Feel the Grass Grow
Ecologies of Slow Peace in Colombia
Angela Jill Lederach



An Introduction

ON AUGUST 24, 2016, THE government of Colombia and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) announced that they had reached a final peace agreement after over fifty years of war. As major news networks broadcast then President Juan Manuel Santos’s announcement from Havana, Cuba, I sat next to Jorge Pérez under the tin roof of his open-air living room in the Alta Montaña (High Mountain) of El Carmen de Bolívar, a municipality located along Colombia’s northern coast. Jorge leaned back in a handmade chair, carefully propped up against one of the posts of his house, as he recounted the history of his community (vereda).1 Stacks of papers sat in piles around Jorge’s feet. He had placed small rocks on top of the papers to guard against the steady breeze that passed through the open living room. As he spoke, he sifted through the stacks, locating cherished and worn documents to tell his story.

I had traveled to Jorge’s house at the invitation of Larisa Zehr, an accompaniment worker from the local peacebuilding organization, Sembrandopaz. Most recently, Larisa’s work included accompanying the Alta Montaña’s historical memory process. Facilitated in collaboration with the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), the community-based process responded to one of the reparation measures outlined in the signed accords between the campesino movement, the Proceso Pacífico de Reconciliación e Integración de la Alta Montaña (Alta Montaña Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration, shortened to Peaceful Process) and the state in 2013. Jorge formed part of the team of “narrators”—writers—and had begun organizing his community’s archives for the historical memory book. He had asked Larisa to come and scan the saved meeting minutes, legal proceedings, human rights violations, and records of the Junta Acción Comunal (Community Action Council, abbreviated JAC) into a cell phone application as part of that process.

Larisa and I left the urban center of El Carmen in the afternoon. Seated behind a trusted moto driver, we passed lines of jeeps full of the day’s harvest at the busy intersection of Twenty-Eighth Street. I watched campesinos unloading the jeeps and bartering with the intermediaries in charge of the storage and export centers located along the highway as we headed up the winding road to the Alta Montaña. The open grasslands characteristic of the large cattle ranches that line the lower region of El Carmen passed from view as we climbed into the Montaña’s dry-tropical rainforest. The cool air and shade from the old growth caracolí, mango, and ceiba trees provided a respite from the hot temperatures and dusty streets of El Carmen. At the highest point of the paved road, we turned off onto a steep and narrow dirt path. The base of the Colombian Marine Infantry—replete with a helicopter landing pad—came into view when we rounded the last hill before descending into the heart of the Alta Montaña. As the dirt road flattened, the peaks, valleys, marshes, rivers, and reservoirs of Montes de María spread out before us. I could glimpse the shimmering waters of the Caribbean Sea in the far distance.

The beauty of the panoramic views belied the history and memories of violence also held within the landscape. The armed conflict had taken a devastating toll on the fifty-two communities that compose the Alta Montaña. Massacres, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, selective assassinations, and massive, forced displacements form part of the litany of violence that campesinos experienced at the hands of multiple armed groups that operated in the region. The isolated and thickly forested region served as a strategic base for the FARC-EP, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL; Esperanza, Paz y Libertad), the National Liberation Army (ELN; Ejército de Liberación Nacional), the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT; Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores) as well as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, or, paramilitaries), and the Colombian Marine Infantry. Campesinos found themselves “caught in between” competing armed groups over the course of decades.

