I am available for freelance

Hi, I'mKelly Merchán

Communicator, advocate & mountain lover

Download Resume

Identity in Nonviolent Peasant Movements: A Comparative Analysis of Colombia and South America

Most often culture and cultural differences are analyzed as sources of conflict, as opposed to a resource to be utilized in conflict resolution and reconciliation. Historically culture has been defined as a concrete set of norms, behaviors, and values shared by a community. Culture is not easily defined or static, rather it is a constant reconstruction that influences individuals’ daily social actions. As Kevin Avruch explains, “Culture is rarely by itself the cause of conflict. The mere existence of cultural differences is usually not the primary cause of conflict between groups. However, culture is always the lens through which differences are refracted and conflict pursued.” (Avruch 2013) Further, culture and the individual identities that it produces influence and inform alternative nonviolent strategies for resolving conflict, as seen in cases of peasant nonviolent movements in South America. 

Indigenous peasant groups throughout South America have developed unique ways of protecting their territory and communities in times of violent conflict. Some peasant movements have found peace during violent intrastate conflict through zones of peace (ZoP), which act as a sanctuary by forbidding the use of violence and arms within a marked territory (Mitchell 2007). A shining example is the Association of Peasant Workers of Carare (ATCC) in Colombia, who guaranteed physical safety through a pledge of nonviolence and dialogue with violent armed groups. My intention is to explore how nonviolent conflict resolution mechanisms are influenced by peasant identities inside physically and structurally violent conflict zones. As an outsider, I must be cautious in assumptions about collective community identities as social constructs that ultimately determine such nonviolent tactics. Thus, to create a more holistic synthesis, I compare how the ATCC of Colombia and other nonviolent peasant movements of Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador are similar in nature. 

Peasant Identities and Peace Communities 

The peacemaking process and the construction of zones of peace (ZoP) provide an avenue for citizen empowerment and communal unity in rural communities. While creating a peace community is largely based on territory, it also capitalizes on personal and psychological development. Both civilian based and NGO assisted peace communities require a deep understanding of nonviolence tactics, human rights, dialogue, and movement building. In the peace process peasant communities absorb and interpret their own understandings of peace and nonviolence, which contributes to the construction of a shared peasant-peace identity. Catalina Rojas explains this communal development as an identity transformation from victim to resilient actor, “in which local communities foster conditions for reconciliation and resolution of the conflict on their own terms” (Rojas 2007). Attitudes of campesinos are empowered as they advance their own communities towards peace, security, and sustainability. 

The restoration of culture and daily livelihoods is central to any peacemaking process. Aside from individual and community empowerment, there is also a necessity to restore communities during and after violent conflict. Challenges lie in “how communities can restore their social fabric by working on humanitarian goals in conditions of high violence” (Rojas 2007). In aiming to protect and rebuild this social fabric there is a constant reconstruction of culture. Culture itself is far from constant and is even more vulnerable in times of threats and violence. Most zones of peace go further than basic security needs and develop positive peace projects that contribute to betterment of that community. Although they are most often financially dependent on external support, peace communities typically engage in local means of economic development. “These resources enable them to confront the internal challenges that many ZoPs face, namely, the tasks of creating a unified internal voice by building decision making structures and institutions capable of addressing intra-communal differences in a nonviolent manner” (Rojas 2007). Peasant cultures are primarily composed of resource-dependent occupations, and being able to complement such positions with community-led markets and schools cultivates a long-term vision of stability. 

ZoPs strengthen sustainability by placing an emphasis on citizen participation. Individual contributions to active neutrality and community development foster a culture of peace. Conflict is inevitable, but finding tactics and alternative solutions to resolving conflict is achievable. One major component in a culture of peace is being able to develop locally based initiatives to resolving everyday internal conflicts. Communities in Colombia “have chosen to use dialogue as the preferred mechanism to resolve their differences” (Rojas 2007).  Such dialogue serves as a nonviolent means to govern and discuss differences in intracommunal and intrastate conflict. By selecting dialogue over violence, peasant movements are reflecting their choice to participate in a culture of peace. This choice may be a reflection of individual identity, or it may be a cultural connection tied to territory. Furthermore, a desire to protect territory may stem from bonds with ancestral land, pockets of resources, or even the value of a specific place. I argue that this desire to protect both the self and the space resonates with a peasant identity as a social construct. Historically peasant populations have come to value land as both a lifestyle and as means of survival. 

