Colombia River Stories:improving socio-environmental understandings for building sustainable peace

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Social & Political Sciences


Colombia is in the process of transitioning from one of the most protracted civil conflicts in the world to peace. However, one of the major societal issues for post-conflict transitions in Colombia is how to ensure the inclusion and participation of vulnerable and marginalised groups in transition processes so that their knowledges, abilities and capacities are represented, and so that they can influence post-conflict development. This raises questions of how innovative community- engaged and participatory processes can achieve greater inclusivity in peace building processes. It also raises the question of how different conflict actors can be encouraged and facilitated to articulate their knowledge and experience of conflict in ways that enable their actions to be explained to one another, and that support a shift from narrow understandings of the causes of conflict based on personal experience to more expansive understandings that are based on collective experiences.
In this research, we focus on riverine communities along the Atrato River - the main artery of Choco. These communities have been deeply impacted by armed actors who are engaged in widespread, illegal alluvial gold mining which is a key factor in their forced displacement and the loss of traditional, sustainable livelihoods. Despite a 2017 Colombian Constitutional Court ruling to empower riverine communities with 'bio-cultural rights' that protect their land title and livelihoods, they remain marginalised. They struggle to make their voices heard and to influence and inform peace building processes. This marginalisation has also been experienced by the river itself, whose voice has been silenced through the abandonment of state-sponsored environmental monitoring programmes at the height of the conflict. As a result, the effects of conflict and alluvial mining on the form and function of the river, and the impacts of these on interactions between armed actors, the river, and the communities it sustains are poorly understood. This will only be addressed if marginalised voices of communities and the river are articulated and amplified so that their knowledges, abilities and capacities can be integrated into sustainable peace building processes. Achieving this is the primary aim of this project.
Conceptually, our project builds on a key emphasis of peace processes worldwide: the capture and re-telling of testimony so that conflict actors can better appreciate the complexities of the conflict in which they are engaged, and the inter-relationships and feedbacks between their actions, and those of others, which fuel the conflict. Such knowledge is a fundamental precursor to the development of sustainable and feasible strategies for peace. The project is structured and designed to elicit, analyse and co-produce testimonies as an integrated 'river story', sourced from multiple participants and perspectives - including marginalised human actors and the river itself. The project therefore uses an innovative and multi- disciplinary methodology that brings social scientists and natural scientists together - integrating their research methods and techniques to capture human stories through community-level, participatory research and the river's story through field- based scientific monitoring and environmental reconstruction and mapping. The story books that are produced, and the policy briefs that they underpin, will be the vehicles through which policy-makers are bought into dialogue with the marginalised voices of both riverine communities and the river itself, and thorough which they improved understandings of the key actors and drivers of conflict in Choco' and the priorities and strategies for sustainable peace building, will be gained.

Planned Impact

The project will develop a series of 'River Stories' to exploit the timeliness of the Colombian Constitutional Court Ruling T- 622, which recognises the River Atrato as a bearer of rights and calls on both communities and the state to be its 'Guardians'. The ruling identifies the rights of communities to physical, cultural and spiritual survival, guaranteeing their traditional livelihoods. The ruling calls on the Colombian state to ensure the rights are enforced - and it demands that local people are empowered to manage their river properly and demand the proper implementing of the ruling. We will work with the Ministry for Environment and Development, international NGOs and specialist networks to improve the processes of sustainable peace building in Colombia, particularly with Afro-Colombian communities. Our impact strategy is directly informed through the co-produced priorities formulated through longstanding relationships with Colombian and UK partner organisations.
Our pilot research in Chocó in August 2017 highlighted that a key challenge facing riverine communities is the effect of non-regulated alluvial gold mining, which undermines both livelihoods and security. However communities face a lack of available, accessible and reliable data on how the socio-environment has been affected by alluvial gold mining and conflict. This research will inform their strategies to engage with state and international actors to push for the rehabilitation of their environment and the development of sustainable peace.
The project targets populations at local, regional, national and international level. By having communities and practitioners as partners, we also locate impact at the centre of the research model so that fresh understandings that are generated can be fed directly into, and influence, policy debates. Knowledge created by the research will have usable implications beyond the case study sites. Three main impact strategies will be developed:
1.Co-production with comunities of a range of outputs targeted at different decision makers and available in different formats in order to democratise of the voices that are captured, shared, amplified and integrated during reconciliation and peace building processes.
2.Capacity Building: We will build capacity among community members alongside the Atrato River in environemtal monitoring technquies so that they can act as 'Guardians' of the river (as mandated in Court Ruling T-622) and thus ensure a more inclusive and sustainable transition to peace.
3.Communication of river stories, which has the dual purpose of raising awareness among different constituencies of the interconnected challenges to peace in Choco' with regard to the wider socio-environment and ensuring that the voices of Afro-Colombian communities in Choco' are included processes of sustainable peace building. Research outputs will inform communities' strategies to engage with state and international actors to push for the rehabilitation of their environment and the development of sustainable peace.


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