The Peace Professor


A few days before our meeting in this remote and sweltering corner of Colombia, John Paul Lederach sent me an e-mail messagefrom Nepal.

Nepal and Colombia are just two of the conflict zones on four continents where Mr. Lederach, a professor of international peace-building at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, makes regular stops. Nepal’s government and rebels recently reached a peace agreement, while Colombia remains embroiled in a four-decades-old, drug-fueled civil war. Yet frustrations and jet lag don’t prevent Mr. Lederach from arriving in high spirits that seem capable of bringing hope to the most desolate circumstances.

“It’s important to have a good sense of humor,” he observes with a grin as we ride a motorized canoe up the jungle-lined Carare River in northeastern Colombia’s Santander province, through territory dominated by outlaw paramilitary groups notorious for massacring civilians with chain saws.

We are on our way to visit a tiny community whose courageous experiment in peace-building serves as a case study in Mr. Lederach’s work. During the drive here, over jaw-rattling dirt roads, the conversation includes accounts of mass graves and stories of paramilitaries tossing their enemies to hungry crocodiles. Although most local peasants are grindingly poor, right-wing paramilitary groups fight with leftist guerrillas to control this region for its crop of coca leaves, the base ingredient for cocaine.

Today everything appears calm along the river’s dark-green banks, which are interrupted only occasionally by wooden farmhouses and lonely figures of young men searching the pebbles for emeralds washed down from the hills. While visiting conflict areas is old hat for Mr. Lederach, I feel thankful that we are guided by two Roman Catholic Church development workers who know the region and are trusted by locals.

In Colombia the war kills more than 3,000 people each year. Often families and whole communities become ensnared in the conflict through ties with the armed groups that purchase their coca-leaf harvests or demand food or lodging. Such ties can lead to murderous retaliation by a group’s enemies.

Under such circumstances, La Pedregosa, the community we are to visit, did something remarkable. In 1988 residents created the Association of Peasant Workers of the Carare and vowed to remain neutral. For Mr. Lederach, whose specialty is peace-building from the community level up, not from the top down, La Pedregosa’s story is a model to emulate.

“Rather than accepting that they should live under a law of silence, separated from each other, and take the abuses from a variety of armed groups,” he says, “they decided to engage in a form of civil resistance that was nonviolent and depended on dialogue instead of picking up weapons.”

About two months before our visit to the region, a local resident who worked for the government as a forest ranger was murdered. Eduardo Ortegón, one of the Catholic Church development workers who accompanies us, blames the killing on a paramilitary group that wanted to plant coca bushes in the forest. After the crime, the nine other local forest wardens fled the region out of fear for their lives. In response, local community leaders met with the regional paramilitary chief and also with military officers. They reached an understanding with the paramilitaries, and the military increased its patrols. As a result, several of the forest wardens have been able to return to the community, Mr. Ortegón says.

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising to find Mr. Lederach seeking hope in a war zone. The son and grandson of Mennonite pastors, he grew up in an atmosphere of pacifism and idealism. His grandparents established the first Mennonite churches along the Texas-Mexico border, and when he was a child in Oregon his parents often assisted Mexican migrant workers with meals and friendship.

Mr. Lederach studied history and peace studies at Bethel College, a Mennonite institution in North Newton, Kan., and then earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For his first overseas research, he traveled to Spain as it emerged from four decades of the stifling and divisive Franco dictatorship. In mid-80s Nicaragua, where the global cold war was playing out in a civil war between the leftist Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed contra forces, Mr. Lederach helped mediate a peace treaty between the government and the Miskito Indians. Since then, he has worked in Nepal, Burma, Somalia, Spain’s Basque region, Northern Ireland, and Colombiawhere he first traveled in 1988, and which he believes he has visited more than any other nation.

Along the way, his daughter, Angie, was threatened with kidnapping in Nicaragua, and in nearby Costa Rica he was detained and searched for drugs, in what he believes was an attempt to intimidate him. In Somalia, he took cover amid cross-fire from rival warlords. But he has also met inspiring groups of peace-builders, including the Colombian community we are going to visit.

In La Pedregosa, Mr. Lederach sits down with a circle of mud-splattered farmers in a sweltering meeting hall while undernourished dogs laze on the cement floor and chickens cluck outside. In tones mixing anger and hope, the peasants tell him that their organization has reduced violence, but that in recent years more local residents have planted coca bushes. While coca brings far more money than legal crops bring, it also attracts the violent, outlaw groups that traffic in it. In fact, paramilitaries have accused townspeople of selling to the guerrillas and ordered the community’s only store shut. Others say a government-sponsored peace agreement with the paramilitaries has complicated their lives because the paramilitary groups continue operating in the zone but now deny any responsibility for events. As a result, the community can no longer negotiate with them.

At this and other meetings, Mr. Lederach listens a lot and talks little. He describes his own work and tells the residents that he has told the community’s story worldwide in his books and speeches. But he doesn’t offer facile solutions.

“The present moment isn’t the easiest,” he tells one somber group. “But it’s no reason to become discouraged. Grab the horns and decide what to do.”

Organizations like the one in La Pedregosa, he argues later, are the key to a sustainable peace here. When La Pedregosa created its organization, its leaders told the guerrillas that they would no longer receive food or lodging from their community, recall residents. Later, when outlaw groups ordered residents killed, townspeople defied them.

“Even though individually they may appear insignificant in a national negotiation, over decades, it’s those things that make a process of transformation sustainable,” he says.

The community’s efforts showcase Mr. Lederach’s strategies: the creation of personal contacts and the seeking of nonconfrontational ways to deal with armed groups. Where political power brokers bargain over tanks, missiles, and territories, he emphasizes patience, flexibility, and serendipity.

“One of the things you have to be able to do in this work is engage people in a way that brings them out of the strategies they’ve chosen, to something different,” he says. “And the only way to do that is to find points of engagement. If you’re not permitted to engage them, then you’re basically using some form of a strategy of isolation. And isolation for a lot of these groups only reinforces the very view they had to begin with, which is that there’s no way for them to operate except to continue what they were doing.”

Still, some others in the field say peace-building strategies have their limits. Guy Burgess, co-director of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado at Boulder, questions their effectiveness with “tyrant wannabespeople who are willing to murder in the most gruesome way possible.”

In Colombia, the government and outlaw groups have held conversations with varying success. But the country’s conservative president, Álvaro Uribe, and its main guerrilla group, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have not met. During Mr. Lederach’s visit to Colombia, in June, hopes for peace were set back by the news that 11 regional deputies kidnapped by the FARC in 2002 had been killed in captivity.

Despite the difficulties, the peasants Mr. Lederach meets seem determined to continue their pacifist policy. In La India, a downriver town of bars, brothels, and wooden shacks, a farmer seems to sum up the general sentiment.

“If the solution to the war were through weapons,” he says, “it would already be resolved.”

Mr. Lederach concluded long ago that the war in Colombia would be a long one, he tells me later. “Until I can’t travel anymore, I’ll be coming back.”

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