That tiny plane made me shiver. Yet as soon as we took off on that sunny morning in April 2016, I forgot about the people who have died in accidents traveling to and from Amazonia and enjoyed watching the landscape from the window. I saw towns that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s competing successfully for land with Colombia’s first national park and making the jungle ever more distant. The forest appeared first as patches and then as a more continuous cover, with black spots denoting recent clearings. When we landed in the town of La Macarena, the pilot told me that just a few weeks prior it would have been impossible to observe anything due to smoke. The dry season was ending and without the guns of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) enforcing limits, forest clearing, to cultivate coca and expand pastures for cattle, had gone out of control. For decades, FARC had made themselves comfortable in this unusually biodiverse and ecologically productive region, partly because it is the main natural corridor in the country between the Andes and Amazonia (and guerrillas, like jaguars, travel better in the shade of the forest canopy). The coexistence of protected areas with expanding peasant occupation and strong insurgent power made the area ideal for my research on the history of national parks, much more so since I already knew the place. In the early 1990s, when I was an undergraduate, friends who studied biology raved about the ecological research station our university had in the Duda River. As a social scientist in formation, I ended up working with people by teaching in a small school in the jungle rather than studying monkeys or birds, as they did. My return, more than twenty years later, owed much to the calmness generated by the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. Negotiations started in 2012 and led three years later to a truce that diminished casualties on both sides of the armed conflict, and of noncombatants, to historic lows. Although many of the people I knew had left, I encountered old friends and acquaintances who had gruesome stories about what happened in the interim. “Remember ‘Viejito’?” (He was a neighbor of the school where I taught.) “The FARC took him out of a canoe and we never saw him again.” They recalled repeated bombings by the army and resented the time local leaders spent in jail, falsely accused of being FARC cadres. But things had changed with the peace talks, and even though some local people worried about deforestation, the future looked promising. Six months later, my children, Niko and Siena, who had made a big YES sign for our apartment’s window, came with me to the polls for the most important vote of my life. The Colombian government and the FARC had finalized the agreement to end a fifty-year confrontation. The 297-page document explained the process by which the guerrillas would be dismantled, as well as the creation of a special tribunal to judge guerrillas and others involved in the war (including members of the army), plus a series of reforms focused on ending coca cultivation and strengthening the peasantry (against agribusiness and other interests). Like almost everybody else (not least the polling companies), I was certain that on October 2, 2016, a majority of Colombians would back the peace accord by voting YES to the question “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” Although the government did not need to call for a plebiscite, it did so to grant legitimacy to the agreement and gain traction for the long process that would follow. But the NO won. Disbelief and utter pain followed, plus many questions, meetings, rallies, and, for some, changes in our scholarly practice. Only 37.4 percent of Colombian voters went to the polls, and of them 50.2 percent voted NO. How could it be possible that two-thirds of the national population did not care about the outcome of this plebiscite? Colombia has, to cite just one figure, the world record of internally displaced people by violence (over seven million).1 To be sure, the FARC has not been alone in inflicting pain: we have had guerrillas of various sizes and colors, atrocious paramilitary groups, and an army that has stepped way out of line. But the FARC has without doubt been a major player; that it relinquished the use of force to attain its political goals is a huge step toward achieving a less violent society. It was therefore troubling to note that abstention surpassed that of almost all elections of the previous twenty-five years. The picture looked grimmer when confronted with the muddled inspiration of some of those who did vote. Two days before the election, someone I know well and who voted YES, told me that she heard the peace agreement was not important enough because there were other guerrilla groups—and then asked, just to make sure, “The agreement is with the FARC, right?” Yes, with the oldest and strongest guerrilla organization Latin America has ever had! Many voters made up their minds influenced by inaccurate, if not plain dirty, campaigns, and all kinds of gossip emanating from various parts of the country where illegal armies are present.2 The stories were pathetic. I could not help thinking that as an ignorant and apathetic people we deserved our fate of killing each other forever and ever, amen. And that if peace and reconciliation were to come, it would have to be through tweets and jingles, rather than understanding, conviction, and willingness to change. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Poster on a store window announcing a meeting of environmental organizations who supported the peace agreement, September 2016. Photograph by author. