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Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission helps those affected by ongoing violence in Colombia

Photo by Peace Brigades International.

The armed conflict in Colombia, which began in 1964 and continues to this day despite a peace accord, has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people.

Amnesty International reports that six million people have also been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of this conflict. They note, "Most of those affected are Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities whose existence depends on living off their land."

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) focuses on supporting Afro-descendant, Indigenous and Mestizo (peoples with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry) communities affected by the conflict, ongoing violence and corporate plunder in Colombia.

The conflict that primarily involved the Colombian government, paramilitary groups associated with the Colombian military and drug cartels, as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) has its origins in La Violencia.

La Violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1958, is the time period when the first paramilitary groups were formed in the conflict between the right-wing Conservative Party (representing landowners) and the Liberal Party (that had turned towards populist policies under Jorge Eliécer Gaitán which helped the poor).

It also has its roots in the United States calling on the Colombian government in the early 1960s to quash remote "self-defence communities" formed by Liberals and communists in the aftermath of La Violencia. Those attacks contributed to the formation of the FARC.

While the Colombian government and the FARC reached a peace agreement in 2016 after 50-plus years of fighting, the armed conflict continues between the government, FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and drug cartels such as El Clan del Golfo.

Drug trafficking plays a significant role in the ongoing violence. It is a source of money for both drug cartels and guerilla fighters. The Guardian has reported, "The San Juan and Naya rivers are two of Colombia's main drug-trafficking routes and the communities [deep in the jungle and along that route] are surrounded by armed groups vying for control of their land."

CIJP has accompanied members of the Naya River Basin Community Council and the Wounaan Nonam Indigenous communities who live on the shores of the San Juan River.

The environmental information website Mongabay also points out further complexity in fighting between the neo-paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) and ELN guerillas over control of land previously held by the FARC. This land is inhabited by six Indigenous communities and 12 collective Afro-Colombian territories.

Mongabay reports, "According to CIPJ, cattle ranchers and palm oil and banana growers have counted on the support of the AGC to intimidate, threaten and kill the community leaders who are defending their land from the expansion of agribusiness and commercial logging interests in the region."

Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project has noted, "CIJP accompanies the Sikuani and Jiw Indigenous communities who are affected by the extensive palm oil plantations in Mapiripan municipality (Meta department), mainly through training workshops on land and human rights."

Furthermore, Amnesty International has pointed out, "Over the years, the Colombian authorities have granted licenses to mining and other companies looking to exploit [the lands that people have been displaced from] and their vast natural resources." Those licences are often granted on Indigenous lands without their right to free, prior and informed consent being respected.

Father Alberto Franco, a leader at the CIJP, has lamented the violence used "to remove poor people from areas to pave the way for development projects."

PBI Colombia notes, "CIJP's members have been the target of many security incidents since 1996, including serious threats to their personal integrity, being followed and subjected to illegal wiretapping and surveillance, assassination plots, kidnapping, and smear campaigns." PBI has accompanied the CIJP since 1994.

The struggle for justice continues in Colombia and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission plays a significant role in this vital and dangerous work.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo by Peace Brigades International.

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