Seeking Peace through Participation in Magdalena Medio


by Ubencel Duque, Regional Coordinator, Middle Magdalena Peace and Development Program


Good afternoon on behalf of all the residents of the Magdalena Medio. As you are all doing in different ways, we are striving to make dignified life a possibility, not just in this region or Colombia, but throughout the world. I=m going to share with you the experience working on the Development and Peace program since it began in the Magdalena Medio in 1995.

We began by uniting various efforts to build an inclusive civil society rooted in local community projects. The diocese of Barrancabermeja has also played an important role, in part because of its efforts to mediate negotiations between the Colombian oil company, Ecopetrol, and its union. They founded the Human Rights Committee of U.S.O., the union. The Committee addresses political violence and includes human rights on the agenda in the annual negotiations between the company and the union. They asked a question that has been pondered for several years. Oil is one of the foundations of the national and regional wealth, yet only a fraction of the profits remain in oil-producing regions. The question is then: Instead of generating political violence and displacement, can oil contribute to development and peace in the region? This is the origin of the Middle Magdalena Peace and Development Program. The current national interest in the program developed later. Y

The Magdalena Medio consists of 29 municipalities in five departments, in Bolívar, Antioquia, Santander, Norte de Santander and Cesar. According to our assessment, 500,000 of the 721,000 people in the region are poor and over 50,000 people in this region are unemployed. This calculation is based on the level of satisfaction of basic needs and family income. There are 48,000 peasant families in this highly varied region. This region also has a large population of fishermen, 15,000.

We have identified several reasons for the high levels of violence and poverty. There is only a marginal and selective government presence in the region. The primary state presence is through the armed forces, and in some cases through the state petroleum company. The region lacks other state representation, such as social services, education, and health care. The municipal administrations are thought to suffer from the exclusion that plagues the rest of the country, and don=t receive support from the national state.

We have also identified a high level of corruption exercised through the clientelistic management of the state. Public administrators and political parties believe that the state belongs to them and should serve only themselves and their families. We have also seen that traditional political groups in the region contribute to the violence and make it an instrument for maintaining their political cause locally, regionally, and nationally. Another problem is the nature of economic development in the region. The oil economy is extractive, and does not support secondary industries and wider economic development.

Land use and agricultural production is also a problem in this region. Land concentration and new forms of industrial farming have led to unemployment, because the number of day laborers has dropped. Land buying in this region has been used to launder drug trafficking profits. Increase in land prices following the construction of the Troncal de Magdalena Medio, a section of the Pan-American Highway, has led to violence and forcible displacement. Another key element in this region is coca. Coca contributes to the war. We calculate there are almost 20,000 hectares of coca in this region. Another factor is government planning, which has exacerbated poverty and violence. The development and peace program aims to secure a dignified life for all Colombians....

Our first step is to form volunteer teams of residents in each municipality. The team should be an inclusive and participatory space for citizens to make proposals regarding their local and regional situation, so they can promote collective proposals for the municipality. The teams hope to achieve peace and development on the local level through participation in local planning processes. Currently, the program is developing about 78 productive initiatives for the region.

This has led us to believe that war is only an option when there are no other alternatives are apparent. People do not want war when they see they can construct alternatives based on their own experiences.

This is a very complex region with the presence of different armed actors. There are guerrilla forces, both the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as paramilitary groups. There is a permanent struggle among the armed actors for territorial position and control.

We believe the war in this region is motivated by the desire to control the municipal budget, the coca industry and future political power. In this case, they seek power over the peace negotiations and territorial control in general, because of its national strategic importance. It is located six hours from Bogotá, and also provides access to Medellín and the Atlantic coast. The routes that connect northern Colombia to the rest of the country pass through Magdalena Medio. There is a serious struggle to control coca production, and the paramilitary groups are increasing their control over this region. Santa Rosa del Sur, Simití, San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Yondó are the municipalities with some coca production.

On the eastern side of the river, in Agua Chica and Río Negro, there are laboratories for the first step of processing coca. There is also a heavy paramilitary presence in these towns, including paramilitary bases. In some towns, government prosecutors have attempted to remove some laboratories, but many remain. Coca fuels war in the region.... As a result of these projects, the people in these municipalities are meeting together to think about what we can all do to build up this region. And we have found that trust is a fundamental element in this exercise. The other foundation of our project is the fact that people want real change. The people do not want war B and this should be said loudly. The people search for other ways to overcome violence and find other solutions besides coca cultivation.

For more information (in Spanish), visit the Program=s website at <>.