ATCC & Conflict in Colombia

The Association of Peasant Workers of Carare (ATCC) was the first civilian-led ZoP in Colombia, and its success as a conflict resolution mechanism is outstanding recognizing the ongoing intrastate conflict. Violence in Colombia has continued for nearly five decades, making it the oldest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere (Rojas 2007).  The nature of the conflict is dependent upon competitive acquirement of rural territory by many armed groups, thus the primary targets and victims of violence are the peasant population. The figures and statistics are alarming: there are 30,000 assassinations per year, totaling 60,000 deaths from 1990-2005 (Garcia-Duran 2009). Internal displacement is also a pressing issue with an estimated 825 persons displaced everyday and 3-4 million IDPs in Colombia in present day (Bouvier 2006). 

There is a complex set of armed actors contributing to internal violence in Colombia, primarily consisting of the Colombian Military, the Armed Revolutionary Front of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the paramilitaries. Originating in the late 1960s, the leftist FARC began invading rural territories demanding the land and allegiance to the armed struggle. 

By 1987, nearly 500 campesinos (accounting for 10% of the population) were killed in violent conflict involving paramilitary, military, and guerilla groups in the region of La India along the Carare River. One day that year, the captain of the Colombian army arrived in La India amidst over 2,000 peasants and called them to take up arms in forced allegiance. He gave them an ultimatum: “You can arm yourselves and join us. You will receive forgiveness. You can go and join the guerilla. We will find you and destroy you. You can leave your homes. Run. Flee. Become displaced. Or you can stay. But if you stay and do not join us, you will die” (Lederach 2009). An average campesino Josue Vargas, who would later become a leader of the ATCC, stood up in response and asserted a fifth option: to stay in their territory and find their own nonviolent solution. 

The ATCC became the premiere civilian declared zone of peace recognized by the government in the state of Colombia . The campesinos saw themselves as simple, common folk, but nonetheless came up with the most creative alternative to violence that continues to define a culture of peace in La India to this day. As members of the community they pledged to nonviolent action. Further, the use of violence and weapons were forbidden within the community’s territory. This rule was applicable to both local actors and armed groups such as FARC, ELN, and paramilitaries. As Josue stated in his confrontation, “What has all of this [violence] served? What has it fixed? Nothing. In fact Colombia is in the worst violence ever. We have arrived at the conclusion that weapons have not solved a thing and that there is not one reason to arm ourselves” (Lederach 2005). Each member of the community made a commitment: “We shall die before we kill.” 

Nonviolence tactics of the ATCC came to fruitition in two layers: territorial and communal action. The ATCC created a peace community by banning weapons and the passage of weapons on their soil. Signs were placed on the borders of the community stating, “What the people from here say,” “you are welcome,” and “no guns allowed in our area” (Lederach 2009). Currently the ATCC’s area of influence extends 400 square miles and 32 villages consisting of approximately 5,000 individuals (Kaplan 2013). Through transparent actions and open dialogue with armed groups, the ATCC was able to ensure physical security for populations inside its boundaries. In fact, from 1991 to 2000 there were zero killings within the territory of the peace community. As Excelino Arizam Orlando Gatalan of the ATCC stated, “Instead of accusations and denunciations over the assassination of our leaders, we have intensified our efforts to draw nearer to those who declare themselves our enemies in order to show them that, for us, no one is an enemy, no matter what acts those who wish to destroy us might commit” (Right Livelihood).  

