Sowing fertile soil: deep ecology in Colombia

Colombia, which has now lived through 50 years of war, has a very special place in my heart. My story begins in 2002, when I joined the Peace Brigades. For a year, I worked with an Afro-Colombian peace community in Cacarica, in Chocó province. This unforgettable experience would bring me face to face with the real meaning of the words courage and determination. My admiration for the immense resilience displayed by communities and activists in this country only deepened on each of my frequent visits over the following years. So, it was quite natural that ever since I came across the Work that Reconnects (WTR) developed by Joanna Macy, I had dreamed of offering it one day in Colombia. The question was: how to get started?

A peace process with the FARC guerrillas has been underway in Havana since 2012, and there are real hopes that this time an agreement will be reached. The path towards justice and reconciliation will however be long, since the country has lived through indescribable horrors – continuing violence by all the armed factions (paramilitaries, army and guerrillas), accompanied by forced displacement of populations and environmental destruction, largely due to mushrooming mega-projects.

"We don't give birth to children to see them go to war"    
  Ruta Pacífica - Toribío, Cauca, 2005

things fall into place: a co-facilitator appears on the horizon

My second truly inspiring meeting with Joanna Macy in July 2013 at Hardwick (GB) awake in me the confidence and energy I need to make this dream a reality. As I prepare to strike out alone (without my two regular co-facilitators from our association Terr'Eveille, Corinne and Gauthier), things begin to fall into place ideally: a young Colombian, deeply committed to peace, Felipe Medina, contacts Joanna and invites her to come and teach the Work that Reconnects in Colombia.

As Joanna is aware of my plans, she suggests that Felipe should get in touch with me. Contact iss quickly made and straight away we realise we nourish the same intention and we both wish to invite war victims and also activists having few resources. The list of potential participants is long. But where could we find the money? Once again, life arranges matters marvellously: a Belgian sister-association, Biloba, great supporter of the WTR-methodology, offers to support our mission – allowing us to provide some twenty grants. And last but definitely not least: Felipe is able to provide an eco-space built by his family that is ideal for these workshops: La Minga at Choachi, just two hours – and 99 hairpin bends – from Bogotá.

Felipe is the founder of Origen Circular, a movement that seeks to help build an all-embracing culture of peace in Colombia, starting by reaching out to young people affected by the war. During a visit to California, he discovered the powerful and innovative WTR method, and became convinced that it could be of huge use not only in fostering reconciliation between Colombians, but also between them and the Earth.

Following five months of preparation between Brussels and Bogotá (viva skype!), the adventure can at last begin. I arrive in Colombia in mid-December 2013.

"El Llamado de la Montaña"

With the Christmas festivities in full swing, we get started with a successful mini-workshop at the Bogotá 'HUB'. This is followed by an ecovillages festival in early January, El Llamado de la Montaña ("The Call of the Mountain") to which I am invited as a guest speaker. The festival provides a yearly meeting place to foster the transition towards a new humanity. I am struck by the sheer creativity and intelligence it generates. Take a look at this joyful Colombian prayer for freedom and the diversity of native seeds (under serious threat from the free trade treaties with the United States and with the EU).

El Llamado de la Montaña proves to be an ideal occasion to present the WTR spiral to a broad audience: 300 people from very different communities, including indigenous people. The vision of deep ecology underpinning the Work that Reconnects resonates strongly with the cosmovision of the First Peoples, from which in fact its inspiration partly springs. Thanks to the two mini-workshops we run at the festival, we manage to find the last participants we need to fill the three four-day workshops planned by Felipe and myself. And so, over the next three weeks, we bring the spiral to life in three different circles, two in Choachi and one in Barichara, nine hours from Bogotá.

first circle: the gold mine of diversity

Each circle has its own distinct character. Our first workshop "The Whisper of the Frailejon" welcomes five displaced Afro-Colombian women, leaders in their poor neighbourhoods of Bogotá, an eco-rapper, a couple of  permaculturalists, a Jesuit priest, an actor, a business coach, three children ... to mention just a few. In other words, a great mix and a great challenge!

