Local zones of peace: communities withdrawing from conflict

January 24 2013: Local Zones of Peace are communities that have chosen to remove themselves from a wider conflict. Landon E. Hancock, co-editor of 'Local Peacebuilding and National Peace', speaks to Insight to Conflict about the role local Zones of Peace can, and have, played in building peace.

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Hello, this is Ruairi Nolan for Insight on Conflict. Today we are interviewing Landon E Hancock. Landon is associate professor at Kent State University. He has published numerous articles about ethnic identity and conflict. Last year he co-edited with Christopher R Mitchell a book called ‘Local Peacebuilding and National Peace’. Landon, thanks for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

First of all – your last two books have looked at the idea of local ‘zones of peace’. Can you tell us what you mean by this, and give one or two examples?

Certainly. A number of years ago I started working with Chris Mitchell and a number of like-minded individuals, examining instances of localities within areas of violent conflict – starting with the Philippines but then expanding to Colombia – where local communities had decided that they wanted to absent themselves from the conflict. They wanted to create a ‘safe zone’, or a ‘zone of peace’, based on the idea of sanctuary; withdrawing from the conflict and not taking part or supporting either side, insurgent or governmental.

And how is it that zones of peace can contribute to a wider peace in a country?

Often times when a local zone of peace will declare itself to be neutral from the conflict, in essence the government may view them as being ‘part of the other side’
That’s a little more difficult to say. In a couple of cases – particularly in Colombia and the Philippines – we’ve seen some steps that appear to be positive, but others which are not quite so positive. Often times when a local zone of peace will declare itself to be neutral from the conflict, in essence the government may view them as being ‘part of the other side’, because not only do they not want insurgents to be in their midst, they don’t want government forces to be in their midst either. And typically governments don’t like the idea that one part of their territory country doesn’t want to have the army or the police on their land. So the contributions of local zones of peace to wider regional peace is much more problematic.

In Colombia for instance, groups of zones of peace got together under an umbrella organisation called Redepaz. They contributed to a plebiscite, the ‘citizens mandate for peace’, where they indicated that many people out in the countryside wanted to have peace, but that’s one of the largest pushes that they’ve had in the larger peace process. As Dr Mitchell and I discovered, many times the elites just want the localities just to praise their efforts, do what they say, and otherwise sit quietly by as the elites make peace with the insurgents.

If the governments and the insurgents just want the people to sit by, why is that problematic? What do zones of peace have to offer that national peacebuilding processes don’t?

Zones of Peace offer many things to the localities that engage in them. The first thing is that offer a sense of agency for the people who feel downtrodden by both the government and by insurgent forces, and in the case of Colombia, by right-wing paramilitaries.

They allow these folks to take control of their own lives; they allow them to address the concerns that they have, which may stem from violence, or may be initiated by the violence, but may stem from structural sources which should be familiar to your readers in terms of inequalities of access to education, economics, social issues, and most notably in many of these places, long-term conflicts lead to a ‘culture of violence’, in which violence becomes the predominant way of responding to many difficulties and situations. The zones of peace movements – the more successful ones – try to address this by creating their own ‘cultures of peace’.

In El Salvador this was noted by a ‘culture of peace’ programme, and other versions of ‘cultures of peace’ have grown up in other places, in Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

And where these Zones of Peace have been established, in El Salvador or Colombia, has that resulted in a much-improved situation for the communities on the ground?

Some places it has, in some places it has been more difficult. The Philippines has a number of successful Zones of Peace. They came in two waves, in the early 1980s and a more recent waves in the 2000s, where it has had an improvement in people’s lives.

In Colombia the situation is more mixed. In some places the Zones of Peace have morphed themselves into ‘Peace Laboratories’ and have been able to take advantage of government funding, but in doing so, they’ve had to accept some government restrictions. One particular Zone of Peace in Colombia that has continued despite difficulties is San Jose de Apartado. They have been under constant threat from paramilitaries and from the guerrillas. They are still continuing with outside help from internationals. I believe the Fellowship of Reconciliation has almost a continuous presence of non-violent peacekeepers there – ‘witnesses for peace’ – to keep the inhabitants from being killed by paramilitaries, and that’s a continuing problem in Colombia. Part of the reason for that is that their village is on a drug trade route, and so there are resource issues that make it difficult for that peace zone to maintain itself.

El Salvador the post-conflict peace zone is quite successful … they’ve had no gang violence in those communities for 11 years now.
In El Salvador the post-conflict peace zone is quite successful, and they are under an umbrella group called the Coorinadora, and I believe they have about 140 to 180 communities participating in this, and they’ve had no gang violence in those communities for 11 years now. It appears – although I haven’t got complete information on this – that with the recent election of a left-wing  president in El Salvador, the model of the Zone of Peace is being exported somewhat across the country.

There was a recent gang truce between the major gangs in El Salvador and those gangs last month put forward an offer to the government to create about 10 or 11 special Zones of Peace in which the gang members would lay down their weapons and stop extorting the locals in exchange for the government stepping back from their mass arrests. And this model of working with gang members is something that was pioneered by the local Zones of Peace in the south of the country, because that was their major problem following the end of the civil war.

So in that case it seems that the Zones of Peace are developing better relationships with the national level government. Are there other examples where these Zones of Peace have been able to build more successful or more positive relations with government?

I’m not aware of any, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, and we are only speaking about here a particular kind of local zone of peace during conflict, zones of peace created by the localities.  So there are other forms and forays of zones of peace designed to protect religious sites, and some that are implemented in a sense as a part of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration process, but those are very limited zones that are only supposed to exist for a short period of time. The kinds of zone of peace that I’m talking about have not seen a lot of wide usage outside of the examples that I have given you.