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Poster on a store window announcing a meeting of environmental organizations who supported the peace agreement, September 2016. Photograph by author. As hard as it was to come to terms with the election result, partial explanations abounded. While Colombia is an urban country (77 percent), the war has been fought primarily in the countryside and in frontier areas such as La Macarena, so many urban people do not feel concerned with it or with its environmental effects.3 Furthermore, for fifteen years the army improved its might and strategy, lessening the impact guerrillas had on the lives of many. Equally important is the hatred Colombians feel toward the FARC and the belief by some that short sentences in places different from ordinary jails are no real punishment for their crimes. The arrogance of some of its leaders and their difficulty in asking for forgiveness did not help, but this hardened guerrilla group was sincerely willing to give up arms and, almost a year after the vote, has effectively done so. A few days after the plebiscite my students and I were out on the streets, as were so many other professors, students, and citizens, joining large rallies to demand the accord be maintained. After all, the results showed that those of us who supported it were as numerous as those who did not. In the weeks that followed, we participated in many activities carried out in the urban public space including what came to be known as clase a la calle (roughly “classes to the streets”). This initiative brought La Macarena, so to speak, to downtown Bogotá. One morning, my twentieth-century Latin America class met in the city’s main square, where we listened to two of my friends, who came especially for the occasion, tell us about what it had been like to live in a “conflict zone” and why they supported the peace efforts. Their reasoning was clear and their testimony very moving; we made a three-minute video of it. Some professors and students at the Department of History at my university had started making videos on peace-related topics. One was an interview with a scholar who specialized in agrarian issues, exploring the argument that inequality in land distribution is one of the main causes of Colombia’s armed conflict. Like everything else during those days, this video was done with much passion and no funding, in hope of reaching wider audiences. In this context the international network in environmental history served an unusual purpose. Jane Carruthers videotaped herself recalling the importance of the plebiscite for South Africa’s move to leave apartheid behind and encouraging us not to give up. We then edited it, added music and subtitles in Spanish, and send it out through social media outlets.4 Many such initiatives came together one afternoon when our university canceled classes for the DíaPaiz (a name that plays with the words peace and country), opening an unusual space to think about the dilemma our country faced. I joined friends from the Biology Department in organizing a session in which they shared with students their experiences in the ecological research station that the university had in La Macarena starting in 1986, which was abandoned in 2002 after the FARC kidnapped a primatologist. The peace accord would allow biologists to tread into the field more often, and perhaps even to go back to that unusually rich rain forest. Although the environment was not a central focus of the day, just as it had not been a major point of discussion between the FARC and the government, it was certainly present in this and other activities. As some professors and students busied ourselves with these undertakings, the government received comments from the leaders of the NO position including Protestant pastors and recalcitrant politicians from the far right, who were stuck with a public position of support for peace but not for the agreement that was on the table. The government and the FARC incorporated many of their recommendations into a new agreement, which the leaders of the NO duly rejected but has nonetheless been passing piecemeal for approval through Congress. It is hard to tell if our rallies and pronouncements had any impact on salvaging a weakened peace agreement. For once we felt the urge to alter the course of history rather than write comfortably about it. And we were utterly ill prepared. The words of some of our more public colleagues who write in newspapers and internet outlets are read by relatively few similarly minded people. For this reason, the impact on the vote of the written media, which was 100 percent pro-agreement, was negligible. It was hard not to think that our videos and meetings served mainly to help us feel a little less bad. However, we had no option but to paddle in the dark. Gliding along without a view of what was ahead, and struggling with the apparent insignificance of reason and the impossibility of reconciliation, left us exhausted. After the 2016 Christmas break, life went back to usual, although not quite. At least in the Department of History at Universidad de los Andes, some things did change. The most active among my colleagues—Ana María Otero, Constanza Castro, and Catalina Muñoz—continued, along with a committed group of students, to offer workshops on Colombian history in various public libraries that are attended by hundreds of people of all ages. What was initially seen as a deviation from their duties is starting to be considered as important endeavors that can contribute to the making of responsible citizens. The idea that we needed to step out of academia to reach a broader public had been brewing with the rise of what has become known as public history, but October 2, 2016, served as a catalyst that put things in motion and prompted personal commitments. The peace process has also affected research, teaching, and more. The changes brought about by the dialogue between historical enemies allowed me to conceive the last chapter in the book I intend to write on the history of national parks, because local people had less fear to talk and I felt relatively safe traveling back to La Macarena. (Safety is a multifaceted proposition. In this area, motorcycles often provide the best means to travel through the dirt roads opened by the FARC, but this group strictly forbade the use of helmets because they could obscure one’s identity.) As the past came back to shape our visions of the future, Pablo Mejía (a student of mine who is also the son of the ecological station’s former director) and I have been working on a documentary about the station that tries to understand how it was possible to have such a place in the heart of FARC territory. Students from the country’s premier elite university spent weeks and months there while the guerrillas had dozens of kidnapped victims hidden in the jungles. