San José de Apartadó: Lessons from Colombia’s Peace Community

On March 23rd, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó celebrated its 18 year anniversary. This community of campesinos , located in the war-torn northwestern Urabá region of Colombia, refuses collaboration with any of country’s armed groups, including guerrilla, paramilitary, and State forces.

On March 23rd, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó celebrated its 18 year anniversary. This community of campesinos , located in the war-torn northwestern Urabá region of Colombia, refuses collaboration with any of country’s armed groups, including guerrilla, paramilitary, and State forces.

The celebration followed February’s annual commemoration pilgrimage to the villages of Mulatos and La Resbolosa, where eight people, including Community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children, were massacred in a joint military and paramilitary operation in February 2005. These two anniversaries testify to San José’s amazing resistance to war over18 years, in which they have committed to constructing peace through collective farming, autonomy, and solidarity. I first visited the Peace Community in 2008 as a Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence accompanier. To honor their 18th anniversary, I wish to share a series of lessons about social change that I have learned from them over the past seven years.*

Lesson 1)  The experience of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó unmasks the modern State.

Since 1997, the Peace Community has demanded the right to live as campesinos without the presence or control of armed groups.

One might imagine that such a community of 1,300 farmers wanting to live nonviolently and with autonomy by expelling guerrillas and paramilitaries — that the government claims to combat — would be welcomed by the Colombian State, even if this also means the retreat of its own military forces, since such a retreat would reflect a step towards peace. However, the State’s reaction has been the opposite, as illustrated by 186 assassinations of civilians attributed to army soldiers and paramilitaries over the past 18 years, in addition to 24 killings the Community attributes to guerrilla groups.

The violence in San José de Apartadó is linked with the region’s abundant natural resources — water and mineral reserves — targeted for extraction. Private and public corporations that profit from such exploitation covet these resources, but in the process, they destroy the land and forcibly displace the people that live there through armed intimidation. Such processes have occurred in many parts of Colombia and the world: nearby areas in Chocó and Córdoba where black and campesino communities were displaced in the 1990s have been transformed into mass oil palm plantations and the Urrá hydroelectric dam, respectively. The majority of human rights violations in Colombia today are committed in zones of mining and oil extraction.

Yet, the war is not reducible to a struggle over economic resources. It is also about the way these campesinos challenge the State’s coercive relation of power. In San José, public investment by the government has in some cases taken the form of giving out genetically modified seeds and beans, despite that the latter are among the easiest crops to cultivate in the region. This suggests a strategic project to justify the presence of the State and its armed forces, to generate dependency on the government and on corporations, and thus to subjugate the population. In response, the Peace Community only strengthens its resistance and insistence upon autonomy, in spite of other campesinos in the area that accept such donations. These military and humanitarian policies, framed within discourses of development and human rights, are not exceptions to the rule. They expose the modern State’s true priorities: its self-preservation, the continued accumulation of capital, and maintaining the legitimacy of its exercise of violent force, whatever the costs.

The State wants to be in control of everything, to maintain people in a relationship of dependency. What we want is: to not depend upon the State. We are autonomous. We want to have our own crops, food, and our own education. And we have them: alternatives of life.”

2) Autonomy is rooted not in isolation but in solidarity

With respect to the most common or recognizable strategies of social change — armed struggle or electoral politics — the Community’s project of life enacts an alternative that ruptures with the cycle of retaliatory violence and with co-optation: autonomy. This alternative involves:

  • Political autonomy: the Community rejects any political control or interference by all State and non-State armed groups.

  • Horizontalism: collective decision-making in general assemblies and village meetings.

  • Economic self-determination: the Community sustains itself through food crops (corn, beans, sugarcane, chickens) and commercial crops (organic cacao) while also experimenting with food sovereignty through agricultural centers and self-sufficient farms where they preserve seeds and medicinal plants.


This autonomy does not only consist of an internal solidarity through the communal work of its members. It also involves external solidarity through networks of legal human rights institutions and other organizations, such as the Campesino University of Resistance, in which communities share and produce knowledge about health, media communication, pedagogies of campesino and community education, and juridical strategies to resist communities’ forced displacement.

“Making our own panela [blocks of raw sugarcane] gives me so much happiness. There have been many difficulties: People said that ‘no, that is very difficult, you won’t make blocks or honey.’ But some of the older men told me, ‘Yes! It will work! I worked with cane when I was a kid.’ And we began. The first batch was a failure. Indigenous people came here to show us how to make panela. Many people, you have to show them that, yes, things are possible. That they see because they don’t believe: ‘I won’t use that, no way.’ And the people are now happy, making their own panela. It tastes good … The Agricultural Center has enlivened many people. It is important for communities to not depend on the outside world, to not depend upon money. But we have to work really hard! The first thing is food sovereignty. It makes me so happy when people (from other villages) tell me, ‘I have a fish pond and I learned how to make it in the Agricultural Center.’ That gives me a lot of strength to press on, looking for more alternatives.”