The presence of the Afro-Colombian women, who had grown up while working in the makeshift gold mine at Buenaventura and had been displaced by violence six or seven times, is a real gift. They are determined to forgive and to pick up the pieces of their lives with their typical and contagious strength and joy.

This first circle acts as real acupuncture point for this land of Colombia, so beautiful but so wounded. A space is opened up where people from the privileged classes can meet others from neighbourhoods that have been completely abandoned by the state, where poverty and violence are masters … How beautiful it was watching Fidelina and Daira putting on their party dress! Two afrocolombian women who were displaced by the paramilitary from their native lands. Heirs of a tradition rich with wisdom, magic and folklore, especially Fidelina had hidden the expression of her culturally robust elder voice - perhaps locked within a silent and wounded memory of her relationship to her land. After a Truth Mandala where a vault of pain and anguish was opened from stories of these two women, and was delivered in compassion to the Earth, Fidelina and Daira chose to put on their party dress and share with us music and stories from their land as we had never heard before. What a blessing to discover our shared love for life, to sing out our hopes or anger around the evening bonfire in the form of a rap or a bullerengue. Everyone seems to realise the incredible wealth to be found in the multicultural diversity of their country – and the power of healing at the heart of this rainbow.

For some, the Truth Mandala – a key WTR ritual – enables them to express their suffering in complete trust for the first time. The need for people to share what is in their hearts is obvious in this tortured country. All too often, those who have suffered from the war and its consequences (especially in the countryside) stay silent for fear of reprisals: others, further away from the conflict, don't speak about it, as if they were anaesthetised from the cruel realities of their own country.

But the Work that Reconnects does not just create spaces in which to give voice to our suffering and our truths – the workshops also provide an opportunity to nourish and stimulate our dreams for the Earth, for Colombia.

Hamid Nativo (32), a big-hearted activist rapper, succeeded in healing himself of cancer through alternative medicine. He is working to mobilise his neighbourhood, San Cristóbal, in Bogotá's poor south, to clean up and protect the River Fucha that flows through it but is highly polluted and threatened by building schemes. Hamid is harnessing the power of his songs and his obvious leadership qualities now to heal our “greater body”, our Earth.

In another run-down, violent district, Ciudad Bolívar, young girls prostitute themselves for a pittance, in the grip of poverty and the omnipresent violence. Fidelina, a bright-eyed Afro-Colombian grandmother, is heart-broken at this situation. Her people have already lost so much in this war – they mustn't have their dignity taken away too. She is thinking of setting up a community restaurant with her daughters. It could provide them with an income, and more importantly, could become a refuge, a cultural laboratory where troubled young people could learn theatre or music kills. On the menu: the Pacific coast cooking they miss so much, using produce grown in the urban vegetable gardens that are to be set up in Ciudad Bolivar. The energy is there – all that is needed now is a place and the materials to build it. In the circle, ideas for fund-raising come thick and fast and creative alliances are rapidly forged. The feeling of interdependence, the systemic view that is so crucial to the Work that Reconnects, is becoming real: we are all in the same boat.

In the meantime, my co-facilitator Felipe enters into the spirit of the Work that Reconnects in an amazingly natural and profound way. Our intuitive understanding of each other is taking shape. For the next circles, we think about some changes to suit the Colombian temperament better: so, welcome to improvisational theatre, to dance – it has to be lively!


second circle: eternal sentinels of Mother Earth

The magic of the second circle "The hummingbird inside" is largely generated by the presence of two representatives of the Indigenous People: Fernando, from the Nasa people of Cauca, well-known for the peaceful resistance put up by their guardia indígena, and Gloria, a Uitoto woman from Amazonia. Sharing so much with people who are defending Mother Earth with such dignity and resolution is a real privilege. And they in turn are moved, hearing "whites" – descendants of the colonists – voice their love of and suffering for the land, ranging from the activists of the Pachamama Alliance in Colombia to the biologists caring for butterflies in order to safeguard diversity.

