The community of San Josecito in northern Colombia is an idyllic collection of wooden houses linked by dirt streets where the only traffic is the free-roaming livestock. Yet it is a community where every man, woman and child has a tragedy to tell. It is also a community that, since its inception, has lived with the ever-present threat of violence and the knowledge that to leave its wire-fenced perimeter is to put your life at risk.
San Josecito is one of the eleven villages that form the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community in the region of Uraba. The Peace Community was founded in 1997 by displaced campesinos who had been hounded from their homes by the Colombian military and their paramilitary cohorts, who were waging war against leftist guerrillas. Weary of a conflict they had no part in but could not escape, the campesinos declared the abandoned town of San Jose a neutral zone, where all armed actors, legal and illegal were prohibited.
While the communities main goal has simply been survival, its members have also made it their goal to “rebuild the fabric of society” that had been ripped apart by Colombia’s unrelenting war. This mission has involved organizing a system of governance that fosters autonomy and plurality and an economic system based on solidarity and sustainability. Over the last five years it has also included the development of an alternative and autonomous education system to care for the community’s children, who had been readily abandoned by the state.
The history of the Peace Community education system is closely tied to that of San Josecito. In 2005, the community was forced to flee San Jose following a brutal massacre in which the military and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary murdered eight people, three of them children. The victims were beaten, garroted and attacked with machetes and their bodies dismembered. While some of San Jose’s inhabitants returned to the ten surrounding villages from where they had been originally displaced, others moved a kilometer down the road, clearing a banana plantation to build a new village – San Josecito.
The violence drove away the community’s state-paid teachers, leaving the schools in all 11 villages empty and deserted. “A community was growing up that didn’t know how to read or write, that never had the opportunity to go to school,” said Arley Tuberquia, the San Josecito Education Coordinator. Faced with this prospect, the community turned to the Ministry of Education to request new teachers. “The answer was no,” said Tuberquia, “for San Josecito, there are no teachers, full stop.”
According to Tuberquia, the ministry insisted the community send the children to San Jose, which the state authorities had since reclaimed and so was considered unsafe for the community members. “The government’s idea was to bring an end to the community, to break it up, to make the children leave the community if they wanted an education,” said Tuberquia. “It was a form of repression, a way of closing off the community.”
The community’s response was to organize volunteer teachers to give basic classes. However, members soon began to realize that while the lack of a formal education system was a major challenge, it also presented an opportunity. “We began to realize that we are the owners of our education,” said Tuberquia. Meetings were called for representatives from all 11 villages along with teachers, parents and the children themselves to discuss what this new education system might look like.
The result of those meetings was a revolutionary new system referred to as the “Campesino University,” or the “University of Resistance.” The names reflect the core values that guide the education process, where campesino culture and the community’s declared principles of resistance, solidarity, plurality, transparency, freedom and justice are taught hand in hand with core subjects such as literacy and math.
The elevation of campesino culture to a core of the curriculum is seen as a survival strategy by San Jose’s educators. They believe the campesino way of life is being wiped out by the conflict and the government’s economic policies favoring extractive industries and large-scale agri-business, and that education is the key to the culture’s survival and future.
This education includes learning about the natural environment that surrounds the community, and even reading and writing classes often begin with a trip into nature to find things to read and write about. “They learn from practical things in the countryside,” said Marta Vasquez, a teacher at San Josecito. “We take them out to study at the river, in the fields with the crops, like that they learn to read, to multiply, to divide but they also learn about the importance of being in the countryside – cultivating it and having healthy food, having a more peaceful life.”
The children are also encouraged to think critically about the benefits and problems of different ways of living. “At the start they weren’t very aware of the differences between the countryside and the city,” said Vasquez. “If you asked them where they preferred to live they would say the city with the pretty houses, the cars and the paved roads.”
However, according to Vasquez, most of the children change their mind after weighing the pros and cons; proximity to healthcare and improved services are weighed against being forced to scavenge for employment to pay for everything you use. The children also discuss consumerism and pollution and the difference between their organic crops and the city food supply. “They start analyzing it,” said Vasquez, “and they say ‘no, better here than in the city’.”
However, teachers are careful to not given false impressions. “The community is free, so if later on the children want to leave, they can,” said Vasquez. “So what is going to happen if we don’t teach them about what happens outside? They are going to feel tricked, like we made them believe things that are not real.”
Other classes have a practical focus, which is designed to teach skills along with the workings of community life. For math lessons they are often taken to the warehouse of the community’s organic cacao export business to learn how to add, subtract, divide and multiply and why they need to.
As well as learning about the community, educators encourage children to participate in it. For one of their projects they have a hectare of land, where they not only learn about the crops the community grows, they also experiment with sustainable and organic agriculture and how to get the most out the land without exhausting or contaminating it. “The school is shining a light on these ideas that help the community,” said Tuberquia. “The schools are active, they are participating in everything that happens in the community and are integrated into the rhythm of the community.”
The community’s values are also seen as a key teaching tool for combining learning skills with learning about the community. Teachers first get the children to write a word central to the community, such as one of the principals. Later they discuss it – interpreting it and thinking of examples. “From examples, from the dynamics of the word – they remember,” said Tuberquia,” they have it drawn on their memories and then it is easy to remember the symbols that make up the whole word.”
“For a person that we are teaching to read and write, the interesting thing is not deciphering the codes, the forms, the letters. The interesting thing is to interpret reality,” said Tuberquia.
Teaching in a Peace Community located in a warzone brings its own unique challenges. One of the most serious is helping the children understand the conflict they live in and, in many cases, come to terms with the loss of a loved one to that conflict. The teachers discuss the war with the children in class, then after encourage them to draw their perceptions. “We talk about the problems we are living,” said Vasquez, “about the different armed groups … and why they really fight – because they want to have power, they want money, they want to be in charge, because they want to be something more than other people – and about how we are neutral, neutral, neutral.”
The effects of these sessions are clear to see, according to Vasquez. “It used to be difficult because some of the children thought ‘when I grow up I’m going to look for whoever killed my Mom or my Dad and I’m going to kill them,’” she said. “So we talked a lot about how vengeance is no good – that it wouldn’t bring peace but more war and more war.”
According to Tuberquia, the key to helping the children deal with their trauma and loss has been showing them they are not alone. “All the children know that the rest of the community has the same feeling – the whole community feels a pain, the emptiness of a lost loved-one,” he said. “But the community does not respond with aggression or with hate but responds with resistance.”
Away from the schools, the Peace Community’s situation remains desperate. Little has changed in the fifteen years since it was founded; the list of atrocities committed against the community continues to grow and its people still live surrounded by violence. Nevertheless, the education system is one of its few sources of hope for the future, as well as pride in the present for what they have already achieved. “Education has an impact,” said Tuberquia. “Education will be the door that opens so that the community can continue, that gives the community a future.”
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com