“Ay-o!” Jorge greeted us as the motos descended the narrow path to his house. I dismounted, shaking Jorge’s hand with a warm greeting. Hundreds of fallen old-growth trees lined the steep hillside below. He followed my gaze. “Here, before, these were mountains of avocado,” he explained. “Here, there were avocado trees that reached thirty meters high, mountain after mountain of avocado,” he gestured across the barren hillsides. “I could not see the neighbor’s house. Now it is seen because all the avocado, ajá,” his voice trailed off as we took in the ashen-white logs that blanketed the steep hillside.2 “We are talking about 6,000 hectares of avocado,” Jorge continued. “Since the time of my grandfather, these were farms of avocados. Imagine it!” He paused, giving us time to envision the thick, green forests. “This avocado farm was more than fifty years old. Look at what has been lost.” Jorge shook his head. A donkey cried from the valley below, filling the space of silence, memory, and loss. “Here, before, one had everything one needed, one lived well. Here, there was a massive displacement. The death of the avocado has affected everything.” Rather than separate the experience of forced displacement from the death of the avocado forest, Jorge connected the two experiences as inextricably linked, lifting out the human and environmental costs of war in his narrative. He turned away from the lookout and motioned for us to take a seat next to the stacks of paper that he had carefully arranged in the open-air living room.

Despite bombings, forced displacement, and the social upheaval wrought by war, Jorge had protected and preserved his community’s history. The archives, carefully guarded and enclosed in makeshift cardboard folders, reflected the practices of campesino resistencia (resistance) found across Montes de María.3 Jorge sifted through the papers, carefully maintained throughout the years, as he spoke. His grandparents started the first school, cradled in the valley below his house. “At that time, there were many children but no teachers willing to travel to the Montaña,” he recalled, “so, my grandparents organized the children together to teach them. It makes one very proud to know this history, to know that their legacy lives on.” He pulled out an aged piece of paper—the edges worn with small smudges across the front. The page contained the names and signatures of all the Community Action Council (JAC; Junta Acción Comunal) members since the organization’s inception. He pointed to the name of his grandfather and, with his finger, traced the page until he found his own name. The signature marked an integral part of his life story, the moment when he first joined the JAC in the early 1990s. “This leadership,” he said, looking up from the page, “is in my blood.”

Violence offers only one part of the story that Jorge chooses to recount about his life and community. In his telling, the rich traditions of campesino organizing, resistencia, and agroforestry form the foundation of his narrative. Accounts that focus solely on war and suffering obscure the multigenerational struggle for peace that shapes how campesinos, like Jorge, narrate the history and territorial identity of Montes de María.4 Popular depictions of Montes de María as one of the territories “most affected” by the armed conflict not only erase the long histories of campesino organizing that have fundamentally marked the region, but also conceal the localized dynamics and consequences of the armed conflict.

Jorge turned back to the paper in his hands as he continued the story. Next to his name appeared the name of the attorney from the urban center of El Carmen who legalized members of the JAC as part of the local governance structure. The same attorney, Jorge explained, later accused the JAC president of “collaboration” with the guerrillas, leading to his assassination. False accusations of campesino leaders became one of the primary forms of violence that local state authorities, like the attorney, used in collaboration with the paramilitaries to maintain power and territorial control. As the campesino movement in Montes de María grew in numbers and influence, the state increasingly engaged in violent repression to undermine the collective power, built through grassroots organizing, that threatened the country’s elite political class. The criminalization of campesino organizations through the dual discourses of “security” and “insurgency” enabled the state to normalize violence against campesino social leaders.

“For many years, they said that this area was only full of guerrillas and micos (monkeys),” Jorge explained, outlining the ways in which the state denied recognition of civilians in the Alta Montaña. Dehumanizing representations of campesinos legitimized selective assassinations, helicopter bombings, and arbitrary detentions of social leaders throughout the course of the war. Such discourses also rendered more-than-human lives in the Alta Montaña disposable—collateral damage in the war against insurgency. The social and environmental devastation wrought by the war resulted in large-scale, forced displacements of campesino communities from the region.

A few families, however, remained “resistant,” refusing to displace to urban cities. “I was part of the Asociación de Comunidades Olvidadas de los Montes de María [Association of Forgotten Communities of Montes de María, shortened to Forgotten Communities]”; Jorge leaned forward in his chair as he detailed the forms of community organizing that persisted throughout the war—yet, which remain largely absent in dominant accounts of the armed conflict. Working across the Alta Montaña, the Forgotten Communities formed to make civilian life in the rural high zone visible to outside authorities. At the height of violence, members of the Forgotten Communities led nonviolent marches to the urban center of El Carmen to demand their constitutional rights as citizens. They also developed communication and collective nonviolent protection strategies, creating shrewd, early warning systems to prevent the assassinations of friends and family members.

