tewart Vriesinga is a veteran member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization that seeks to find nonviolent alternatives to war by placing peacemakers in conflict zones.
A fair number of Yukoners had the chance to hear and speak with him when he visited the territory two years ago.
This week, Vriesinga shared a hopeful note from Colombia, a torn and bloodied South American country.
Colombia remains one of those forgotten countries normally well off the media map.
However it continues to suffer, year after year, a plague of endemic violence and economic exploitation.
Vriesinga wrote of a grassroots organization called Cahucopano that hosted a ‘Humanitarian Action’ in several communities in the northwestern province of Antioquia last month.
Hundreds of volunteers from as far south as Bogota and other major cities like Medellin travelled for days on country buses to participate in the campaign.
Colombians, with representatives from international groups such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace and the Fellowship of Reconciliation distributed clothing, food and other goods, according to Vriesinga,
They also provided medicines and medical attention to people in the targeted communities.
Just as important, the volunteers “learned about documenting human rights abuses and the economic blockades affecting the area,” he said.
The leaders of Cahuaopano and community residents “expressed their concern that the Colombian Armed Forces and paramilitaries aim to facilitate powerful national and international economic interests’ access to mineral and other resources by depopulating the area.”
The indigenous people and small subsistence farmers in the region “see foreign investment as a threat to their way of life and to their very existence,” noted Vriesinga.
“Displaced — a word that is an everyday term here used all too casually to describe the tragedy of almost one in every 10 Colombians,” said Curt Ward, a physician working with the Catholic Social Ministry in Colombia.
Many of the rural residents Vriesinga met “may join the over three-million internally-displaced people already vying for scarce jobs in Colombia’s overcrowded urban centres.”
But where do you begin to deal with such long-term, entrenched problems?
“Against the irrationality of violence it is necessary to propose the irrationality of forgiveness, as well as demonstrate that cities are built from the inside out, that forgiveness is not forgetting but rather remembering with different eyes,” said Leonel Narvaez, a Jesuit priest who has worked in conflict resolution with over 250 organizations in Colombia and Brazil.
“That without reconciliation there is no future, that hatred and resentment have grave psychological effects, that truth and justice are indispensable elements of reconciliation, and, finally that compassion and tenderness must be reinstated as basic elements of the culture of peace.”
UNESCO has designated this coming Sunday the World Day for Cultural Diversity.
In 2001, member states of this UN body reaffirmed unanimously the conviction that “intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee of peace.”
However, with the world’s total military spending topping $1 trillion a year, and economic interests consistently trumping human rights concerns, we have a long way to go to find a world where cultures aren’t pitted against each other in a grim struggle for survival.
Preserving “the common heritage of humanity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature,” said UNESCO’s director general Koichiro Matsuura.
We won’t be able to do that without prioritizing peace and reconciliation rather that war-making and economic exploitation.
Getting our priorities straight is as important for us in the Yukon as it is for people in Colombia.