Seeding the Work That Reconnects in Colombia in Times of War and Peace

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by Helena ter Ellen
(with contributions from Felipe Medina)

It has been three years now that we’ve been seeding the Work that Reconnects in Colombia, in times of great transformation. After six years of negotiations in Cuba, and a painful and surprising “No” vote in a referendum, a revised peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was finally signed on the 24th of November 2016. If in the coming years a deal is also reached with the other guerrilla group, the ELN, more than 50 years of internal armed conflict might come to an end –that is, if the government will stop denying the current rise of paramilitary violence against civil society leaders and rural communities, and deal with it.

“Marcha por la Vida”© José Moreno Paricio. “I painted this image motivated by a march organized by an indigenous group in my country, Bolivia, to defend nature’s beauty and their home, the Tipnis.”

How can this historical threshold serve as a leverage point for the Great Turning in Colombia? What role can the Work that Reconnects play in fostering reconciliation and empowerment among Colombians? How are we to embrace in our vision and road to peace an integration of our Ecological Self?  These have been some of our key questions on our path.

Colombia is fortunate to still harbour a great deal of “Magía Salvaje” (Wild Magic); the war paradoxically also preserved lot of its natural beauty despite the increasing number of megaprojects and coca-crops. Now many international investors see opportunities in what they believe will be a more stable climate to exploit its resources. Rural people — and Afrocolombian and indigenous communities in particular — are in conflict with a government that has sold off ancestral land, forests, and water to these private interests. And it’s dangerous to be a person defending land, life, and resources in Colombia: since the signing of the peace accord, attacks against civil society activists have increased at an alarming rate, with around 127 killed last year and a spike in killings this year. While the FARC accord has significantly reduced overall violence in the country, the demobilization of these fighters has created vacuums throughout the country, which are in turn being occupied by paramilitary successor organizations that are carrying out selective murders and death threats, often accompanying land-devastating industries such as illegal mining, forest cutting, and coca-crops.

Will the road to peace lead to an intensified war against Mother Earth – and the people protecting her?

It’s here where grassroots spiritual leadership on the ground and the Work that Reconnects can help create resilience, renew alliances and inspire creative visions. If the war really comes to an end in Colombia, reconciliation might take generations, unless the Great Mother brings them – and us all – back to our senses, helping us to come home.

2014 – How it all started

In an article called “Sowing fertile soil: deep ecology in Colombia I wrote about how it all got started for us in Colombia, together with young social activist Felipe Medina.

“This work has served as a vessel, a lighthouse and a foundation for my life and most of the work I do today.”

We presented the Work that Reconnects to a broad audience at El Llamado de la Montaña, a national ecological festival, and brought the Work that Reconnects Spiral to life in three different residential workshops. The alliance between Felipe and myself to nourish the seeds that had been planted in the spirit of the Work that Reconnects, has been maturing and deepening since then. “This work has served as a vessel, a lighthouse and a foundation for my life and most of the work I do today,” says Felipe. “I carry it as a blueprint for most of the interventions I do with communities, organizations and with my own family. And I feel it has served as a bridge for the ancestral wisdom of our land embodied in its native peoples, to finds its way into circles and spheres of influence it hadn’t reached before, nurturing the consciousness of our Ecological Self.”

If we don’t come back to our senses, it might take us all to self-destruction and the destruction of one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Decisive for the rooting and strengthening of this work in Colombia is the fact that Francisco de Roux, a longtime friend and well-known Colombian Jesuit and peaceworker, has put his weight behind our efforts. He participated in the first workshop in 2014 and felt that something crucial was happening there: “For many years I’ve been working for peace with social justice in Colombia. Thanks to Helena’s dedication, I was so fortunate to discover the Work that Reconnects and it made me realize that our search for reconciliation between Colombians needed to be sustained by our reconciliation with the Earth. Colombia goes through a deep spiritual crisis. Not religious, but spiritual, because here we don’t have a war between religions, but a crisis between Christians who seem to have lost the meaning of who they are. If we don’t come back to our senses, it might take us all to self-destruction and the destruction of one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. This work has given me, and all the leaders participating, a deeper vision of what Life means, and a renewal of our energy to protect it in all its forms, until peace in this beautiful country of ours will be reality.”