As the hot afternoon sun shifted into warm, evening light, Larisa scanned each page of Jorge’s archives into the cell phone application. In addition, Jorge gave Larisa a five-page essay he had handwritten for the historical memory book, which focused on the role of social leaders in the Alta Montaña. He looked up, removing his bifocals. “I composed a décima [song] about what it means to be a líder social [social leader].” His voice rang out as he sang—from memory—his life story, wrapped in the poetic, ten-line stanza song. Jorge’s décima did not focus on the violence he had endured. Instead, he sang of the “campesino struggle” to “defend life and the right to life.”5

With evening descending, we said our goodbyes and began the journey back down to El Carmen. When we arrived at the start of the paved road that connects the Alta Montaña to the urban center, SUVs from various media news outlets lined the road. The glaring bright lights, video cameras, external generators, and crowds of newscasters that swarmed the community offered a jarring contrast to our slow afternoon of “swapping stories [echando cuentos].” Just hours before, Santos announced that the government and the FARC-EP had reached a peace deal. Reporters holding microphones stood, strategically, in front of the bullet-pocked and burned-out church that sits at the edge of the paved road to capture the reactions of “the victims” to the historic news. With no internet signal, no electricity, and no television, the announcement from Havana had not reached us at Jorge’s house. Far removed, yet intimately connected, Jorge sang of the collective campesino struggle for peace at the same time televisions and radios blared Santos’s declaration of peace from Havana, Cuba.

Jorge’s intimate recollections of violence and peace, as lived and embodied, set against the distant and inaccessible backdrop of Santos’s announcement from Havana, exposes the paradox of proximity that many social leaders in Montes de María faced as Colombia ushered in a “new era” of “postconflict.” The camera spotlight, trained on spectacular displays of the “historic moment,” cast a shadow over and drowned out the songs of the daily and decades-long campesino struggle for territorial peace that social leaders sustained throughout the war. Although many social leaders publicly advocated for the peace accords, the signed agreement posed new challenges for those who, like Jorge, had to find creative ways to make their work seen and heard amid the clamor of the posconflicto (postconflict) that dominated the airwaves.

This book makes visible what far too often is lost in mainstream depictions of war and peace. The stories and chapters to follow trace the collective, campesino struggle to build peace as the state’s implementation process unfolded in Montes de María. With this purpose in mind, I critically examine the effects that spectacles of peace—often bound to sound bites and photo shoots—have on everyday practices of peace, lived and built in campesino communities. After noting the lack of anthropological engagement with peace as a conceptual category, anthropologist Liisa Malkki (2015) asks: “What would it mean to study peace ethnographically” (104)? This book responds to the concern that animates Malkki’s question. I analyze the cultural practices, socioecological relations, temporal disjunctures, historical processes, and constellations of power that structure the uneven landscape of peacebuilding in Colombia.6 In doing so, I advance a critical anthropology of peacebuilding as a site of struggle.

Throughout my research, campesino leaders repeatedly critiqued the state’s approach to peace within distinct temporal registers to expose the varied forms of violence that permeate the postaccord context and to make their claims to peace seen and heard. By placing campesino critiques of “los tiempos—the times” as the central starting point for ethnographic inquiry into peace, this book offers a critical assessment of the temporalities that undergird the interlocking processes of political and environmental violence. Ethnographic analysis of the temporal continuities and contestations found in Montes de María affords theoretical insight into the technologies of power, dynamics of violence, and the practices of liberation that shape the postaccord landscape in Colombia. Grounded in the campesino call to build paz sin prisa (peace without hurry), I develop an ethnographic theory of slow peace. Although “slow peace” is not a literal translation of paz sin prisa, I use the terms interchangeably to place campesino theories of time in conversation with the wider literature on slow movements (Hickel 2019; Kallis et al. 2020; Parkins and Craig 2006; Petrini 2007; Tam 2008).7 “Slow peace” more accurately reflects the multifaceted dimensions of paz sin prisa by foregrounding the relational, place-based, and affective practices that shape temporal experience.8 Born from grounded theory, slow peace also extends Rob Nixon’s (2011) influential concept of “slow violence” to the domain of peace and justice, highlighting the ways in which grassroots communities respond to—and creatively transform—the compounding effects of political and environmental violence. In the chapters that follow, I argue that the campesino call to build paz sin prisa—slow peace, gives primacy to everyday life (cotidianidad), where relationships are deepened, ancestral memories are held and reclaimed, and ecologies continuously regenerated.


