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Presbyterian delegation visits Colombia

On-the-ground peacebuilding efforts complement an upcoming webinar

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Sarah Henken, a PC(USA) mission co-worker serving in Colombia, translates for the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Mtata, director of the World Council of Churches’ Public Witness and Diakonia, in Bogotá, Colombia. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Recently a group of Presbyterian Mission Agency personnel joined with ecumenical partners from across Latin America and the Caribbean and delegates from the World Council of Churches and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. They gathered in Bogotá, Colombia, at the “International Encounter for Reconciliation in Colombia: Ecumenical Experiences and Learnings in Peace Building.” The PMA delegation included Ellen Sherby, the Rev. Dr. Valdir França, Sue Rheem, and the Rev. Sarah Henken, PC(USA) mission co-worker serving in Colombia, a country seeking peace after more than 50 years of armed conflict.

França, Rheem and Henken will take part in an online webinar scheduled for noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, Sept. 6, titled “Hope for Peace in Colombia?” Other panelists will include the Rev. Maggie Breen of Seattle Presbytery, who also visited Colombia, and the Rev. Adelaida Jiménez, a minister with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia who serves on the government’s team responsible for dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent group.

Interested participants can register for the webinar here. There will be real-time Spanish interpretation available.

The “Hope for Peace in Colombia?” webinar is set for noon Eastern Time on Wednesday.

Following the three-day conference in Bogotá, Sherby, associate director of Global Connections, along with a delegation of five Colombians and six international ecumenical partners, visited the Chocó province, which runs along the Pacific coast of Colombia. There, they learned how its residents have been displaced because of land disputes between the ELN and the AGC (Colombian Gaitainista Self Defense groups, i.e., paramilitary groups).

“About 40,000 people have been affected in Chocó by displacement or confinement,” said Sherby. “Confinement means that communities cannot move around to get water, go to school, or tend to their agricultural work. Curfews limit movement and some communities are affected by confinement multiple times and for prolonged periods.”

Displacement occurs when violence or threats to family and neighbors instill such fear that individuals or entire communities relocate in search of safety. According to Sherby, displacement can occur due to armed conflict, including homes being destroyed, and usually relates to long-term, permanent movement or removal from a community. San Miguel alone has received five displaced communities since 2020. Both confinement and displacement are tools used to gain control over the land.

“San Miguel and surrounding communities exhibit a clear case of the challenges faced by people trying to find a way forward in the peace process even as the dynamics of conflict continue with an active ELN,” said Henken. “Dissident and paramilitary groups see the cease fire with ELN as an opportunity to move in and take over territory making communities even more vulnerable.”

Henken notes that a lack of government presence in the rural areas helps fuel land issues and the inevitable conflicts with bad actors looking to capitalize. Generations of families have farmed land, but without proper land titling and documentation, it is difficult to prove ownership. Municipal governments are limited in their ability to respond, and many community members are fearful of coming to the authorities to report cases of displacement, confinement, or threats because they are concerned about retribution by armed groups. In one listening session attended by Sherby, a government official explained it is hard to know who to trust because members of armed groups have “infiltrated” the government.

Recruitment of young people to the paramilitary life is another issue. Lured by incentives such as gifts and three meals a day, many young Colombians turn to armed groups for the promise of a better life.

“Grooming-style recruitment is a typical tactic and has been for several generations,” said Henken. “Armed activity with one group or another is often the most viable avenue for many young people. This is precisely why the government is proposing alternatives for young people as part of its Total Peace initiative.”

Local community leaders in San Miguel and other towns echoed a similar theme to the ecumenical delegation:

“We are tired,” said one woman. “We want to return to our roots when our children ran free. Being humble is not the same as saying you don’t have dignity. We don’t necessarily need wealth; give us solutions. Do not just take information from us and do nothing with it. We want solutions sought out. It is our dream to sleep peacefully, to work in peace.”

A PC(USA) delegation was part of an ecumenical gathering recently in Bogotá, Colombia. (Contributed photo)

“This visit was a great opportunity for learning and listening,” said França, Presbyterian World Mission’s area coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean. “Our challenge moving forward is to see the focal points where we can support, contribute, and foster relationships by bringing groups together through the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, the Office of Public Witness, and Sarah’s work on the ground in Colombia.”

There is still space available to view the upcoming Hope for Peace in Colombia? webinar. Register here.

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