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Building a social economy and a culture of peace

Rodrigo Guerrero, Mayor of Cali, Colombia

In this article the Mayor of Cali describes how VallenPaz, a not-for-profit organisation working in war-torn regions of Colombia, has strengthened the social fabric in communities and improved rural livelihoods, helping to transform the backdrop of war and poverty against which children were growing up into a place where physical and emotional freedom can flourish.

After more than 50 years of violence in Colombia, we are now watching with interest as yet another attempt is made to end the conflict through a peace talks process; we are keeping our hopes up. During this long period of violence, with severe crises of all kinds taking place across the country, civil society has been putting forward and carrying out a series of proposals for alleviating the effects of the armed conflict. But our sights are set much higher, on eradicating them entirely. The experience described in this article is an example of that determination.

In the late 1990s, a series of mass kidnappings in Cali set up a chain of huge demonstrations and discussions between a number of city figures who had never previously met or worked together. In 2000, this process gave rise to VallenPaz, a private, not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to cultivate peace through human and social development in south-eastern areas of Colombia affected by the conflict.

‘Coexistence is everyone’s task. Let’s enjoy the day, the good treatment’ Photo • Courtesy Corporación VallenPaz

With this aim in mind, VallenPaz works using the concept of the ‘rural social economy’ – generating skills and opportunities in rural families, bringing about social change and economic progress by building social fabric, re-establishing a culture of peace and instilling a respect for basic human rights. The methods used for developing and strengthening the rural social economy are grouped into the following lines of action:

1   social organisation

2   business

3   food security

4   production

5   production and irrigation infrastructure

6   commercial.

Culture of peace and human rights

After 10 years, the results of the programme have left no-one in any doubt about its impact. Major achievements have been made, especially in food security: the programme provides incentives for families to grow their own food, and runs workshops to teach families how to have a balanced diet by preparing their food in new and creative ways. The programme also monitors the effects of nutrition in the child population by carrying out body mass and other measurements on children aged between 0 and 5 years old. Other outcomes include the following:

•    8876 participating families obtain an average monthly income that is higher than twice the Colombian minimum wage (us$665), working on farms covering an average of 1.7 hectares.

•    35% of the produce is sold in the country’s major supermarkets following the creation of the ‘Cosechas de paz’ (‘Harvests of peace’) brand, identifying products that contribute to bringing peace to Colombia.

•    400 families displaced by the conflict have returned to their farms. And although VallenPaz works in the regions most devastated by the armed conflict, there has not been a single documented case of displacement in its area of influence since 2000.

•    120 coca-producing families came forward to request help from VallenPaz in replacing their illicit crops with organic tomatoes grown in greenhouses.

•    Farmers linked to VallenPaz include demobilised guerrilla fighters from the farc revolutionary movement (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).

Peace benefits children

The welfare of rural families is the fundamental purpose driving the work done by VallenPaz in the communities. From this perspective, children are the barometers of society, as they are the first to feel the effects of both social problems and beneficial social change.

At VallenPaz we are aware that fear enslaves people, and that children need freedom to play, walk to school, climb trees and do whatever their bodies and minds need to develop their full potential. This means that valuing the crucial importance of the environment they grow up in, the social and emotional unity of their families, schools and communities, is a significant part of protecting their and their families’ emotions and reducing stress.

In addition to cross-cutting strategies for strengthening the social fabric, we carry out specific interventions in rural schools and ‘centres for coexistence’, where we give workshops on child-rearing skills, emotional communication, how to express anger healthily and conflict resolution using ‘restorative justice’. Restorative justice is a process that seeks to repair damage or injury caused by violent acts. In principle, it aims to bring together those involved in the conflict (victim and aggressor) to find a way forward for reconciliation and forgiveness. In this context, the concept of justice is focused not on punishment but on forgiveness, redress and reconciliation. In Colombia this is a new strategy for peace processes and a valuable instrument for conflict resolution processes involved in the prevention of violent acts.

These activities are attended by primary school children, parents and teachers; to date, nearly 1000 workshops have been undertaken for parents (with 5450 participants), more than 400 for teachers (1120 participants) and 1200 for young people (23,500 participants). The guiding aim is to promote face-to-face family discussions on specific behaviours in ways that strengthen bonds and balance affection with the exercise of authority in the family. Ultimately, it is hoped that this will have long-lasting effects that reverberate through the community and result in young children enjoying a more peaceful atmosphere.