Blog post written by Angela Lin  and Melanie Lombard discussing the effects of the Colombian peace process on cities and in particular, low-income neighbourhoods.

In November 2016, four years of negotiation to end the 52-year year old Colombian civil conflict concluded with the ratification of a peace agreement by the Santos government and the leftist guerrilla group FARC. The signing of the agreement followed a tense and polarising referendum earlier that year, in which the population rejected the original terms of the accord by 50.2% to 49.8%.

Despite this rejection, more than two years later a revised peace agreement is finally being implemented. Yet popular opinion remains polarised, illustrated by 2018 election of Ivan Duque whose campaign centred on the need to further modify the agreement with fewer concessions to the FARC. Some sources suggest that this polarisation reflects the deep-rooted rural-urban divide in the country, with rural zones predominantly voting yes in the referendum, and urban areas no.

Conflict zones are mainly situated in rural areas, and this is where the implementation of the agreement is envisioned to have greatest impact. However, although 80% of the country live in urban areas, the potential effects of the agreement in cities and towns are less well understood. It is thought that displacement acts as a motor for urbanisation, and that the movement of internally displaced people (IDPs) to cities contributes to the expansion of low-income neighbourhoods or barrios populares. Following the agreement’s implementation, Colombian cities are expected to feel the effects of the peace process in terms of changing migratory flows and influxes of demobilised ex-combatants. Yet the implications of the peace agreement for Colombian cities remain understudied, particularly in barrios populares, where effects may be more directly felt.

Funded by a GLOSS RA bursary, we undertook preliminary work to explore the potential challenges of the peace agreement in low-income neighbourhoods in Colombian cities. During a visit to Bogota in 2017, Angela reviewed Spanish literature and conducted interviews with community leaders and urban experts. Melanie’s follow-up work in Cali in 2018, funded by a Max Batley grant, has involved focus groups and interviews with community members in Cali.

The peace agreement contains five key elements: comprehensive rural reform, solving the drugs issue, ending the conflict, political participation, and a focus on conflict victims. Of these five, the last two are likely to have most immediate effects in cities, through the political participation of FARC members and their reintegration into civil life, and measures for victims and displaced people including transitional justice and reparations.

Political participation and reintegration

The peace agreement is optimistic in its aspirations for the demobilised as well as conflict victims to be politically integrated in civil society. However, past experiences have shown that communicating with political institutions is complex, and victims of the conflict consider this a last resort to resolve issues in their community. Community leaders suggested that the complexity and inaccessibility of political institutions is a form of social exclusion.

Reintegration is more likely to work if demobilised groups have opportunity to become integrated into communities. New participatory processes may be required in order to represent diverse populations. It is equally important to have programmes that address the entire community and not only the demobilised or victims, in recognition of the fact that reintegration may compound existing disadvantages in barrios populares through placing further demands on already inadequate services.

Employment and economy and reintegration

For reintegration to be successful, a stable income and financial mobility are critical, as they determine individual possibilities and consequently, identity construction. Traditionally, therefore, reintegration has focussed on economic support for ex-combatants and IDPs. However, community leaders highlighted the difficulties of managing finances for those affected by conflict. In some cases, IDPs in barrios populares successfully used such support to invest in business or plan for emergencies; but in others, aid was never received, or was insufficient in quantity or duration.

Community leaders agreed that skills development and stable, long term employment should be prioritised for successful reintegration. Yet given the existing deficiency of formal employment opportunities in the city, social and economic insecurity seems likely to increase as part of the peace process. Skills held by rural incomers may not meet the requirements of the urban labour market, and this is compounded by stigmatisation towards conflict-affected groups in cities, affecting employment chances even for those with professional qualifications. Due to the difficulties in attaining stable, long-term employment in the formal sector, many conflict-affected migrants find work in the informal sector, which employs an estimated 48% of Colombia’s urban workforce.

Many gaps remain in understanding the urban experience of the peace agreement, and particularly its effects in barrios populares, where they are likely to be most acute. Our preliminary research highlights the need to provide concrete financial and institutional support for reintegrating both conflict victims and demobilised individuals, with a focus on barrios populares where existing resources are already under stress. There is also a need to focus on how the political participation and democratic tools envisaged in the agreement will be implemented in cities, and how best to support this in barrios populares. These are important considerations to confront changes taking place in cities throughout Colombia in the new era heralded by the peace agreement.

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