3) ‘Memory is the Strength of Our Resistance’

“I believe that those that have fallen, they have given us that example, and they continue giving that example … constructing something different, a different world, a world without violence, a world without war, a world where we truly see each other as brothers and sisters, where we can work together, where we can share the fruits of our work.”

In a state of impunity, the Community enacts their own justice.

  • They honor their martyrs and testify to the realities of war with dignity through a multitude of collective memory practices: commemoration pilgrimages to the sites of massacres; building monuments and painting stones with victims’ names; and demonstration marches in different cities to the offices of governmental agencies. When members and those that accompany them walk, the mobilize the history of the Community with their bodies. And pilgrimages in San José occupy the lands they are defending, from where they have been displaced, and to where they want to return.

  • These commemorations bring members dispersed across eleven villages and community allies together on a regular basis. They help to educate children about the history of the Community and to incorporate new members into the community process. They potentiate opportunities for collective work: for example, the annual commemoration of the 2005 massacre in Mulatos and La Resbalosa is frequently followed by a gathering of the Campesino University or other workshops. These encounters create spaces where ties between people are created and strengthened; they cultivate cohesion and a collective consciousness through the sharing and strengthening of analysis about the current context. Given the immense challenges of emancipatory change, such gatherings, especially these that affirm and write our history, are fundamental for social movements to continually reflect, get to know one another, integrate new members, and motivate themselves to continue the struggle.

4) We must work from who we are, what we love doing, and the practices that improve and give our lives meaning.

As campesinos, the residents of San José de Apartadó love to farm, and they love to walk, in groups. Harnessing their joy of hiking and visiting new villages, the Community organizes pilgrimages across the region, including memory marches, as well as caravans in solidarity with other campesinos threatened in the region. In addition, they previously harvested their crops through the tradition of the convite, or family work group, similar to what is called the minga in other places, in which collective work is fundamental. No longer organized around family ties, today this practice is re-invented through village work groups or projects that involve participation of the entire community. The persistence of the organized Peace Community project for 18 years is partially explainable by the fact that they are struggling through what they enjoy doing, and through daily practices that are meaningful to them and that improve their material conditions. The Community re-creates its identity and campesino practices in such a way that contributes to the “conscientization” of the community as not merely walking and farming for their own sake, but as practices that cultivate dignified and solidary life amidst the war.

“I’m excited for the caravan to Rodoxalí, to see what it is like there! … When my two-year old brother is older, my father will explain to him: ‘we took you on that long trek in order to pressure the paramilitaries to respect the campesinos there’.”

5) We must act collectively and creatively, and we must not wait for “ripe conditions” or “heroes.”

“Peace is the power to not collaborate with any of the armed groups in the war. It is the power to decide to not participate … If we unite, struggle, plant food, work, and have our daily bread, then there will be peace, even if we are attacked by the State.”

For the Peace Community of San José, “peace” does not come from negotiations between armed actors or from the State. They illustrate that, especially amid war, we must not cede to groups of oppression and domination the power to create the life we desire and deserve. Even as attacks against them persist, the Community insists upon its self-determination. Its members are common people; they are not heroes and they have individual strengths and weaknesses like all of us, and it is from those and from collective and creative action that they build dignified peace here and now. The “ideal conditions” for struggle do not exist. The Peace Community teaches us that it is urgent to cultivate our creativity and commitment to imagine and construct alternatives in the present. In the words of leader Eduar Lanchero:

“It is up to all of us to help each other to carry on, to walk together through all difficulties. It doesn’t matter how many we are. What matters is that we really know and deeply live a different world. And we cannot build this different world tomorrow or in the past or something. We do it now.”

Chris Courtheyn is a doctoral student in Geography at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He previously worked as a protective accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence (FOR PP ) and is currently a member of FOR PP’s Board of Directors. He can be reached at .

* These reflections are the product of countless experiences and conversations with Community members and those that accompany them. As such, they reflect collective rather than individual knowledge, although that is not to deny my particular perspective as a solidarity activist and academic researcher from the United States. In no way am I claiming to be a spokesperson for the Peace Community; my goal here is simply to enunciate what I deem valuable lessons about political action that I have learned from walking and working with them over the past seven years. I am neither looking to create an exhaustive list of lessons to be gleaned from the Community nor do I intend to infer that these only apply to San José de Apartadó; rather, such knowledges reflect the praxis of diverse collectives and social movements. It is my hope that this article contributes to our emancipatory praxis of critical, continual, and collective reflection/action for social change, life, and dignity.

Thank you to SebAs and Diana Gómez for their ideas and editing that greatly contributed to this article. Of course, any error in understanding or analysis is mine alone.