Juanita Esguerra Rezk | 19 November 2020
I am both fascinated and horrified by the seductive power of the development discourse. Despite multiple attempts of activists and academics to contest it and re-signify it—and the various ways it has mutated throughout time— the ideas of imminent progress and social engineering at its core seem to linger. This is especially true when it comes to the way in which governments and international aid organizations conceive how development contributes to peace. In these contexts, development is considered as something inherently good, and its problematic nature is often written off.
This type of thinking conceals the legacy of colonial forms of racial distinction and mask the feminized images that have caricatured the peoples of the Global South. It is no coincidence that the preferred images of aid organizations are those of women and children in impoverished settings. Their approach creates two types of subjects: those who have the capacity to diagnose, those who can “empower,” those who manage and lead; and those who are subject to “expert” direction, who are lacking and need to be “developed.” It also wipes out the political economy of colonialism, as the mainstream narratives about “developed nations” rarely include the stories of extraction, slave labor, and violent dispossession in the colonies that allowed for their “development” to happen. As “third world” countries struggle to emulate the North, the ecological and social consequences of this process can no longer be ignored.
Nonetheless, the narrative of a mutually reinforcing relationship between peace and development seems to persist: development is often portrayed as “remedy” for violence, and violence is frequently presented as one of the largest obstacles for development. As stated by the UN Secretary-General, “there is no peace without development, there is no development without peace.” This idea has influenced how policymakers think about peace in Colombia and is strongly reflected in the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 between the Government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, FARC-EP. Its first chapter is devoted to the “Comprehensive Rural Reform” aimed at “eradicating rural poverty’ and ‘improving the well-being of rural populations.”
What some seem to continuously forget (or chose to ignore) in Colombia– but are reminded every day by indigenous, afro-Colombian, and campesino communities, as well as environmental and human rights activists – is that development, as a project that aims to reorder societies, is filled with violence. Violence against alternative ways of knowing and being in the world, violence against nature and the environment, and violence against those who dare to oppose it.
Rosa*, a leader from the Association of Afro-Colombian Women from Northern Cauca (ASOM), remembers how communities started mobilizing in the 1980s against the deviation of rivers, the expansion of sugarcane plantations, and open-pit mining. According to her, these actions violate their ethno-territorial rights due to landgrabbing, dispossession, and the impairment for afro-Colombian communities to practice artisanal mining. For more than 40 years, they have organized and resisted in order to protect what she calls “places of life” (lugares de vida), where indigenous and afro-Colombian communities can “be, do, and live.” However, she claims that the most significant threats her community still faces today are related to extractivist interests in the territories.
In that sense, Rosa describes the signature and implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement as bittersweet. She argues that on the one hand, the Ethnic Chapter of the Agreement introduces specific measures to protect indigenous and afro-Colombian groups and guarantee their representation on issues related to land, security, and reincorporation, among others. On the other hand, after four years, she has not felt that implementation has increased the well-being of her community. “It feels like this peace is not for us. What we see now [after the signature of the Peace Agreement] is that megaprojects are proliferating everywhere”. She emphasizes that many people in the region are scared not only for the slow violence of environmental degradation, but also for the immediate risks that they face, as these megaprojects are protected by their own armies.
On October 2020, more than 7,000 indigenous people from the department of Cauca traveled to Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, asking to meet with President Iván Duque and advocating for the defense of life, peace, the territories and democracy. In response to the minga, which included the occupation of one of the country’s main connecting roads – la Vía Panamericana– the president of the Colombian Society of Agriculture (SAC) accused indigenous groups of jeopardizing the economy. He even questioned their contribution to the Colombian Gross Domestic Product (GDP), arguing that indigenous reserves occupy 25,3% of the national territory, but do not pay taxes, despite performing agricultural and tourism activities on parts of their reserves. This shows how racialized ideas lurk beneath the surface of development, not only to inform how different characteristics of people are understood (for example as backwards), but also to demand that they are molded to fit modern and neoliberal ideas of the economy.
Even though the Peace Agreement has provided a channel for different marginalized social groups to mobilize their agendas, it does not question the violence of development. After four years of its signature, implementation seems to be serving mainly elite interests. In addition, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been used to advance an extractivist agenda: the Government declared that the mining sector will be the engine for “reactivating the country’s economy” and four pilots for fracking were approved in July.
So what can we do now? We can start by abandoning the comfortable narrative of linear progress that development has offered when we think about peace. We can acknowledge that the promises of “improvement for all” will not come while the global economy is organized through the logics of capital accumulation, especially because there are people whose marginalization is linked to the very processes that generate economic growth. We can join the feminism for the 99 percent and openly reject the racialized, colonial, patriarchal and capitalist paradigms that make a different future unimaginable. And last but not least, as academics, we can find creative ways to support the mobilizations of situated actors who are resisting violence and reimagining the world.
*The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity.
Juanita Esguerra Rezk is a doctoral student in Peace and Development Research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies. Her PhD research focuses on the struggles to access land in Colombia after the 2016 Peace Agreement, and how these reflect deeper contestations about different meanings of land.
 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC-EP by its acronym in Spanish).  Asociación de Mujeres Afrodescendientes del Norte del Cauca (ASOM by its acronym in Spanish).  The word minga is often used to describe the pacific protests of indigenous groups in Colombia. Its origin is associated with a solidary meeting between friends who come together to perform community work.  Sociedad Colombiana de Agricultores (SAC by its acronym in Spanish).