His support to our process came in several ways. He helped us identify and invite strong community leaders for whom and through whom the Work that Reconnects could have the greatest impact in terms of peace building and fostering of conditions for the Great Turning. He found the necessary financial resources, so we could offer leaders these workshops at no cost, thanks to a British Catholic NGO that resonates strongly with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si” and that feels that our approach is a beautiful way of implementing this ecological encyclical. Moreover, he offered the gift of his inspiring presence during the workshops. The dimension of peacebuilding became even more an integral part of the whole effort with Francisco on board.

So in the summer of 2015, the three of us carried out a very special workshop where this synergy between peace construction and the Work that Reconnects revealed deeper dimensions of the range, richness, opportunities and complexities of this work.

“Gaia en el Corazón” – an interethnic gathering in San Agustin

The Cauca region has been one of the fulcrum points for conflict in Colombia. Rich with an immense ecological and cultural diversity, the conflict over this land, its use and its resources has deep historical roots. Immersed within this conflict there are three very interesting groups: Indigenous people (Nasa and Misak tribes mostly), Afrocolombians and campesinos. A fourth party involved is made up of corporations, businessmen and others who often represent the avant-garde of capitalism and industrialization.

The first three groups were interesting to us because although they share similar positions and concerns regarding the use of land and the importance of local autonomy in territorial stewardship, they nonetheless have experienced significant difficulties in joining forces and constructing a unified position that could help them resist foreign and extractive interests.

In this five day workshop, we brought together 15 representatives of these three parties, together with some urban participants, with the intention of revitalizing and strengthening the leadership of each of these communities, and perhaps finding a common leadership that could unite them for the sake of the Earth.

We had the immense privilege of working in the Maloka (ceremonial house) of the Viracocha Foundation, located in San Agustin, a beautiful pre-colonial village in the southern Andes mountains of Colombia (Huila), famous for more than 500 megalithic monuments that were carved there over five thousand years ago by the Indigenous cultures living in the adjacent river valleys of the Magdalena and the Cauca.

I am the river, I am the land

All of the invited leaders feel themselves identified with a river of a territory.

All of the invited leaders feel themselves identified with a river of a territory.  Some have been displaced by the violence from their ancestral lands and work on preserving their memory, culture and dignity; others, like the Nasa people, have been strong and united enough through the centuries to remain and defend it. Threats can come from the presence of (illegal) mining and other megaprojects; spreading coca fields and drug trafficking; and the intimidation or violence from legal or illegal armed actors like the Colombian army, the right wing paramilitary or the FARC or ELN guerrilla (with the FARC now largely demobilizing). This armed presence is often linked to the protection of megaprojects. Many of those present in our circle know they can lose their life for taking a stand for water, land, or their dignity.

Wellsprings of wisdom and strength

Afro leader Pachita, “Sé quién soy”, defending the rights of the communities in our Theatre of the Oppressed

Simply bringing these people from different origins, cosmo-visions and walks of life together is already a success in itself in this divided and still racist country. There is an Afrocolombian delegation from river Tapaje near Buenaventura, representing the association “Sé quién soy” (I know who I am). One of them is Pachita, colourfully dressed as a queen from the woods, who offers us every day the “pearls of the day” in some poetic verses that she invents on the spot and sings out loud, as they used to do in her traditional oral culture. Next to her in the circle is Nasa Elder Alcibiades, spiritual leader and mayor of Toribio (the heartland of the Nasa), who speaks of their emblematic non-violent resistance of the Indigenous Guard who armed only with “their dignity sticks”– with green stripes for the love of the land, and red for the blood that has been shed by the people – have been able to safeguard their territory, displace armed parties and maintain their communities. Since October 2014 the Nasa have declared themselves in a process of “liberación de la Madre Tierra”, a ritual act of recovering and occupying, non-violently, ancestral lands.

Drawing collective “lifemaps” together, as Joanna Macy had suggested, was a powerful way of honoring their ancestors, sharing the wisdom and deep wellsprings of solidarity in their culture – and opening up to the pain of the present times. “What is your relation to the land?” we asked Alcibiades. “We cannot speak of our relation to the land … because we are the land. We are the land made human. They have tried to turn us into persons. But we have chosen to remain natural as part of the Earth,” he answered with the wisdom of generations in his voice.

