Below is a blog post from one of our 2023 Human Rights Summer Research Grant awardees, John Sabogal Venegas, who spent the summer in Colombia on an exploratory trip to research the legacies of war and the possibilities of peace building.
To learn more about the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, click here.
Back to the Colombian Andes. Past chivas (traditional rural buses) full of packages, people and chickens, past beautiful hills and powerful rivers, I walk again through the department of Cauca, in the southwest of Colombia. This region has a double historical condition: a land with a long history of indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant resistance, it is also a region where the Colombian armed conflict, an internal war of more than 50 years, has strongly affected the civilian population. After finishing the first year of my PhD in Cultural Anthropology, and in order to narrow down my dissertation project, I am spending three months in Colombia. I am talking to different people in an exploratory trip about the legacies of the war and the possibilities of peace building in the department of Cauca. Broadly speaking, my research project explores how indigenous peoples navigate the challenges of autonomy and territorial sovereignty in the context of war and its aftermath.
Using a collaborative and ethnographic approach, the project examines how communities and local indigenous authorities construct their everyday experiences and political struggles in a complex and changing social context. This context includes attempts at political transition following the 2016 Colombian peace agreement between the state and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla, but also violence in transformation with new armed groups and territorial challenges related to illegal groups. At the local level, in the department of Cauca, different social and political realities seem to be taking place and overlapping: former combatants reintegrating, indigenous organizations seeking autonomy, transitional institutions trying to implement reparation programs for victims, new armed groups seeking to control territories, and illegal drug crops growing. As a result, indigenous communities and organizations are building relationships with various social actors and trying to make their political agendas visible.
In addition, another relevant concern for me comes from having worked for more than two and a half years with a humanitarian institution that searches for people missing as a result of the armed conflict in Cauca. In order to deal with the legacy of the war, Colombia's transitional justice process faces the challenge of determining the whereabouts of thousands of people who have disappeared as a result of the violence. In departments like Cauca, many of the missing are indigenous people. Communities, state institutions and even former combatants are involved in the search for people who disappeared during the war. One of my questions is how this search can contribute to peace building and local reconciliation processes in a region historically affected by war.
During this summer, I met and talked with different social actors related to my research project, such as indigenous leaders, social researchers, NGO members, relatives of disappeared people, and professionals from state and international institutions. I hope that these exploratory conversations will lead me to find the core of my doctoral research within the broad field of transitional justice, truth, memory and reconciliation in the aftermath and transformation of a civil war. Taking a collaborative approach from this first trip as a graduate student, I expect to define academic questions and concerns in a close relationship with indigenous communities and organizations. A double initial concern is to understand the micro-foundations and limits of reconciliation after a civil war in a local context, and how the search for missing persons (re)shapes interactions between indigenous communities, former combatants, and state institutions.
As I travel to various locations in the department of Cauca, I am grateful for the support of the Duke Human Rights Center and the many people who have shared their time and insights with me. ¡Seguimos en la lucha!