Located along the Caribbean coast between Sincelejo, Sucre, to the south and Cartagena, Bolívar, to the north, the fifteen municipalities that comprise Montes de María carry rich legacies of collective organizing and grassroots peacebuilding. While the region is known today as one of the territories most affected by the Colombian armed conflict, those who live there center the long history of intercultural coalition-building and resistance, born from Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino struggles for liberation, in their narratives. I first arrived in Montes de María through an invitation from Ricardo Esquivia, the director of Sembrandopaz. Born to an Indigenous mother and Afrodescendant father on the Caribbean coast, Ricardo experienced the multiple forms of violence familiar to many in the region. He was also deeply formed by his mother’s and grandfather’s engagements in caregiving and healing work, respectively (Maring 2016). He began apprenticing with his grandfather, an Indigenous shaman, at the age of five. When Ricardo was eight years old, his father was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. The state not only displaced and institutionalized his father in a quarantined sanatorium near the capital city of Bogotá, but also forcibly removed Ricardo and his brother Silfredo from their family, placing them in a state-run boarding school near the sanitorium—a twenty-hour bus ride from their rural, coastal home. Abuse, racism, classism, religious stigmatization, and hunger led Ricardo and his brother to eventually seek survival on the streets rather than face the daily onslaught of violation at school (Maring 2016). Two years later, Ricardo and his brother found shelter when the Colombian Mennonite Church opened a boarding school for Protestant children whose families had been diagnosed with leprosy. Drawn to the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolent action and social justice, Ricardo later became a key leader of the Mennonite church.

Ricardo’s early childhood experiences shape his holistic vision of peace as part of a permanent process to build social justice. For Ricardo, peace requires close accompaniment of people as they struggle to transform multiple forms of violence in their everyday lives. Although his training as a shaman ended abruptly, his proyecto de vida (life project) as a healer did not. Indeed, his grandfather, who, “with his life, gave love,” remains an important moral referent for Ricardo’s approach to peacebuilding (Ricardo Esquivia quoted in Maring 2016, 196). While Ricardo’s life history is distinct, his reverence for the campo (countryside), the centrality of environmental caretaking in his understanding of peace, and his intimate awareness of the multiple and interlocking forms of oppression that give rise to war all weave through—albeit in different ways—the narratives of social leaders dedicated to the work of peacebuilding in Montes de María. Their life stories—along with Ricardo’s—animate this project.

I came to know Ricardo as a young child. At the time, I was living with my family in Costa Rica where my parents accompanied exiled, Nicaraguan Miskitu leaders seeking the right to territorial sovereignty amid the civil war between the Sandinistas and the US-backed Contras. US-sponsored death threats against my father and a failed kidnapping attempt on my life orchestrated by the CIA eventually forced my family to flee (see Lederach 1999). Ricardo, who had also come under increasing threats because of his work for peace and human rights in Colombia, formed part of the transnational solidarity network that accompanied my family during this time of uncertainty, providing important emotional support as they made the decision to return to the United States. Years later, when military-backed death threats forced Ricardo and his family to flee the country, they temporarily moved next door to us in Virginia. In exile, Ricardo continued his daily work for peace, expanding the transnational network that connected rural communities in Colombia to human rights organizations in the United States. Ricardo deepened my own understanding of peace—not as something that comes after war, but rather as part of a daily struggle to create a radically different world in the midst of violence.

