In the webinar “COVID-19 and peacebuilding: leaders of the Colombian Pacific tell us”, social leaders enter into a dialogue with international embassies about the challenges they currently face in peacebuilding processes. “We can control the virus, but there is a stronger virus: the armed conflict,” says social leader Aida Quilcué.

The webinar, which is moderated by Jonathan Bock, subdirector of the Federation of Press Freedom (FLIP) Colombia, allowed for an honest and open conversation between Venanzio Mwangi (Pastoral Afro), Aida Quilcué (ONIC), Natalia López (Dutch Embassy), Lars Bredal and Camilo Vargas (EU Embassy). The panelists touched upon several topics, like the social exclusion of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, the aggravation of violence against women and the increase in assassinations of social leaders. These are problems that were already present in Colombia, but have intensified as a result of COVID-19. The webinar is a follow-up of the report ‘Red Flag’ which was published by Mensen met een Missie on June 18th, 2020.

Call upon the international community
The intervention of Aida Quilcuéhuman rights defender and counselor at the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), demonstrated in a very painful way how difficult the circumstances are for social leaders in Colombia. As a result of threats against her life, Aida must displace regularly. She dialed in while she was travelling by car, literally fleeing for her life, and spoke to the audience:

Since the pandemic, the violence and the presence of armed groups has increased. So I strongly call upon the allied international community. Accompany us in the revelation, the follow-up, the denunciation, the visibility of what is happening to us. We can control the virus, but there is a stronger virus: the armed conflict.Aida Quilcué 

Racist dynamics become visible  
Venanzio Mwangi, social leader and Kenyan priest working in Colombia, member of the Afro-American and Caribbean Pastoral Secretariat (SEPAC), stipulated the way the social exclusion of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is historically rooted and makes visible the underlying racist dynamics in Colombian society. He states that the racism filter has been used systematically as a political tool in Colombia and other parts of the continent. For that reason, most of the social problems are because of the same. The armed conflict in Colombia, the social and economic conflict, and even the COVID-19 pandemic go through this filter, making the situation worse for the people.

We have to put the issues of racism on the table. Let’s talk about racism as racism. Let’s talk about ethnocide as ethnocide. Let’s talk about assassinations of social leaders: not as a complaint from a small group in the society as if they were not part of Colombia. We cannot keep treating them as if they were not part of humanity or as if they have no place when it comes to human rights issues.Venanzio Mwangi

Venanzio Mwangi and his team give humanitarian aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are all ‘ethnic’
Natalia López, official senior of the political department of the Dutch embassy in Colombia, advocates for the incorporation of the voices of Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups as our own: 

When leaders talk about their land, the need to care for the environment, having a local food production, this person is not talking about his or her own needs(S)he’s talking about struggles that should summon everyone. In the end, we are all ‘ethnic’.Natalia López

She also states that one way to fight racism is the implementation of an effective peace process, with comprehensive rural development with processes of truth and justice that are real.  

We must educate for peace: we should continue working on issues of historical memory and always recognize the other as an equal.Natalia López

The voice of an ambassador as a protection
Lars Bredal, deputy head of EU Delegation in Colombia, expressehis deep concern for the situation of social leaders.  

Being quarantined frustrates us a lot, because we normally say that the strength of the EU in Colombia is our presence in the territories. It is a way of indirectly contributing to a type of protection.Lars Bredal

One of the ways in which the EU tries to keep supporting social leaders in the pandemic is through the campaign ‘Defendamos la Vida’ (‘We have to defend life’). Camilo Vargas, policy officer at the EU, complements Bredal’s statement by saying that the voice of an ambassador can be of support to social leaders, for example through posts on social media or interviews in a radio show. “It is a way of showing that the lives of social leaders matter to us”. 

Impressive photo series
The webinar closes with an impressive presentation by Federico Rios. Through a series of photos (which form the base of the report ‘Red Flag’), the NY Times photojournalist took the audience to Soacha (outskirt of Bogotá) and Mojica (outskirt of Cali), where he captured social leaders doing their daily work amidst COVID-19.  

More information? Don’t hesitate to contact Andrea Rodriguez Frohwein, Program Director Colombia via this link.  

Photos: Federico Rios

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