The tears shed in the course of the Truth Mandala have a sacred quality – here, our personal issues are clearly transcended. We hold our breath when Fernando, standing in the centre of the mandala with the stick of anger in his hands, once again pledges that the Nasa will defend Mother Earth (Sa'th Tama Kiwe) even if they would have to sacrifice their lives. These were not empty wordson average, the Nasa lose one of their people every three days in the course of their non-violent resistance. With him, we chant: "Por la tierra! Hasta cuando? Hasta siempre!"

The ritual enables several people in the circle to open up, overcome their powerlessness and find where their path is leading … hearing Gaia cry out inside us, and to hear her dream within us … and what dreams she has in Colombia! I am fascinated to discover that even the youngest members of the workshop are already nurturing visionary projects and are passionately committed.

For example, there is Mauricio, 22 and on a path of self-learning: permaculture, bioconstruction, yoga, meditation, martial arts and music amongst others. He has inherited some land not far from Bogotá. He wants to use it for agroecology, and to set up a learning centre where the wisdom of the East and also of the indigenous people of Colombia can be passed on, in keeping with their tradition. The early morning meditation sessions he gives shows him to be a “light warrior” who is already highly aware and solidly-rooted.

And then Daniel, who arrived completely downcast, his expression weary. As the reconnection begins to work in him, he stands up another person, emerging from his vulnerability, radiant and powerful. He promises himself to become a living example of the values he holds dear, most importantly by changing his habits and his way of consuming. He undertakes to set up sharing circles with his friends in order to 'mambear', to seek the words of truth.

Monica is working with the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia's Amazonia, where whole communities are crushed by the steamroller of capitalism and quickly disintegrate. She is deeply touched by the isolation of some traditional medicine-men who are likely to die without being able to pass on their knowledge. She wants to create 'lifelines' so that indigenous youth and disoriented youth from the cities can meet and take up this life-bearing wisdom. 

We feel that between all these projects, links are just waiting to be made! The two eagles hovering about the garden on the last day lend a certain majesty to the workshop ...

After the intensive workshops held up in the mountains, refreshed by the nearby waterfalls, it is time to say goodbye to the warm-hearted La Minga team. A nine-hour journey awaits us to our last workshop, to the north-east close to Barichara, one of Colombia's most beautiful colonial-era villages.


third circle: reconnecting with the source

We are met at Barichara by Gabriela and her family in the spacious Corasoma centre, which has just re-opened its doors. A backdrop of mountains, parched earth. The element of fire reigns here! Part of the Origen Circular team – the peace movement launched by Felipe – is participating in this workshop, called "Gaia in our heart". This will be an opportunity for them to really experience the inner movement of the Work and think about how to apply this methodology in peace-building scenarios.

When they presented Origen Circular in 2013, the team summed it up in these terms: A system for reconciliation, a camp for peace - in Colombia. A living method for regrowing trust. For children and young people who have suffered from war. They have inherited 183 years of uninterrupted violence, displacement and the destruction of families and communities. A key social acupuncture point on a global scale. To heal the disease of war.

28 days – a lunar cycle. Cooking, sowing, building, creating, singing, healing, playing, talking and forgiving together. Taking part in the never-ending construction of a human, ecologically responsible place. Responsible for looking after our water, producing healthy food, building our houses, for our energy resources and the way we relate to each other.

All those joining the circle, including many young people, are already active catalysts for the 'Great Turning': their level of awareness and knowledge is impressive. I am deeply moved by their selfless commitment and the incredible creativity they bring to bear, whether to ecological innovation, music that reconnects with the earth, caring for the body, recycling plastics into fancy bags, defending native seeds, conscious craft activity, psychosocial support for communities or launching the first transition initiative in Villa de Leyva...

