“I have three things to tell you.” Alvaro Villarraga says, holding up his water glass as he speaks to the Justapaz team. “When the state says that peace process implementation is like a half full glass, which they are continuing to fill, they are being generous. There are but a few drops of water in the glass, compared with everything there could be and everything laid out in the peace accord.”
“Secondly, the glass itself is being fractured.” Alvaro lightly taps his glass, causing the water inside to tremble. “As Congress modifies the peace accord, such as changing the transitional justice system or removing the rights of victims to participate, water comes spilling out of the new cracks forming all over the glass.”
“And thirdly, if we keep killing one of the subjects of the peace accord,” Alvaro gently sets down the glass, “then the peace process itself has failed. And yes, even as we speak, we are exterminating members of the FARC. Perhaps the time has come to examine that the existence of the armed group, the FARC, for all the harm they have done, was only a symptom of a greater problem, but not the problem of Colombia itself.”
I am trying to pinpoint the exact moment when I became cynical about the peace process. Was it checking the news of the plebiscite on my aunt’s phone while driving through the Rockies, looking to celebrate, but only seeing NO? Or was it the day, after a thousand conversations about possible candidates in the Montes de Maria, the Senate rejected congressional seats for victims? Or perhaps it has been the slow and steady drip-drip-drip of news headlines filled with continued displacement and death.
Every six months, my neighbours plant a shrub in the grassy area by the canal in front of our building. They faithfully cart buckets of water outside and carefully tend to their small plant. In the end, it always dies. For a while, there is nothing but overgrown grass, but on a sunny day, I’ll glance out the window to see them at it again, digging a hole to plant another flower.
A steady sense that everything is terrible is a symptom of burnout. By only focusing on the terror of news headlines, there is no room to see the possibilities. What would it mean to look at the peace process from a different vantage point, with less focus on an overarching solution and more attention to the surrounding context? What would it be like to ask questions about what is being revealed, as Alvaro mentioned, in the failures and also the successes of this moment? What are the grassroots movements of communities and organizations that have being doing the hard work of peacebuilding for the past sixty years saying and doing? I don’t want people to die. I do want to be able to ask better questions about people’s deaths.
We can’t predict the future. We study the past, analyze the present, and make the best decisions possible with the information we have. Yet we have little beyond informed guesswork to guide our steps. When I think of my neighbours, I sometime wonder what the point is in replanting. But what if it’s not about the plant itself, but the muscles that grow from handling a shovel? The soil is fertilized by the decaying root systems left behind. Their son laughs as the family spends time outside, together. My own day is brightened when I see a flower growing beside the bridge.
Rebecca Solnit writes that, “Maybe an underlying problem is that despair isn’t even an ideological position, but a habit and a reflex.” She goes on to add, “I think you have to hope, and hope in this sense is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair, and through digging tunnels, cutting windows, opening doors, or finding the people who do those things.”
I was invited to Colombia to accompany and to bear witness, not to despair. I am here to share in joys and hardships, but never to pronounce that everything is over or to find the magic solution. That doesn’t mean that I am neutral or not impacted by what happens here. It does mean, however, that it is not my job to throw my hands up in the air and curl up on my couch, or to tell you that everything is fixed. Rather, my job is to pay attention, to be present, and to stay curious. My life here means I have the privilege to celebrate, to mourn, and to highlight alternative possibilities.
“We can change.” Alvaro says, as he concludes his talk. “With the peace accords, we have opened up new debates and ways of talking about Colombia. We continue to discuss the environment, to work to protect our national parks, to encourage different economic models, to focus on food sovereignty.”
Everyday, we are planting.