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Lower Duda River, close to where the ecological station was located, April 2017. Photograph by Pablo Mejía. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Lower Duda River, close to where the ecological station was located, April 2017. Photograph by Pablo Mejía. Our documentary aims to support the reopening of the station. The prospect of a peaceful future has led ecologist Pablo Stevenson to revive his long-cherished dream of doing research there once again, and our university to back this goal and even consider building one or two stations elsewhere. The challenge goes well beyond being able to research tropical biodiversity in a place privileged by its extraordinary density in fauna; it also implies contributing to halt deforestation by supporting sustainable local livelihoods and the strengthening of the National Park System, goals that are often at odds. In the region where the station was located, the FARC played a contradictory role in the historical trend of diminishing forests and increasing pastures. It encouraged deforestation through road building and its determined support to coca growing and cattle ranching, but it also set limits on how much new land each family could open each year, slowing the pace of deforestation in certain areas. Its absence has opened opportunities and created new difficulties. The peace process has strengthened the university’s commitment to foster collaborative work in the field. Reopening the station will not change the course of history, but it might be an example of how academia can contribute to peace building by having concrete effects on a specific place, and the people and other organisms that live there. But the specter of war lingers on. The area that biologists once crisscrossed following monkeys and curassows was afterward a corridor for both the FARC and the army. The FARC used land mines as a preferred weapon, and it is hard to feel reassured even after they told us that they “cleaned” the area the station occupied (but not the opposite side of the river, which served as the entrance to the headquarters of a high FARC commander). Similarly, a tiny group that split from the FARC (one of many) has been seen in the area, and although the army has been breathing down their necks, its future is uncertain. The history of La Macarena demonstrates that our armed conflict and peace efforts are deeply intertwined with the fate of the environment, a topic that has received relatively little attention in a country obsessed with war. Colombia has a special kind of scholar called a “violentologist,” but this last peace process has encouraged a move toward peace studies. Our university, for instance, created a program in peace building. For insisting on the importance of putting nature into the picture, its director asked me to offer a seminar on armed conflict, peace, and the environment. I have had to be creative. Besides reading a few studies on other parts of the world, we have interviewed ex-combatants, heard the adviser on environmental issues for the Postconflict Office, and ventured into areas where the FARC used to have a strong presence.5 Although much continues to be business as usual, the peace talks and the mired process of implementing the agreement, as well as the deep polarization of our country, have shaken some professors and students, and the institutions we are a part of. We are more conscious that the university is a pleasant refuge from tough realities and that publishing in indexed journals and in English can drain the time and resources we have for less praised forms of research and communication. Our scholarly arrogance has suffered, and we continue to struggle with the broader questions raised by the plebiscite. Although the despair for “doing something” has subsided, we continue to seek solace in the thought that this ongoing process might be making us better persons, citizens, and scholars. Claudia Lealis associateprofessorinthe History Department of Universidad de los Andes inBogotá, author of Landscapes of Freedom, Building a Postemancipation Society in the Rainforests of Western Colombia (UniversityofArizonaPress, 2018), and coeditor with John Soluri and José Augusto Pádua of A Living Past, Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America (Berghahn Books, 2018). Notes 1. Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, “Global Report on Internal Displacement, 2017,” http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/#on-the-grid. 2. See, for example, the scandal generated by the tactics of the campaign around the NO, ““Las mentiras de las campañas del No,” según el consejo de Estado,” Revista Semana, December 19, 2016. 3. Literature on Colombia’s armed conflict is endless. As part of the peace process, the government and the FARC commissioned twelve essays that make up the 2015 report “Contribución al entendimiento del conflicto armado en Colombia” that show divergent views on the subject and include useful bibliographies. 4. See videos here: https://es-la.facebook.com/pg/historiasparaloqueviene/videos/?ref=page_internal. 5. This is part of what we have read: Lorenzo Morales, Peace and Environmental Protection in Colombia. Proposals for Sustainable Rural Development (Bogotá: Inter-American Dialogue, 2017); Emmanuel Kreike, “War and the Environmental Effects of Displacement in Southern Africa (1970s–1990s),” in African Environment and Development, ed. W. G. Moseley and B. I. Logan (London: Ashgate, 2003); Steve V. Price, ed., War and Tropical Forests, Conservation in Areas of Armed Conflict (New York: Food Products Press, 2003); Lisa M. Brady, “The Wilderness of War: Nature and Strategy in the American Civil War,” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (2005): 421–47; David Biggs, “Managing a Rebel Landscape: Conservation, Pioneers, and the Revolutionary Past in the U Minh Forest, Vietnam,” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (2005): 448–76. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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