The Mandala has a surprise in store for Felipe and myself this time: while most people have a deeply liberating experience by sharing their pain, especially the pain arising from the war, some others can not connect with their emotions. One woman is indeed 'upset' by what we were doing: "We've all suffered in our lives at one time or another, but why not just go forward, what's the point of wallowing in pain?" An absolutely fair question here, where so much still needs to be rebuilt … but can a country that has experienced almost fifty years of war just turn the page without first reading it?

A difficult moment. After closing the Mandala, we thank each and every one for speaking their truth, on behalf of the past but also future generations, on behalf of Gaia, who was also very 'present' during the workshop. Felipe and I decide to suggest role-playing in the afternoon: encounters between 'perpetrators' and 'victims' of the war in Colombia. We embarked on this difficult exercise of listening and compassion under a tree which emanates great gentleness.

A real awareness seems to take root during the evening “harvesting circle”. It is as if the soft fire of compassion has burned encrusted layers of fear and apathy, and we are standing naked in a circle, reflecting to one another and honoring in our middle, our true nature. I speak of all my pilgrimages across Colombia, about the 'law of silence' I had so often encountered: "A boca que no abre, tira no entra" (a mouth kept shut doesn't take a bullet). This silence is quite understandable, as the Colombian state offers no safety to victims, and impunity is almost total. But we believe that 'keeping quiet' will not help repair Colombia's torn social fabric. That is why we are so keen to provide a space in which Colombians can speak out, and rebuild trust between each other. Perhaps when everyone seems so shut into their own stories, their anger and their pain, it sometimes takes 'midwives' to come in from elsewhere.

I also bring the words of Joanna Macy to the circle: the Work that Reconnects helps us to create a "rough weather network", a resilient solidarity network that we can rely on when the storm breaks. We are convinced that this work has even more meaning in countries like Colombia and others where armed conflicts have devastated the landscape, both external and internal: the aim is both to prepare for the uncertain future we all face on our vulnerated Earth, and at the same time to heal the wounds of war, visible and invisible – wounds on which this Work can shed light and begin to heal.

Felipe then speaks about the risk represented by apathy, the deadening of feeling, as one of the Colombian diseases from which he himself had suffered and which he wanted at all costs to transform. He is only 24 years old, but embodies an impressive degree of wisdom and leadership, the fruit of his self-learning through journeys, encounters, books – and his deep communion with 'Gaia'.

To close this music-filled workshop, we sing around a spring that Gabriela had just discovered – a pure gift!

Listening to the deep and moving feelings shared in the closing circle, I also realise how much this Work reconnects us to our own essence and brings us back to authentic relations… and I send a thought of huge gratitude to Joanna for so generously bringing the Work thta Reconnects into the world.

Felipe later expresses his feelings about the whole experience: By the end of the third workshop I felt a deeply embodied sense of a poem that had come through the exercise of writing to myself as Gaia: “ Love yourself as I love you, and you will know the Divine on earth and see her and him in all things; you will know what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it; See yourself as I see you and you will enjoy the clarity of spring water; Care for yourself as I care for you, and around your steps abundance will flourish; Sing to yourself as I sing to you and you will never fear solitude; Love yourself as I love you, and you will recognize the true shape and size of your heart – as big and wide as the planet.” I felt, almost a plea, from Gaia to the human heart to open to her unconditional love. I felt, if only this could be recognized and actively integrated into our culture, all of our misunderstandings, all our struggling, all our wars and made belief scarcity could be cleansed away. Only love reveals truth – I felt her saying--‐ and “only truth will make us free”.

* * *

Under a mango tree, Felipe and I seal an alliance: our shared adventure is evidently only just beginning! I come back to my life in Belgium my heart filled with joy ... the seeds of the Work that Reconnects have been well sown in the thirsty yet fertile soil of the land I love.

    Felipe Medina (Orígen Circular) & Helena ter Ellen (Terr'Eveille)