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Infrastructure for Peace

I was talking to two old friends during a recent visit to Mampuján, the Colombian community I lived in for two years, when a horn honked down the street. Ana Felicia sat up with a start, yelled something about her garbage and ran out the door, leaving me confused.

During my two years in the displaced Afro-Colombian community, the streets were full of garbage: candy wrappers, empty bottles, plastic bags. Individuals would clean their yards, sweeping trash into mounds to be burnt, but litter remained everywhere, filling empty lots and public spaces. It was normal to see people throw trash in the street when they were finished eating a snack with the expectation that it would be burnt or cleaned up later. I struggled with what to do with my garbage, eventually burning it in my backyard; there were no other options.

Curious, I glanced out the door after my friend and was surprised to a garbage truck coming down the street! My other friend proudly informed me that it was now forbidden to leave garbage on the street; all trash must be collected and taken away.

I was floored. Ever since the community was the first in Colombia to receive reparations through the Justice and Peace Law, so much has changed in my little town. When I first arrived there were no doubts about the poverty level of its members. People were happy but they did not have a lot of hope. I would walk from home to home to chat; over and over, I heard about how people were proud of who they were but were not proud of where they lived: in a town full of dirt and open sewers. Transformation seemed like an impossible dream.

In December of 2012, the community decided to act. Despite having received the only court order for reparations as victims of armed conflict, nothing had happened. We decided to visiblize the situation and engage in nonviolent action by marching to the capital 72 km away...and everything changed, starting with their self-perception about the ability of Mampuján to create and demand change. As I caught up with friends, almost every conversation during my visit turned to the march and what had happened since. Everyone wanted to know what I thought of the transformations in the community and pointed me towards all the new homes I had yet to see or visit. There was a palatable sense of pride, not just in who they were, but in where they lived. The community is becoming beautiful and that is a joyful and hopeful thing.

It is hopeful, not because the reparations process is finished or has been perfect (transitional chaos was the norm for two years, the streets need work, most people don’t have reliable running water, there is still no health centre or school improvement), but because it illustrates the fact that infrastructure is very important to the quality of people’s lives.

People were doing their best before reparations to care for their community, but there is only so much that can be done when government abandon and a lack of resources are the norm.

It is still stunning for me to realize that Mampuján’s court order outlines reparations that are actually the responsibility of the government around the country: health, education, security, and infrastructure. Infrastructural community level reparations have been much more difficult to achieve than individual reparations. If it is this challenging here to find the political will, it is even more difficult for communities that do not have an entire legal process supporting their search for functioning infrastructure.

In Canada, I drove to the airport in the early morning and a system of snowplows was already at work clearing the highway after a recent snowfall. What are the implications of that simple part of our infrastructure? For myself, I arrived at the airport in time and was able to get to arrive at work meetings on time. The skiers we passed going west were able to enjoy a weekend on the slopes, contributing to the local economy; the same with any sort of produce or merchandise being hauled across the country. There were fewer accidents in what could have been dangerous conditions. The list goes on, but because we take it for granted, we rarely notice the way we are dependent on our infrastructure functioning well and the way it contributes to the wellbeing of many of us.

And, as evidenced from my brief visit to Mampuján, basic things such as water and garbage help a community live in peace and dignity. When half the day is not spent hauling water, there is more time to study, leading to a better chance of employment and therefore a future that is not as dependent on illegal activities or violence. Farmers are able to access their crops and collectively send produce to market for a better price because of good roads. Garbage collection helps with community health in general and children have a safer place to play. The list goes on and illustrates the importance of encouraging government compliance with these responsibilities.

Challenge of the day: what do you take for granted that actively contributes to making your life easier?

Image taken by Anna Vogt. 

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