You have mentioned some of the dangers to people involved in zones of peace from both insurgents and governments. Such groups can seek international support – either solidarity or funding. Has this proven to be a successful strategy or are there any risks involved in bringing in International supporters?

The more governmental the source [of support] the more likely your actions are going to be restricted
I think one of the risks always with bringing in international supporters, which doesn’t seem to have been a problem in any of the cases that I have looked at, is the more governmental the source the more likely your actions are going to be restricted in terms on what you can focus on and what you can work on. That in a concern can reduce your agency.

During the 1980’s the Zones of Peace in the Philippines, the first wave of Zones of Peace, were so successful that they received something from the government, a designation, called a Special Development Area, and they received governmental money. It turned out that several Zones of Peace collapsed as a result of having this governmental money because the people there both had to accept the restrictions and then didn’t know what to do with all the money, they didn’t have agreement of what they were going to do and so they didn’t have the solidarity on how to use that money.

By contrast the local Zone of Peace in El Salvador started their own NGO in the United States, which at the time was called the Fund for Self Sufficiency in Central America, and now called EcoViva, and they did their own fundraising in the United States. They brought down college students during the summer to help as interns to work with them and help labour with them, and in a way they created their own channel of funding and their own controlled funding.

San José de Apartadó Peace Community.

The San José de Apartadó Peace Community, a zone of peace in Colombia.

Likewise, in Northern Ireland the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group, which is not really a Zone of Peace, but in acts many ways like one, managed to get funding outside of the usual Community Relations Council, which their restriction on funding is that you must work on Community Relations Projects, rather than Development Projects. By going outside of the CRC and obtaining funding from the Atlantic companies and other groups, the Suffolk Lenadoon Group (SLIG), has managed to chart their own path and create what they want to do, have their own local agencies supported and they have become a model for community improvement and community involvement in Northern Ireland.

I would just like to ask a little bit more about SLIG because you look at their work in some detail in the book. There seemed to be a tension between what funders or the government wanted, and what community workers on the ground felt was most needed for their community, and not just for SLIG but also for other community groups in Belfast.

Yes, largely this is drawn from documentary sources, so a lot of the work done by Michael Hall and Island Publications which points out that many of the local community groups which were working on community development all throughout the troubles were really concerned largely about economic issues. They felt like the conflict in some senses – of course not completely – was driven by economic issues. Some of the work that Neil Jarman has done looking at recreational rioting, in a sense that the folks there, the young people don’t have any other place else to go, they don’t have any job opportunities and the like, may tend to lead towards violence.

So what they found was that the Communities Relations Council, funded by the British Government, set up by Hugh Frazer and Mari Fitzduff, was very much concerned with community relations as a primary issue. So in order for a local community to get funding through the CRC – and all of the EU money for Peace, Peace 1, 2, 3 etc. were funded through the Community Relations Council – they had to have a front and centre component to community relations to the work that they were doing. So some of the local activists felt that some of this were one off, feel good things that didn’t really contribute to economic development.

I believe that the folks at Suffolk Lenadoon addressed this by trying to say, look we can address development and relations at the same time by working closely together with the two groups that made up Suffolk Lenadoon. So they came together and did that, and started with CRC funding, but then moved beyond that to getting their own funding sources. They set up their own corporation, the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project, and started creating services for their local community and so it has just sort of taken off from there.

So looking at this example of Northern Ireland, did you feel – or did the community groups – feel that the focus on Community Relations was fundamentally mistaken or that it needed to be done together with community development or economic development work?

My own sense is, and I can’t speak for the communities on the ground, is that the two need to go hand in hand, it’s a complimentary relationship. As we have seen in other instances in peacebuilding throughout the world, economic issues and relationship issues need to go hand in hand. One can’t be concerned about feeling good about a relationship if the economic and political situation is unstable. Nor can one address just those economic and political relationships without worrying about community relationships, because it’s often the fears of not knowing the other, the past practices and cultures of violence that can lead to outbreaks of violence when things appear to be threatening in one way or another

Overall in the book it seems that the relationship between the Local Zones of Peace and the grassroots levels of peacebuilding and national level peacebuilding processes is frequently quite a difficult one. I just want to finish up by asking if you think if it’s necessarily a difficult relationship or if there is anything you think that local peacebuilders or people in local zones of peace can do to better link up or build better relationships with national peacebuilding processes?

I think that local peacebuilders really do have a challenge in trying to communicate and connect with national peace movements and national governments.
I think that local peacebuilders really do have a challenge in trying to communicate and connect with national peace movements and national governments. Part of what they can do is to make their desires for peace to be known.

One of the strengths that the local Zones of Peace have is when they negotiate with say local guerilla leaders or local government forces. Each of those forces tends to argue that they are fighting for the locals and for their rights, and so by expressing to them, what we really want is the right to have peace and so we want you to negotiate an end to this and here is some of our concerns. And I think by doing that they might create some channels for getting some of their concerns up on the table.

I think a lot of work needs to be done at the national level to create forums and methods for locals to have their input, even if it slows the process down to a certain extent, to have that input and to have it taken into account at the national level. If we think about how the peace process is implemented – what makes it stick – part of it is changing the lives of local people so that they will buy into the process. By taking their concerns into account in a multiple number of ways that can affect the longevity and stability of the Peace Process.

Landon E Hancock, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Thank you. I appreciate it.

 

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