By Dr Alexander Cárdenas, PhD
If properly managed and articulated, sport could make a modest, yet tangible contribution to Colombia’s post-conflict era.
Colombia has experienced the longest-running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere. Extending for fifty years, the confrontation between government forces, guerillas and paramilitaries has caused a profound fragmentation of society and a devastating loss of human life. In 2012 a series of exploratory talks between the government of president Santos and the FARC guerilla began in Cuba with the aim to find a political solution to the armed conflict. With Norway and Cuba as guarantors, and a number of governments supporting the talks, this has been the first serious attempt in a decade to bring the two major actors of the conflict to the negotiating table.
Key Facts at August 2015
- The National Center for Historical Memory indicates that between 1958 and 2010, 220,000 people have been killed in the Colombian conflict (with 81 percent being civilian casualties).
- 5,7 million have been displaced.
- 900,000 have been assassinated.
- 147,000 have been victims of forced disappearance.
- Because of the internal conflict and rural violence, Colombia is home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world.
- A surveyed conducted during the 2014 Brazil World Cup and featured on the New York Times online edition set out to explore the perception of football fans in nineteen countries. In relation to Colombia, the study found that 94 percent of Colombians were interested in football, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed.
- 94% percent of Colombians believe football is important or very important for the nation.
- During 1949 and 1954, a period known as El Dorado, Colombia’s football league was the strongest and best-paid in the world.
- Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is home to the largest bicycle network (ciclovía) in the world.
- Colombia has a strong sport-for-development tradition which began more than two decades ago.
Peace-building and sport in Colombia
Efforts at fostering peace are not restricted to finding a political solution to the hostilities but a peace movement largely associated with civil society seeks the mobilisation of all sectors of Colombian society to act in favour of peace through a variety of efforts and initiatives.
Increasingly, cultural and artistic expressions and notably sport, have been acknowledged by political leaders, international organisations and civil society as powerful allies to advancing peace-building in this nation.
Interest in exploring the role of sport as a tool for peace within the particular conflict context of Colombia is gaining momentum. Evidence of this is provided by the increase in the number of sport-based programmes and interventions that use sport as a tool to promote peace in communities affected by violence and conflict, as well as by an upsurge in newspaper and magazine reports, TV and radio shows, seminars and forums informing the public on the sport for development and peace (SDP) phenomenon and showcasing the progress made by organisations operating in this field.
There are a variety of ways in which sport has made a contribution to building peace in this nation afflicted by five decades of violence and war. Sport-based initiatives promoted by NGOs (e.g. Colombianitos, Tiempo de Juego, Fútbol Con Corazón, Goles por la Paz), governmental programs (e.g. Golombiao, Gestores del Deporte) and the international community (notably UNDP, UNICEF, German International Cooperation Agency, Inter-American Development Bank, Peace and Sport) have all positively impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth across Colombia, while at the same time, raising awareness of the potential of sport as a vehicle to foster the values that are generally associated with peace such as non-violence, open dialogue, understanding and respect.
The enthusiasm and expectation that sport generates as a social cohesion tool must be coupled with a pragmatic understanding of the advantages and limitations of sport as a promoter of positive change within Colombia’s conflict dynamics, and even more so – since a peace deal can be reached as early as this year – within a potential post-conflict scenario.
Post-conflict and sport
There are critical issues that need to be addressed in order to take advantage of the opportunities that sport may offer in building a post-conflict nation.
Since sport is not a holistic peace-building and development tool, it is advised that SDP interventions and programmes should be embedded and operate within greater regional and national peace and development objectives and in conjunction with non-sport-based programmes.
The momentum that sport generates in Colombia as a peace tool needs to be sustained with substantive political reform. This may entail not only developing specific public policy on sport within the post-conflict context, but in addition, current programmes and interventions must be redesigned to meet the challenges that the post-conflict phase may pose.
Of particular interest is examining how sport can assist in reintegrating combatants back to civilian life and in providing psychosocial recovery and creating economic opportunities for victims of war.
A recent study conducted by the author found that SDP officials – including trainers and coaches – perceived themselves as peacemakers or peace facilitators.
Given this, officials and trainers operating with NGOs may enhance their peace-making skills by receiving formal instruction from academic institutions and practitioners whose work gravitate around areas such as peace-building and conflict resolution.
Collaboration between academic institutions (in training personnel and assisting foundations in designing, implementing and evaluating SDP programs) and NGOs operating in this field is yet to happen and is strongly recommended. Moreover, academic institutions can critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations offered by sport as a peace tool with the aim of improving sport-based interventions.
Finally, as the international community turns its eyes and resources on Colombia and its post-conflict era, material resources and technical assistance can be leveraged in order to support post-conflict SDP initiatives via international cooperation schemes.
Sport will not put an end to Colombia’s five-decade war but it can make a modest and tangible contribution to building (and ideally, sustaining) peace in this nation.
A thorough analysis of the advantages and limitations of sport as a viable peace tool is necessary. It is also paramount to successfully mobilize the diverse stakeholders involved in the SDP sector and develop clear policy on the social role of sport with a focus on Colombia’s post-conflict phase.