The mood in the Bogota plaza was more sombre than excited during the ceremony marking the FARC’s final disarmament. There were a few balloons, flags, and the vegetable mandala folks, but everything felt muted in the face of uncertainty. Recent judicial decisions have challenged the government’s ability to rapidly implement the accords. Social leaders continue to receive threats and the assassination count steadily grows. Overt paramilitary activity increases around the country.
A friend, newly arrived to Colombia, leaned over to ask about the UP flag flying in the crowd. I explained how in 1985 the FARC formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), to advance some of their goals through politics. All during the late 80’s, right-wing militants systematically hunted down and killed thousands of members of the UP, in what is referred to in Colombia as a political genocide. The flag is a reminder of the mixed history of laying down weapons in Colombia and the real threats that continue to exist when elite power is threatened.
Still, there was a collective intake of breath at the distinctive click as United Nations monitors shut the doors of the containers holding the FARC’s weapons. With one swing of a metal door, 7,132 weapons ceased to be used for war and the FARC ceased to be an armed group. Yellow butterflies filled the screen, transmitting live from Mesetas, their presence a reminder to celebrate this step forward towards nonviolence. Despite the uncertainty, it was a moment no one would have dreamed of witnessing even a few short years ago when I arrived to Colombia and marks another milestone in this up and down journey towards a true post-conflict Colombia.
The week before disarmament, I was in El Carmen to say goodbye to a friend and spent an entire day in community meetings, listening to farmers talking about avocados. I stood beside a farmer as he held a leaf to the sun, pointing out every detail, a reminder of the embodied knowledge of the Montes de Maria and the way a simple fruit can cause a ripple effect across the region.
The small group of farmers talked about the importance of the avocado for almost every aspect of daily life twenty years ago, as the economic generator of the region. A woman mentioned the trucks lining the road, ready to buy their produce and ship it to Medellin, and the number of workers employed by each farm. The death of the avocado through a root fungus devastated the entire region at exactly the same time that the armed conflict was also fully arriving to the Montes de Maria. By the time farmers returned home, after displacement and massacre, everything was changed, included their beloved trees. Now, instead of being the breadbasket, or guacamole bowl, of Colombia, the avocados sold on the streets of El Carmen could very well be from another part of the country and there is a complete lack of economic development in the region.
It was, however, the avocado that sparked the current reconciliation and advocacy movement currently taking place, starting with the march in 2013. The firewood we used to cook our food in the evenings was gathered from dead avocado trees, a symbol of devastation and the need for new economic alternatives to provide for life with dignity.
And it was also the avocado, therefore, that lead to Jorge Monte’s arrest, as a leader capable of mobilizing thousands of campesinos. At one moment during his speech from Mesestas during the disarmament ceremony, FARC leader Timochenko clearly stated the lack of state implementation for the agreed upon amnesty for political prisoners. Since Sunday, over a thousand prisoners have started a hunger strike, demanding access to transitional justice. While not a member of the FARC, Jorge is also taking place in the hunger strike, stating his right to have his case heard under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, new measures for transitional justice that include social leaders accused of belonging to the FARC.
Despite the laying down of weapon’s, justice seems far away. When I think of Jorge getting skinnier and skinnier, the plaza’s sombre mood feels apt, yet I am still choosing to celebrate. Across the country, young people, despite their credible fears for the future, turned in their weapons and vowed to use words instead of guns for change.
Peace is much more than the silencing of weapons, yet within this silence, I hope that there is also space for the words that tell stories like the avocado’s history. Not simply a breakfast food on toast, the avocado represents a history lesson of the Montes de Maria. It is also a story of courage and a way of moving forward. Despite threats and arrests, campesinos from the region continue to come together, as communities, to discuss and debate what their communities need now. Jorge’s hunger strike is part of these continued actions of nonviolent resistance for justice. The avocado leaf against the sky represents knowledge of local development, local organizing, and the ability to put aside fear and mistrust to come together for a common goal. These are the stories that Colombia needs as it moves forward and provide valuable insight in possible post-conflict scenarios. I only hope we are ready to listen and to act.
Update: if you are a US citizen and interested in supporting Jorge, consider signing this petition: http://p2a.co/iNUSmla