Being a member of the ATCC and living in La India came with a commitment to a distinct way of life centered on nonviolence. While each campesino has agency in choosing whether to abide by this commitment, each individual is also pledging to add a supplemental identity. In turn, the success of the ATCC is dependent upon individual devotion to nonviolent livelihoods. Members of the ATCC will remain as campesinos and Colombians and additionally gain a new title of peacemakers. This new identity is informed via past struggles, peace education, and a very clear set of expectations. The principles below aren’t simply norms in a culture of peace, but a way of life that should be interpreted and incorporated into all actions (Lederach 2005).

  1. Face with individualization: solidarity.
  2. Faced with the Law of Silence and Secrecy: Do everything publicly. Speak loud and never hide anything. 
  3. Faced with violence: Talk and negotiate with everyone. We do not have enemies.
  4. Faced with exclusion: Find support in others. Individually we are weak, but together we are strong. 
  5. Faced with the need for strategy: transparency. We will tell every armed group exactly what we have talked about with other armed groups. And we will tell it all to the community. 

As campesino peacemakers, members of the ATCC took on new roles to contribute to a culture of peace. The ATCC is determined to incorporate youth into the peace process and thus peace is a central focus in school curriculum (Right Livelihood Award). Not only do they want to protect youth from pledging to armed groups, but also the ATCC encourages youth to initiate their own peace initiatives. ATCC members have also become facilitators and mediators of dialogue between the military, guerilla groups, and the paramilitaries. Getting groups who are reliant on violence to agree to attend and listen is a daunting task in itself, though the ATCC has been able to bring groups together with much success. Donaldo Quiroda Rueda of the ATCC explains, “We make them understand that peace and civil disobedience aren’t just politics but a means to create spaces within the conflicts for ways to live in harmony and avoid hurting the other parties. Showing respect for the other parties without judging them as stronger or weaker and stating that our dialogue only aims at peace achieved by non-violent means” (Right Livelihood Award).  

More than guaranteeing the absence of violence, the campesinos of ATCC constructed a culture of positive peace based on a set of nonviolent principles. Recognizing that peace was not defined solely by the halting of political threats and violence, the ATCC contributed to active neutrality by simultaneously promoting economic security and development within their territory. With assistance from outside funding the ATCC was able to purchase two boats and operate a local market (Right Livelihood Award 2013). By 1998 the ATCC presented a development plan to the Colombian government in hopes of receiving investment on education, communication, roads, communal organization, and natural resources. “The ATCC has fulfilled many roles and functions for the citizens of the region, including economic development planning, operating a community store, lobbying government officials, and giving civilians early warning of pending battles” (Kaplan). 

If there is one gleaming factor that unites the campesinos of the Carare River it is a common historical struggle. Like in many rural regions of Colombia, campesinos of the Carare River migrated to La India in order to flee violent conflict that had controlled their lives for nearly five decades. Without legitimate protection from the Colombian government, members of the ATCC were seeking basic human security after being tangled in the longest war in the Western hemisphere. Peasants are the primary targets in Colombia’s internal conflict because rural territory is a sought over commodity in warfare and drug trafficking. Oliver Kaplan states, “Various events and circumstances surrounding the founding of the ATCC likely contributed to building norms for neutrality and non-participation in the conflict” (Kaplam). This common struggle was a uniting factor of the campesinos that paved the way for a transformation from victimization to empowerment. 

Indigenous approaches to conflict resolution are often romanticized into a “traditional” vision whereby their tactics are outdated or nontransferable to other western communities. On the other hand, some scholars have argued that traditional methods should be preserved since they have successfully resolved conflicts in the past. In regards to the ATCC, it is important to note that the legacy of the campesinos lives on today as a fully functioning and stable institution not because they resorted to ancestral mechanisms, but because they utilized their modern identities to create a new vision of peace. As Malan explains on the utility of local approaches: “In the light of contemporary insights and skills that have been developed around the world, it is not merely a matter of reverting to ancient traditions. What may be especially propagated, therefore, is the development of new homegrown methods in which the best current practices and compatible traditions are integrated” (Malan 2005). In the case of the ATCC and of regional examples to follow, the construction of a peaceful community was not based on historic or traditional tactics, rather on historical suffering that informed an empowered peasant identity in search for peace. 