My early childhood experiences led to an enduring interest in the dynamics of state violence, transnational solidarity, and peace—understood as part of a lifelong commitment to transform oppressive systems and cultivate a more just world. This book emerges from that commitment. Rather than feign neutrality, I want to be transparent about the relational ties that led me to this research and the multiple positions that I speak from as a young, white woman from the United States—a country deeply complicit in the violence endured by those with whom I work—and as someone whose life history has been intimately shaped by a transnational community of activists committed to the work of peace. I locate my research within the long-standing tradition of engaged anthropology (Hale 2008; Hale and Stephen 2013; Harrison 1991) and am particularly indebted to generations of feminist scholars who have advocated for an understanding of knowledge as situated (Haraway 1988), contingent and dynamic (Ackerly and True 2008; Ahmed 2017; Berry et al. 2017; Mahmood 2008; Sultana 2007), and profoundly relational (Boulding 1990; Enloe 2004; Krystalli 2019a; McLean and Zapata 2015; Nordstrom 1999). Rather than flatten the relational, social, and historical landscapes that I navigated as part of this research, I have sought to remain responsive to the individuals and collective struggles at the center of this book.9

In 2009, I initiated a conversation with Ricardo about the possibility of pursuing graduate study focused on grassroots peacebuilding in Colombia. After spending four years working in the field of international peacebuilding, I had become disillusioned with the colonialist structures that shaped the everyday practices of many international NGOs, which tended to obscure—rather than support—existing, grassroots peacebuilding efforts, even as they championed “local participation.” I saw similar patterns reflected in the literature where studies of peace remained largely focused on high-level processes of negotiation. At the time, Sembrandopaz was at the forefront of accompanying campesino communities seeking to return to their land in the midst of war in ways that challenged linear models of “postconflict” peacebuilding, and I was interested in deepening my understanding of their practices and theories of peace. During that initial conversation, I naively asked Ricardo whether “return” was possible in the face of the severe social and political violence that continued to persist in Montes de María. “Angie,” he paused, raising his eyes to meet mine, before asserting with a sharp tenderness, “anything is possible.” The critiques of international peacebuilding that I offer throughout this book do not emerge from dismissal or cynicism, but rather from the grounded hope that Ricardo has instilled in me over the years. Like my colleagues across Montes de María, I remain fiercely committed to peacebuilding as a site of possibility. Drawing on the critical, social analyses that campesino leaders offer as well as their practices of peacebuilding, I aim to not only contribute to theories of peace but also to outline concrete possibilities for decolonial peace praxis.

In 2014, I began ethnographic and participatory research focused on grassroots peacebuilding in Montes de María with the support of Ricardo and Rosa Jiménez Ahumada, then director of the Observatory for Displacement, Conflict, and Peacebuilding at the University of Cartagena. The participatory framework for the research led me to join the Sembrandopaz team, which provided an inside view into the organization’s daily work for peace through accompaniment. Distinct from other international accompaniment efforts aimed at providing nonviolent protection for grassroots communities across Colombia (Burnyeat 2018; Gill 2016; Koopman 2012; Mahony and Eguren 1997), most of the individuals who form part of Sembrandopaz are from the Caribbean coast and lived through multiple forms of violence as a result of the armed conflict. While foreigners, like myself, do work with Sembrandopaz, the organization locates accompaniment as part of their wider framework for peacebuilding, understood as a permanent commitment to walk alongside and amplify the work of grassroots communities engaged in creating spaces of dignified life amid violence.

