A US-Colombia University Collaboration Launches the Colombia: Past, Present, and Futures Initiative

By Amparo Hoffman-Pinilla & Sonia Ospina, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

During the 2020 Spring semester three Colombian academics delivered presentations about their research through a Faculty Working Group Series that is part of the Colombia: Past, Present, and Futures initiative. This is a collaboration between scholars from NYU and Universidad del Rosario (URosario) in Colombia, which brings together NYU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) and the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, in partnership with URosario’s Academic Vice-Provost Office, and the Peace, Conflict and Peace Research Center (Centro de Estudios en Conflictos y Paz). 

The goal of this collaboration is to raise awareness, deepen understanding and foster discussion among professors, students and community members interested in current challenges and opportunities affecting the peace process, democratic governance and sustainable development in Colombia.  The Initiative capitalized on the presence of a critical mass of professors from URosario in NYC during the Spring semester: Juan Vargas, Professor of Economics and Visiting Professor at NYU’s Political Science Department during the 2019-2020 academic year; Angela Santamaría, Professor of URosario’s Conflict and Peace Research Center (Centro de Estudios en Conflictos y Paz) and Visiting Scholar at NYU/Wagner during the Spring of 2020; and Bastien Bosa, Professor of Anthropology and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University during the Spring of 2020.

Professor Juan Vargas opened the Faculty Working Group series on February 19th with the talk The Unintended Consequences of Colombia’s Peace Agreement (livestreamed video available here). This drew from his recent research about the outcomes of Colombia’s peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrilla. Professor Vargas shared research findings suggesting that the permanent ceasefire declared by the FARC in the midst of peace negotiations changed the balance of power in the Colombian territory, especially when comparing areas formerly controlled by FARC to other areas. 

Vargas argued that peace agreements must be complemented with efforts to build state capacity and bring institutional presence to the territory in order to avoid unintended consequences. Vargas discussed the specific effect of the permanent ceasefire on deforestation, illegal crops and civilian victimization.  An engaged audience of more than 60 people attended the event and formulated interesting questions and comments. A reception after the talk allowed people to network and continue the conversation.

Professor Angela Santamaría was the second guest in the series. Her session, Knowledge Production as a Peacebuilding tool: Doing Intercultural Action and Participatory Research with Indigenous Women in the times of Covid 19, was organized as a zoom event on April 22, 2020. It included the participation of special guests from Indigenous communities, and brought together an international audience of more than 90 persons from Colombia, the USA, Spain, Ecuador and Peru. 

Professor Santamaria discussed her participatory research in the indigenous lands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Chorrera in the Amazon, founded upon arts-based and female indigenous knowledge as crucial tools for peace building. Her research approach aims to strengthen indigenous organizations, adopting an intersectional approach with dialogue among various forms of knowledge. In this spirit, she invited a selected group of indigenous women leaders to share current community needs as a result of the covid-19 crisis. New York based academics and artists were also invited to explore how to build international solidarities in this critical time. Santamaría encouraged special guests to discuss expectations of indigenous communities about the university’s commitment and support during crisis such as COVID 19. The group also discussed the potential for collaboration among Colombian indigenous organizations and NYC artists and students. 

The last presentation of the series, on May 1st, was a zoom event with Professor Bastien Bosa.  His talk, The Stolen Children from the Sierra Nevada- Colombia as Settler colonial Project, was based on his research on the historical anthropology of colonialism and race relations. The findings emerged from archival research combined with a form of collaborative ethnography involving the local indigenous community.  More than 60 participants from the US and Colombia, including indigenous leaders from several communities in Colombia attended the zoom event.

Professor Bosa stated that as in other nations like Canada, Australia, and the US, thousands of Colombian indigenous children were abducted and separated from their families during the 20th century, in the name of a State policy carried out by missionaries of various nationalities. These political and religious authorities considered that separating children from their parents was the best way to “civilize” and “evangelize” indigenous peoples.  In the case of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a group of Spanish Capuchin missionaries built an “Orphanage” in 1917 for Arhuaco children in San Sebastián de Rábago (today Nabusímake), with the financial and logistical support of the Colombian government, and acting on its behalf. 

Bosa argued that the processes of colonization in Latin America can not refer only to the Spanish Conquest and the so-called “colonial” era, as it also includes the indigenous experience from attempts to colonize their territories and evangelize their minds, which continued long after the departure of the Spaniards and into the late 20th century. He argued that acknowledging this violent and traumatic republican process of colonization is not only relevant for those interested in studying the past of Colombia, but also for those who wish to understand its present: it will be difficult to build a long-lasting peace process if the specific forms of violence that have affected ethnic communities are not recognized. 

The Faculty Working Group spring series organized under the Colombia, Past, Present and Future initiative proved to be very successful. The audience expressed the value and need to have this kind of inter-American conversations and reflections, with participation from professors, students, community members, leaders and others interested in the Colombian post conflict period and its incidence on vulnerable populations.  New talks are being organized for the 2020-21 academic year, with presentations from professors from both universities, including Professor Sonia Ospina, from the Wagner school of Public Service at NYU and Professor Arlene B. Tickner, from the Faculty of International, Political and Urban Studies at URosario. Announcements and “Save the dates” will go out early in the Fall semester.

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