Comparative Analysis: Peasant Social Movements in South America 

In seeking to determine how identity and culture affects the ATCC as a peasant movement, it is useful to compare the Colombian case to movements of similar nature throughout South America. Such social movements are complex and diverse, and all aim to take a nonviolent stand against a force of greater power. Further, each peasant struggle centralizes territory and the communities’ subsistence needs to live off it. From Amazonian Ecuadorians up against transnational oil companies to the Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement resisting against government and landowners, there is a quite visible unspoken and shared peasant identity in South America. It is important to make this analysis from a relativist perspective, for to assume all peasant social movements were inspired or structured in the same fashion simply due to a shared identity would be ethnocentric. Rather, the comparisons below are meant to help in finding similarities and differences of the ATCC and comparable movements, not to make absolute claims on a static peasant identity in South America. 

The ATCC is not alone in its nonviolent journey towards stability and peace in Colombia. In fact, nearly 30,000 peace initiatives have been counted in the state, which “usually start from the premise that social organization and leadership can protect communities from violent actors or from corruption and poor governance” (Bouvier). One example that has witnessed the most success is the REDEPAZ “100 Municipalities of Peace” project. In 1997 The Network of Initiatives for Peace and against War (REDEPAZ) introduced the initiative to foster citizen participation and local decision-making in the production of peace communities throughout conflict-ridden Colombia (Hernandez 2004). Rather than a civilian designed and led approach like the ATCC, REDEPAZ employed a combination of campesino, local authority, and NGO efforts. In cases such as these, it is difficult to determine whose voice was heard more – the local actors or the NGO. Even with that uncertainty, participatory movement building cultivates individual empowerment and identity transformation among peasant communities. The transformation in an NGO-sponsored peace community moves from passive citizen suffering violent attacks to active contributor working towards a vision for peace. 

Brazil’s Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento San Terra – MST) was founded in Southern Brazil in the mid-1980s and grew to be the most well organized social movement in the state’s history. The ultimate goal is to convert unproductive property of into everyday living spaces for peasants who otherwise would not have access to land. Their main tactic of large-scale occupation is very clear, but otherwise there are no organized group symbols, slogans, or norms. MST is immense in size and territory – after twenty years of activity 250,000 families had occupied land and 1,459 settlements were directly affiliated with the movement (Wolford 2010). While the ATCC is small-scale and strategic, the MST is much more broad, fluid, and dynamic. This is not to say that the ATCC is not diverse, but rather that the MST does not have the same composed and committed long-term vision. Much of the MST membership is seeking short-term gains (i.e. a piece of land). Further, the MST ideally wants to be nonviolent in nature, but cannot guarantee peaceful actions from all participants, especially when state authorities and landowners arrive at occupation squattings. In such a large fluid organization power politics are easily distorted. As Wolford explains “Which positions come to dominate at any given time has very real implications for the path of social mobilization and the possibilities of progressive change within and through movements” (Wolford 2010). It is very plausible that many voices of Brazilian landless peasants are even silenced by the enormous movement itself, especially since dialogue does not seem to be a central concern it its efforts. 

The Bolivian peasant movement is occurring on a much smaller scale with less concrete goals. Bolivian peasants of indigenous descent are seeking to symbolically and physically regain power that has been historically denied on the basis of ethnicity. “The indigenous resurgence is thus simultaneously transforming state and territory, yielding new cartographies of indigenous power, a distinct remapping of Bolivia – while also dismantling a longer historical relationship based on white-mestizo dominance” (Guastafson and Fabricant 2011) This reconstruction of power is nonviolent in nature and takes shape in creative ways. One space of change is in the school system, where indigenous peasants are actively reasserting their morals and voices into teaching spaces. In the case of Bolivia, there are no specific zones of peace borders, enemies, or tactics.  There are no membership quotas or established leaders. Rather, this is a gradual identity transformation from silenced minority to reaffirmed active indigenous population. 

