While conflicted communities like Cauca are highly complex, lessons are there to be learned. Some insights are fairly obvious, such as that fighting hasn’t ended with the declaration of peace, but rather transformed. The accompanying map highlights the widespread nature of violence throughout Cauca – the most violent department in Colombia – since the 2016 Peace Accords were signed. The darker shades of red indicate higher levels of violence, with the deepest color equating to 65 different violent incidents locally since peace was declared (ACLED 2021).
One of the persistent frustrations with those endorsing violence or other forms of direct action is an enduringly unequal distribution of income – with Colombia continually ranking among the most inequitable countries in Latin America. While some progress was made to reduce the considerable gap between rich and poor from 2000-2016, economic inequality has worsened since the implementation of the Peace Accords (World Bank 2021). This challenge is further complicated by the geographic disparity of economic power, with wealthier urban areas such as Bogotá and Medellín being home to 13% of the population, but 63.3% of the income. More rural departments such as Caquetá, Chocó, Córdoba, La Guajira, Sucre – and Cauca – only receive 7% (DANE 2016).
A second issue we’re routinely seeing is frustration over corruption. In a June 2022 poll taken throughout Cauca, 53% believed that Colombia was not on the road to peace, versus 11% who believed it was. When asked why, the most common answer was corruption, which was listed as as a driver of ongoing violence by 66% of respondents.
Concern over corruption was further reinforced by Armando, who spoke eloquently about both his 30 years in prison, as well as the importance of discouraging violence in the first place. Specifically, Armando underscored the importance of the government and private sectors being “straight” with less fortunate people. The alternative, he stressed, was more violence.
Almost all interviews throughout Cauca understood the need to push for change against an untenable status quo. This frustration is so widespread in Cauca it often even includes those who are responsible for cleaning up any subsequent damage, in this case the painters responsible for covering political graffiti. Instead of defending the status quo, the primary debate taking place locally involves whether change is possible via traditional political systems or if more direct actions — and more paint — is required.
Within ongoing discussions on how to settle longstanding issues unresolved by the 2016 Colombian Peace Accords one of the most obvious lessons is that traditionally marginalized groups — including students — are sidelined at the peril of progress. Colombian youth throughout Cauca have increasingly embraced leading roles in the push for change and their narration of current challenges and future solutions offers valuable insights to those who are willing to listen.
While the challenges facing young people in more urban areas of Cauca is often daunting, the prospects of rural youth growing up beyond the reach of adequate state services is both troubling and insightful. In speaking with students in more remote areas of Cauca it is evident that formal services — such as public education — currently offer little to the next generation needed to support any ongoing peace. This neglect, and the students’ subsequent disinterest in engaging or supporting the stakeholders currently advocating for peace, is telling.
One clear lesson from rural youth is that peace requires more than the peace slogans and optimistic branding common throughout Cauca. As young people throughout the department have highlighted “What peace are the slogans talking about?” While optimism and the hope that things will get better remain important to interviewees so too is progress towards the underlying pillars of peace. Until there is greater acceptance, more equitable access to opportunities, and the implementation of other core tenants of the 2016 Colombian Peace Accords slogans will remain hollow political aspirations.
Like the peace slogans common throughout post-conflict contexts formal curricula within public schooling is also routinely utilized to promote peace with often superficial content. To its credit the latest versions of Colombian textbooks appear to be making great strides in acknowledging and exploring the ongoing challenges furthering conflict throughout the country. This includes the most recent 10th grade social sciences text engaging economic inequality and an absence of state services that promote conflict in Cauca, as well as the role of active stakeholders such as narco-traffickers and paramilitary groups. The remaining challenge, however, is that such updated curricula is largely absent from where it is needed most in rural and more impoverished communities.
In speaking with frontline educators in communities throughout rural Cauca the lack of contemporary curricula engaging the peace process was compounded by many factors, including schools habitually lacking adequate resources. With the state only providing language and math textbooks teachers are routinely faced with choosing their own texts to narrate the conflict. This often results in teachers prioritizing those materials that are already more widely available in rural communities and subsequently more affordable to impoverished families. When asking parents in rural Cauca about the availability of any formal educational support, most rolled their eyes and clarified they are largely on their own.
With formal curricula limited in rural Cauca most organized efforts to narrate conflict within schools fall to the goodwill of teachers and school administrators. As was seen repeatedly in classrooms throughout schools in rural Cauca handmade lessons promoting values in support of peace were widespread, which one lifelong educator described as “very important” and instilled throughout primary school. As several school administrators shared, with outside support being limited in the face of tremendous challenges educators often take the lead in guiding their students towards peace primarily out of a love for teaching.
While many educators strive to support peace throughout rural Cauca, both through more formalized curricula and informal lessons, it is important to clarify that such efforts do not exist in isolation from the challenges facing young people in rural Colombia. Far from the largely theoretical endorsements of peace in capital cities are the alternative and often more violent narratives that attempt to narrate conflict and the path forward. Local educators again often attempt to reconcile such voids, with a primary school in rural Cauca stressing “You do not choose the destination you want, sometimes you have to choose what you can.” While such pragmatism remains rare in post-conflict proclamations, it remains central to this inquiry of first understanding the reality in rural Cauca prior to advancing aspirations for peace.