Sembrandopaz introduced me to the Peaceful Process and the youth wing of the movement, the Jóvenes Provocadores de Paz (Youth Peace Provokers, abbreviated JOPPAZ). Over the course of six months in 2014 and 2015, I engaged in a series of dialogues with the coordinating committees of the Peaceful Process and JOPPAZ to co-construct a collaborative research design. In July 2016, I returned to carry out seventeen consecutive months of ethnographic research based on the design that we had developed together. The signing of the peace accords in September 2016 and the subsequent implementation of the accords in 2017, all of which occurred while I was living in El Carmen de Bolívar, also presented me with the distinct opportunity to examine the relationship between long-term, grassroots peacebuilding movements and the implementation of national peace accords. The accords’ “territorial focus” offered one of the first systematic attempts to develop a participatory model aimed at integrating local peacebuilding actors into the national peace process.10 As one of the pilot sites for implementation of the accords, Montes de María became a particularly rich location for research examining the everyday engagements between local and national actors within the contested landscape of peacebuilding. In the pages that follow, I analyze the contentious interactions between social leaders, International Nongovernmental (INGO) workers, state bureaucrats, donors, and private sector actors, offering insight into the conditions and practices that strengthen, constrain, and fragment grassroots peacebuilding. I ground my theoretical inquiry within a particular ethnographic context to move beyond static binaries of peace understood as either a utopian ideal or merely the absence of war. Instead, I outline the historical, political, socioecological, and temporal processes that have and continue to shape peacebuilding in Colombia. In doing so, I destabilize conceptualizations of peacebuilding as limited only to state-centric and top-down interventions. Instead, I offer an ethnographic theory of peace as a social practice—one that mobilizes political action, shapes subjectivities, and acts on the world.

This book emerges from a total of twenty-five months of research carried out between 2014 and 2021, the bulk of which took place from July 2016 until December 2017. Drawing on participant observation, twelve focus group sessions with 306 campesino youth, and 118 interviews with social leaders, human rights defenders, (I)NGO workers, state bureaucrats, private sector actors, and members of the FARC, I analyze peacebuilding as a site of struggle. I show how the technocratic delivery of “peace” by elite and external actors obscures grassroots peacebuilding processes, even though the text of the accords explicitly purports to do the opposite. Indeed, as I observed the implementation process unfold in Montes de María, I witnessed the continuation—not the transformation—of top-down approaches that limit rather than expand participation. Feel the Grass Grow offers a thick account of how campesino social leaders negotiate, refuse, and reconfigure global mechanisms of peacebuilding as they work to build peace “from and for the territory.”


1. Vereda is sometimes translated as “hamlet” or “village.” I have chosen to translate it as “rural community” in order to avoid using terms that inadvertently reinforce pervasive tropes of campesinos as backward and not modern. Comunidad and vereda are also used interchangeably in Montes de María.

2. Jorge uses the colloquial term “ajá” to reference the death of the avocado forest.

3. In Colombian Spanish, resistencia has multiple valences. The term can mean both “resistance” and “resilience” and is often used in ways that include both terms as mutually reinforcing processes.

4. Catherine Bolten (2012a) distinguishes between the facts of events and the truth of peoples’ narratives in Sierra Leone. The stories people choose to tell offer insight into how they make sense of life in the wake of war. Bolten contends that social memory, understood as a process of remembering and forgetting, is “more about the present than the past” (24).

5. The full décima was later published in the historical memory book. See Pérez ([2014] 2018), 143.

6. For additional ethnographic approaches to the study of peace, see also Millar (2018).

7. The connections to slow food and slow living movements are not abstract; throughout my research in Montes de María, campesino social leaders hosted several guest lecturers and organized forums that explicitly focused on the slow food movement.

8. I am especially indebted to María Lucía Zapata who helped me to articulate the multiple meanings attached to “prisa,” which significantly shaped the development of the theory of slow peace.

9. Here, I am drawing on Judith Butler’s (2005) reformulation of responsibility as a “responsiveness to” others that emerges from recognition of interdependencies, and which offers an alternative to paternalistic notions of responsibility as “responsibility for” others (88, emphasis mine).

10. Within the interdisciplinary field of peace and conflict studies, scholars have increasingly called for greater inclusion of local peacebuilding efforts within national peace processes (Firchow 2018; Kroeker 2020; Lederach 1997; Mac Ginty 2021; Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013; Richmond 2018; Tom 2017).