Out of the examples thus far, the Ecuadorian Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) is most similar to the ATCC. Instead of being challenged by violent militia, however, Indian Ecuadorians of the Upper Amazon are threatened by multinational oil corporations. Local actors have been disempowered due to the fact that oil operations are physically destructive and that oil companies silence local resistance. OPIP is seeking to shift power relations and create a voice for the community of Pastaza. There has been a rise of political subjects who seek to provide security through organization and dialogue with all parties. In doing so, OPIP has “produced new identities, dispositions, senses of knowing, and possibilities of being among indigenous peoples in Pastaza” (Sawyer 2004). OPIP envisions both protection for sacred territories and reaffirmation of national identity in a historically exclusionary political system. By participating as a member of OPIP, individuals are empowered through peaceful tactics for protecting their land and by their reintegration into national politics. 


The nonviolent peasant movements discussed thus far vary in size, structure, and also in their long-term success and sustainability. The ATCC evolved from a Josue Vargas’ pledge to nonviolence on that day in 1987 to a near-institution in its ability to provide physical and human security, as well as economic development. The lasting legacy of the ATCC is of special value because the ongoing Civil War in Colombia continues to fuel a culture of violence.  “In the passing of years, often facing new rounds of violence and displacement, they struggle to find voice, to speak words where the law of silence pervades in the land of forgetfulness” (Lederach 2009). The ATCC and its nonviolent commitment provide an alternative towards a peaceful society, even if it only exists inside the community border. Are indigenous and peasant conflict resolution strategies effective because they are “traditional” or local? I argue that OPIP, ATCC, MST, and Bolivian activists have been mildly successful not solely because of their peasant culture or identity, but because the strategies used were reflective of local needs and desires. These fluid conceptualizations of “culture” and “identity” do play a pivotal role; they influence and inform individual choices and actions that contribute to a larger nonviolence movement or culture of peace. 


Amnesty International, Report 2012: The State of the World’s Human Rights. London: Amnesty International, 2012.

“Asociacion de Trabajadores Campesinos del Carare,” Right Livelihood Award, accessed December 2013, http://www.rightlivelihood.org/atcc.html.

Avruch, Kevin. Context and Pretext in Conflict Resolution. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2013.

Bouvier, Virginia. United States Institute of Peace “Special Report Harbingers of Hope: Peace Initiatives in Colombia” (2006). 

“FAQ about ATCC,” Right Livelihood Award, accessed December 2013, http://www.rightlivelihood.org/atcc_faq.html.

Garcia-Duran, Mauricio, “Colombia—Nonviolent Movement for Peace and International Solidarity” in People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity. Ed. By Howard Clark. (New York: Pluto Books, 2009). 

Hernandez Delgado, Esperanza. “Compelled to Act Grassroots Peace Initiatives” from Cinep, 2004.

Joan Gray, Vanessa. “Nonviolence and Sustainable Resource Use with External Support: A Survival Strategy in Rural Colombia” in Latin American Perspectives 39 (2012).

Gustafson, Bret and Nicole Fabricant. Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory, and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State. (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2011). 

Kaplan, Oliver. “Protecting Civilians in Civil War: The Institution of the ATCC in Colombia” in Journal of Peace Research 50 (2013).

Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Lederach, John Paul. “The Poetic Unfolding of the Human Spirit,” last modified January 2009, www.onbeing.org/program/art-peace/feature/poetic-unfolding-human-spirit/1417

Malan, Jannie. “Traditional and Local Conflict Resolution” in People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

Mitchell, Christopher. “The Theory and Practice of Sanctuary” in Zones of Peace, Ed by Landon E Hancock Christopher Mitchell. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007.

Rojas, Catalina “Islands in the Stream: A Comparative Analysis of Zones of Peace within Colombia’s Civil War” in Zones of Peace, Ed by Landon E. Hancock and Christopher Mitchell. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007.

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Mulitnational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004. 

Wolford, Wendy, This Land Is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

  • Share this :

Leave a comment