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San José de Apartadó: An Eco-Peace Village as a Seed of Hope in the Colombian Civil War

By Leila Dregger


Summer university 2005 in Tamera, Portugal. People from many parts of Europe came, most of them with the goal to find inspirations for a different way of living. Inspirations about ecology, solar technology, architecture, about future perspectives and cohabitation. But two of the guests are different.


Dona Maria Brigida Gonzales and Jesus Emilio Tuberquia came a long way to Tamera and they had a good reason for that: the building up of an eco-village could be an crucial question of survival for them. They come from the peace village San José de Apartadó in northern Colombia.


Dona Maria Brigida Gonzales and Jesus Emilio Tuberquia are short, simple dressed people with brown skin. Jesus Emilio, 40, is a farmer. He fights for being able to stay on his land and to cultivate bananas and cacao peacefully the way his family always did. But a civil war is going on for long in his country. “Maybe you can see my sadness”, he says. “I saw so many people die who worked in the field with me like brothers.”


Maria Brigida, 53, is a teacher in the peace village San José de Apartadó. She cries when Jesus Emilio talks about the murders. Seconds later, however,  her face is full of laugh lines when she is asked to sing the song of her village.


“In the middle of the war we plant a seed of hope”, she says. “Every seed we put into the soil is a sign of hope that the world of war will be replaced by a world of peace one day.”


The richness of resources, the fertility and the precious strategic position made the region of northern Colombia a dead zone. Heavily armed and after 40 years of war merciless troupes of soldiers, guerrilla, paramilitary and criminals fight for dominance. Not infrequently the  background is international economical interests in the region. The civil population is banished. Thousands are kidnapped, tortured, murdered. 3.5 millions of people became refugees in their own country: former farmers ended up in the slums of the cities.


In the middle of the civil war lies the village San José de Apartadó. The 1350 inhabitants decided in March 1997 in a celebratory ceremony to escape the dangers of the conflict and to make their community a neutral place, a peace community. They abstain from weapons and drugs and do not co-operate with any of the conflict parties. But all the same: a few days after that they were banished for the first time. Again and again they came back. Since the founding of the peace village 164 of its inhabitants have been partially brutally murdered, amongst them children, women and men. No conflict party, no government protected the campensinos. Their refusal to co-operate with military units is a thorn in the side of all parties. Not even one of the murderers has been sentenced so far nor brought to trial. After the last massacre on 21 February 2005, which was internationally decried by human rights organisations, armed police units were stationed in San José. Hereupon 400 inhabitants of San José left their place in April. They neither felt protected by the police’s presence, nor could they tolerate armed units in their “weapon-free area”. They moved a few kilometres deeper into the forest and built up a completely new village: San Josésito. Here they live without  connection to the grid of public energy and water and without access to medical care or the possibility to sell their agricultural products. But the soil is fertile.


In the middle of one of the worst and most brutal conflict regions in the world they had an idea that sounded strange and utopian to many people at first. But after 40 years of civil war

nothing is too utopian to try it out. The idea is to make their peace village a model eco-village -  a solar-permaculture village - in the middle of the war with the support and permanent presence of European scientists and ecologists. A multi-cultural seed of hope for Colombia: San José Solar.


San José and the 12 other peace communities of Colombia founded an alternative “University of Life and of Resistance” already two years ago. They exchange practical knowledge amongst each other, prominent human rights organisations and people of the opposition support them. But only international, particularly European presence, they know by experience, is respected in Colombia in a way that the attacks of the village stop. With these thoughts the two representatives travelled through Europe this summer. They came to the summer university in Tamera at the very right moment. Most of the 300 participants who listened to them felt the urgent wish to help them. Amongst them were many who are in fact able to do that: speakers and co-workers of the emerging Solar Village of Tamera, specialists in the areas permaculture, earth building, ecology, water technology, conflict solution, public relation and solar energy. The sympathy for the destiny of the peace village gave them  a focus for which they went into a fast and efficient cooperation. The initiative “San José Solar” was born. One of the work groups of the summer university, the forum for peace journalism, started a press campaign and an internet demonstration to give the Colombian government a sign: Europe knows San José. The peace village cannot be eliminated in silence.


By that, they hope, the gain time to plan San José Solar. Then there was the permaculture specialist Max Lindegger from Australia, who already helped to install survival gardens in many areas of crisis. Specialists of earth architecture could help to build low-cost-houses.


The solar team of Tamera which is already building a model for a Solar Village will participate. Solar specialist Jürgen Kleinwächter said: “I can’t be that these brave people are threatened and the global solar community remains silent. Together with them we can and will build up solar systems to purify water, to produce energy for cooking and their simple processing machines for cacao and bananas.”


Katja Long, co-ordinator of the support for San José: “I have the deepest respect for these people. Also after their bad experiences they do not wear weapons and have no thirst for revenge. They just want to live. If we can help them with the knowledge that we have developed in the community and in our network it is a great honour. I see the experiment as a hope – not only for Colombia.”


The survival plan for San José like it was further developed together with the participants of the Summer University in Tamera looks like that: An ecological model village with permanent international presence and accompaniment. In the long run from that a permaculture model village for tropical conditions could develop, with organic gardens, with solar systems and natural water purification plants, with a school and a healer house. Such an experiment could even, if it gets international reputation, make Colombian public authorities proud and make them protect it more effectively.


In the meantime Hermann Scheer, carrier of the alternative Nobel Price and founder of the Europe-wide initiative for sustainable energies, “Eurosolar”, announced to assume patronage for the solar plans for the project San José Solar. In September three co-workers of Tamera will participate in an international meeting in San José. They will get an impression of the concrete situation there and look for co-operation partners with whom the visions for San José Solar can be deepened.


Many things are still needed in San José: political negotiations with the Colombian public authorities, health care, help for traumatised children, inner peace work with people who know war all their lifes and many more things. But the building up of an eco-village can be the first step: an international and multi-cultural construction site, a base for the inner conciliation which must happen in this wounded country.


P.S. You can help! Please read the information on our website; send the appeal you will find there per fax to the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Telefax: (0057) 1337 5890, (0057) 1 342 0592 – it would be the best if you fax it from 3 pm on) or write to him in your own words in English or Spanish that you heard about San José, that you protest against the violation of human rights there and that you want that San Jose gets protected against any military intervention and presence.

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