On a beautiful warm August morning I, along with five others from the U.S., boarded a small ferry in Magangue, a town on the Magdalena River in Colombia. Our two hour journey up the river took us to the town of Sucre, where we rested, ate lunch and boarded another boat, which journeyed through the marshy wetlands that feed the Magdalena. After another two hour journey we were greeted with smiles, laughter and the welcoming spirit of Pastor Willman and other residents of Las Palmas.
Las Palmas, a community on the northern coast of Colombia, has resisted violence and displacement. A few years ago an armed group moved into the area and threatened to displace them from their land. The residents of Las Palmas decided that displacement was not an option, so they moved five to six families into each home for strength and nonviolently resisted displacement from their land.
Today, the people of Las Palmas are working to build up their lives and their community in spite of many difficulties. Due to their location and other factors, this community remains isolated and lacks access to government services and basic resources. For example, power lines run into the area, but do not yet bring electricity. The only source of electricity is a diesel-powered generator that is turned on for church services. On our trip up the river the only government presence that we witnessed was a naval military checkpoint.
The international community has also failed to provide adequate support to the communities in this area. Pastor Willman took us to the high school and pointed out a building which was built by the World Bank, but the flooring for the building was never completed. High school students now meet in classrooms with dirt floors.
U.S. aid has worsened the crisis for communities in Colombia. Over the last decade the United States has provided more than $6 billion, mostly for Colombia's military and police to defeat illegal armed groups and eliminate drug trafficking. While communities like Las Palmas struggle to gain access to basic services, more than 5 million other Colombians have been displaced from their lands due to ongoing violence. Economic support for holistic development programs has been sorely lacking.
In Las Palmas a vibrant youth group spoke to us about their desire to bring economic development into their community. They are in the process of navigating bureaucratic government procedures in order to receive just a little bit of support. They explained that under current conditions youth who finish high school are left with few options. Some remain in the community looking for work, some leave the community for urban centers and others go off into the mountains to join armed groups.
The youth of Las Palmas, Pastor Willman and other community members are tirelessly working to fulfill the biblical vision of holistic and integrated peace. Their vision is much like the prophet Isaiah's description of peaceful dwelling places and fruitful fields if the rulers act with justice (Isaiah 32:1,16-18).
U.S. aid to Colombia can support life rather than death. Billions of dollars have already been wasted in order to meet elusive military goals. If our government changes its priorities, communities like Las Palmas will be able to prosper and build peace.
This article was first published on Third Way Café. <http://www.thirdway.com>