If the US wants a lasting peace, faith leaders say it should stand behind those who will help make it possible.
More than three years have passed since the government of Colombia signed a peace agreement with FARC rebels that promised to end the longest internal armed conflict in the Americas. A durable peace, however, remains elusive: Attacks against civil society leaders have surged as a new wave of armed groups vie for territory amid an expansion of large-scale mining activities and agribusiness.
The escalation of violence against women who defend their land, culture, and environment has been particularly stark. In the first quarter of 2019, attacks against female land defenders nearly doubled in the country compared with the same period last year. While people are speaking out against this alarming reality, more must be done to reverse these horrible trends.
In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, leaders from different spiritual traditions are urging the Trump administration to call on the Colombian government to take concrete actions to protect women land defenders in indigenous, Afro-descendant and smallholder farming communities. They are not only among the hardest hit by the escalation of violence, but their work is essential for the construction of lasting peace.
The Peace Agreement faces serious challenges
The signing of the 2016 peace agreement officially paved the way to end five painful decades of internal conflict. However, violence persists as the peace process has been plagued by delays and failure to implement key provisions.
A profoundly unequal socioeconomic structure—one of the root causes of conflict—continues to be an important driver of violence in Colombia. One percent of its landholders control 81 percent of its land, making it Latin America’s most unequal country in terms of land distribution. This disparity allows a small, powerful minority to use their resources to influence and benefit from government policies while marginalized groups often lack basic rights and protections.
The demobilization of FARC rebels also created a power vacuum in the country’s rural areas. Many resource-rich territories previously under their control are now under dispute by these new armed groups. The absence of governmental institutions in these areas has only exacerbated the problem, leaving already marginalized communities vulnerable to the expansion of both legal and illegal economic activities.
Women defenders are under threat
While inequality and land disputes have long made Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders, women from indigenous, Afro-descendant and small farmer communities are at serious risk.
Attacks against women are especially cruel. Armed groups resort to threats, torture, as well as psychological and sexual violence to discredit female defenders and gain control over their land. In Colombia’s deeply patriarchal society, women leaders can face severe consequences for breaking social norms. Systematic exclusion from resources and opportunities—credit, land, education—makes it even more difficult to access justice and secure political representation.
Additionally, the work of women defenders often goes unrecognized by the general public. Because violence is highly localized in specific rural areas, for many Colombians, conflict is not a part of everyday life.
What the US should do
As a key partner to Colombia and firm supporter of the peace agreement, the US government has the power to help put the peace process back on track. It should urge the Colombian government to take into account the demands of women defenders, including protection of their territories from armed groups, illegal enterprises, and expanded natural resource exploitation.
Oxfam also highlights in a new report the need to include women defenders in the design and implementation of measures that protect civil society leaders. By guaranteeing their participation and making their work visible, key provisions of the peace process can be implemented effectively. Additionally, US foreign assistance programs should increase support for Colombia’s justice and security systems to prevent violence and tackle impunity.
The hope for peace is at a critical juncture. The coming months and years will determine whether the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere is truly on an irreversible path toward peace. While women defenders are vulnerable to violence, they are deeply resilient and effective peace builders. By listening to them, Colombia will be one step closer to consolidating peace.