When Francisco tells about the feelings of superiority towards “negros” and “indios” that also had been cherished in the Catholic church for so many centuries, Luz Eida (with mixed Afro and Nasa origins) breaks into tears… “All these years of feeling ashamed to even be seen!” she says. We admire the strength of two other Afrocolombian women from the northern Cauca region, Clemencia and Rosana, who have walked all the way up to Bogota, to the ministry of Mining, to demand the ending of an illegal mining project on their ancestral lands, declaring “Yo soy un eslabón de la cadena y aca no se rompe! and occupying  the ministry for six days until they were heard by the minister.

And it was so important for all these people defending a territory, to hear about the suffering in a big city like Bogota, about the pain of not feeling identified with a land to love and stand up for — the separateness and feelings of loneliness, emptiness, in places where they tell us the only way to be “someone” is by consuming.

“I am released of all restrictive doctrines! I chose to join forces for the sake of the Earth!”

 After living our common bonds, marveling in our diversity, and sharing our common pain, we had the chance to see the present conflict in a new light. Interethnic tensions between these three parties, fueled by political inequalities and a lingering ghost of an enemy figure hidden in the “other,” created a very complicated social field, wherein it was very difficult to think of a solution that could encompass all of the needs. Nourished by our connection with the Earth, and inspired by concepts of Nonviolent Communication, we undertook a Forum Theater Play.  Shifting from fiction to reality, we landed after four hours in a collective recognition of our common responsibility towards the Earth, and the need to embrace diversity and create alliances for the sake of true autonomous territorial stewardship of the Earth. “I am released of all restrictive doctrines! I choose to join forces for the sake of the Earth!” shouted Alcibiades, at the end of the play.

And Francisco, padre Pacho, opens up hearts and minds, talking about the Mystery of Love (his way of talking about “God”) that has created all of life, that identifies with each and every one of us, with every single living being … and guides us in a ritual called “Bowing to our Enemies,” thanking them because they show us what is most dear to us and what we want to give our lives for. Here the Indigenous people decide to assist respectfully, but not bow.

We are the ancestors

We spend the last morning in one of the 5000 year old archeological parks of San Agustin, a mystical place in a spectacular landscape. We couldn’t have dreamt of a better setting for our ending ceremony, “Ancestors meeting the Future Beings”. For people being so proud of the strength and spirituality of their ancestors, it was like a revelation: “But…WE are the future ANCESTORS! We are links of a chain, heirs of a story that will not be broken” — all singing this in tune with Pachita in a huge celebration while outside it gently rains. Alcibiades, looking up into the sky above the lush green mountains, exclaims: “In our culture, when it rains and the sun shines like this, it means that Earth has received and accepted all of our gifts.”

Inside the archeological park of San Agustin –  The future ancestors…we are!

Please follow this link for more pictures and “pearls” from the workshop in San Agustin.

In an upcoming issue of Deep Times, we will tell about the stimulating ways our Work That Reconnects adventure in Colombia has been evolving since 2016.  For those who cannot wait to read this, here is the full story!


Helena ter Ellen,
a Work That Reconnects facilitator since 2009, is cofounder of the Belgium association Terr’Eveille, and translator of Coming Back to Life into Dutch. She’s trained in international politics, intercultural dialogue and psycho-energetic coaching and feels drawn to sacred activism. With experiences as a peace observer in the Middle East & Colombia, she’s now actively promoting the Work That Reconnects in this South American country, with a clear focus on peace building. She lives in a cohousing project in the heart of Brussels, l’Echappée, and left her EU job recently to dedicate herself to the Great Turning and the creation of resilience in times of collapse.


3 thoughts on “Seeding the Work That Reconnects in Colombia in Times of War and Peace

  1. Hi, I would like to be in contact through email with Helena and Felipe. I am training in WTR and I am starting an ethnographic research project in Cauca Region with Nasa people.
    Looking forward to a reply,
    Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Re-Connecting: Laboratories of Truth and Reconciliation in the womb of Mother Earth |

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