Peace, her documentary, was inspired by the community’s ability to sustain a cooperative spirit amid such chilling political violence.
“Signing a peace deal is one thing, but Colombians are wondering how peace will happen post-conflict,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The San Jose community has been doing that for 19 years since they declared themselves neutral. Their experience will be essential considering that change is going to take generations to achieve,” Burnyeat explained after a showing of the documentary to university students in the capital, Bogota.
Mauricio Rodriguez, the former Colombian ambassador to the UK and a close ally of President Santos, agreed.
“Peace,” he told Al Jazeera, “is much more than signing an agreement. It is a daily task for many years for all citizens and the state rebuilding trust, healing wounds, strengthening institutions, especially in remote areas mostly affected by the conflict.”
The community in the northwest region of Uraba has had more recognition abroad for choosing neutrality over flight than at home among war-fatigued Colombians, said Burnyeat. Every Saturday, she helps to run a “peace breakfast” where Bogotanos listen to the experience of San Jose farmers over a hot chocolate. Santos has promised to attend.
Kirsty Brimelow, chairwoman of the Bar Human Rights Committee, who has just returned from visiting the community, found them in a cautious mood.
The barrister mediated for the community when in 2005 the army and paramilitaries killed eight people, including their outspoken leader and three children, among them Santiago Tuberquia, an 18-month-old boy.
Then Colombian president Alvaro Uribe justified the killings by labeling the San Jose community as guerrillas. Today he is a key far-right opponent of peace talks with the FARC.
However, two years ago Brimelow secured an apology from President Santos, the former defence minister in the Uribe administration, who now praises the community’s good work.
“The president said forgiveness must be a condition of peace and I agree, in the same way that an apology by the state can go some way to healing the suffering that Colombians have endured,” she said.
Brimelow recognises it is hard for the San Jose community to forgive but said, “whilst impunity must not prevail and historical memory is hugely important, so too is the necessity for a change from a victim’s narrative to a narrative of reconciliation and hope for future generations”.
Chocolate for Peace aims to do just that, said Burnyeat, who made the film with a £3,000 ($4,000) donation from a friend of her mother, the poet Ruth Padel, a great, great grand-daughter of Charles Darwin.
The 30-year-old lecturer has spent much of her six years in Colombia defending herself against claims of being “a little gringa romanticising the peace process”.
But a two-year spell in San Jose de Apartado working for the Peace Brigades has ensured that Burnyeat’s interviewees go beyond “the usual human rights patter”, and are insightful about their relationship with the land they refuse to abandon, and the importance of their cooperative approach to processing their harvest for sale.
Lush, the UK cosmetic chain, already buys 100 tonnes of certified organic cacao beans from the community every year and supports the Peace Brigades’ presence in San Jose.
Maria Gonzalez, who appears in the film, produces paintings depicting a rural “paradise” blighted by the corpses of macheted farmers. “When the Black Hand paramilitaries came, happiness ended,” she recalled. “We want to build a dignified life and seek justice, not revenge.”
When FARC last entered peace talks in 1985 a grassroots leftist political party, the Patriotic Union, emerged. But within a decade, death squads working with politicians, landowners, and the army had assassinated two presidential candidates, and 5,000 members – including leaders of San Jose de Apartado farmers’ cooperative.
Jesus Emilio refused to admit to being a guerrilla when the paramilitaries tortured him. “I am unashamed to call myself a campesino [peasant farmer]. My grandparents were campesinos. I have dirt for blood,” he said proudly.
There may be talk of peace in Havana, but the San Jose community remains under threat. A paramilitary group recently daubed their walls with graffiti warning: “We are coming to finish you off.”
President Santos, who is said to be eyeing up a Nobel Peace Prize if he can pull off a deal with guerrilla groups, claimed the paramilitaries have been dismantled and what remain are criminal groups.
His ally, the former diplomat Rodriguez, said: “The government has been successfully fighting all illegal and violent groups. One of the points of the peace agreement deals with post-conflict security and retired General Naranjo – one of the most admired officers in Colombia’s history – is responsible for the design of these plans, especially in the most affected regions.”
But Peter Drury, who monitored Colombia over 20 years for Amnesty International, said the paramilitary presence in a region such as San Jose, where the army is strong, points to “continued close collusion” and “a lack of political will” to truly dismantle them.
“The question is,” he said, “who is defining peace and for whom? The international community must be alive to the danger that any peace process does not just serve to guarantee the impunity of serious perpetrators of human rights abuses.”
Come what may, Jesus Emilio is staying in San Jose. “Despite those who want me dead, I can’t leave,” he said. “I’d prefer a grave here than asylum in Europe in a luxury apartment.”