As Colombia grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the communities having to adapt to life under lockdown are in remote areas that have long suffered from armed conflict and a lack of economic opportunities. Among those adjusting to this new normal while contributing to the emergency response effort are former FARC-EP combatants transitioning to civilian life as part of the 2016 Final Peace Agreement.
In a reintegration area in Icononzo, a small municipality nestled in the mountains of central Colombia, a tailoring workshop run by former combatants traded its usual production of t-shirts and ponchos for the manufacturing of protective face masks in an effort to help curb the spread of the virus in their communities and beyond. For Ángela Herrera, a local entrepreneur from Icononzo who works in the tailoring workshop, this has been “an act of peace” by the former combatants that “demonstrates the will to continue building a better country.” Seven other tailoring workshops set up by former combatants, many of whom are women, in different parts of the country have joined the effort to produce the sought-after masks. A workshop in the reintegration area in the municipality of Anorí (Antioquia department) donated its first batch of 1,000 masks to local authorities to be distributed among communities. Workshops are also finding partnerships with local governments and NGOs to provide face masks to the most vulnerable populations, while helping make their production sustainable.
After emerging from Colombia’s hills and jungles to lay down their weapons three years ago, former combatants embarked on an often rocky path towards socio-economic and political reintegration. The process has unfolded in a national context that has often tested the implementation of the Peace Agreement. Vulnerable groups in former conflict areas continue to face high levels of violence. Concerns about the security of former combatants and their families– as well as efforts by authorities to address these concerns – are highlighted in the Secretary-General’s reports on the work of the United Nations Verification Mission, a Special Political Mission under DPPA that supports Colombia’s peacebuilding process. But despite many challenges, the gains of peace have been tangible. The vast majority of the over 13,000 FARC-EP members who laid down their weapons have remained actively involved in reintegration programmes run by national authorities. As of April 2020, 52 collective productive projects had been approved by the National Reintegration Council to receive start-up funding and technical assistance with the support of international partners – including the Verification Mission and the UN Country Team. DPPA extra-budgetary funds implemented by the Mission provided initial support to many of these projects. Meanwhile, the former guerrilla group is now a political party after more than five decades as an armed insurgency. The FARC party ran its first electoral campaigns in 2018 and 2019 and is now represented in Congress.
Colombia’s government and the FARC, with the support of the UN, are working together at this time to prevent the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic from undermining the hard-fought progress achieved in the reintegration progress, and the peace process more broadly. Businesses and cooperatives – ranging from small-scale agricultural activities to eco-tourism and manufacturing projects – form the pillar of the socio-economic reintegration process providing incomes and subsistence opportunities to former combatants and their families. These productive projects are mostly implemented in the around two dozen reintegration areas – known as the former territorial areas for training and reintegration (TATR) – often located in hard-to-reach corners of rural Colombia that, under the best of circumstances, already cause significant logistical challenges to successfully run the projects. The COVID-19 emergency and nationwide lockdown have now made gaining access to markets and ensuring the sustainability of small businesses run by former combatants even more difficult.
But the former fighters are rising to this latest challenges. The quick transformation of their production lines to manufacture the in-demand protective equipment has provided them with the opportunity to not only contribute to addressing the immediate public health crisis by making donations to first responders and community members, but also to work towards a sustainable economic activity by forging partnerships with local governments, and projects, including some implemented by the UN, to strengthen the health response to the pandemic in former conflict areas. In the months ahead, the tailoring workshops aim to expand the production of the protective face masks with equipment and materials provided by the Verification Mission through DPPA extra-budgetary funding and the support of UNDP. Alessandro Preti, head of reintegration verification at the Verification Mission, notes the “symbolic” importance of these initiatives that validate former combatants’ commitment to “peace in the territories, the reconstruction of the social fabric and the promotion of coexistence” that has the “full support” from the international community.
Title picture: Tailoring workshop in Pondores, La Guajira. Photo: UN Verification Mission in Colombia