Analysis of the Armed Conflict in Colombia: A Decolonial Approach

By Juliane Zeyen

September 19th, 2021

Current protests in Colombia (since May 2021), which go far beyond the demand for the expulsion of the Tax Reform, are characterized above all by the breadth of interests and movements present, as much as by the diversity of participants and demands. This phenomenon shows that a fundamental change in the power structures in the country is being demanded. In many cases, the request is not simply for inclusion but the reconfiguration of society and the redefinition of democracy and citizenship. The precarious situation against which the Colombian people are rising is further intensified by the armed conflict disturbing the country for more than 60 years.


Decolonial thinking allows us to approach the situation in Colombia through various transdisciplinary concepts and theories that propose a focus on the colonial heritage to explain the current social, political, and economic structures, both nationally and globally. Essential for the analysis of the situation of the armed conflict are the approaches to the structures of power, knowledge, and being, which emerged during the colonial era and which today are a manifestation of the state of coloniality.


Photo of a monument to Admiral Christopher Columbus, who is credited with the discovery of America, in Columbus Park, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, erected in 1887 by the French sculptor Ernesto Gilbert.

Author: Jorge Fernández Salas

"Coloniality refers to a pattern of power that emerged as a result of modern colonialism, but instead of being limited to a formal relationship of power between two peoples or nations, it rather refers to how labor, knowledge, authority, and intersubjective relations are articulated among themselves, through the global capitalist market and the idea of race" (Maldonado-Torres 2007:131).

The statement "There is no modernity without coloniality" (Escobar 2003:61) as a starting point of decolonial thought allows a critical perspective to understand the economic, political, and cultural hegemonies that remain in place to this day. With the onset of so-called modernity, hierarchies of race, "a mental category of modernity" (Quijano 2000:202), served as justification for colonialism and interventions in the name of that modernity. These Eurocentric ideas formed the foundation of racism, influencing the division of labor, identity, and autonomy of people, and are manifested in the state of vulnerability to the armed conflict in which the indigenous and Afro-descendant population in Colombia lives.


In addition, it must be taken into account that the main objective of colonization was the exploitation of natural resources, which was directly linked to structures of domination and racism. To control the capital found in America (silver, gold, etc.), the Europeans imposed a strict division of labor that reflected the oppressed-oppressor relationship based on race. While Indians and Africans/Afro-Colombians worked as slaves, Europeans occupied managerial positions in the administration. The invention of "race" functioned to justify labor division and make it seem natural (Quijano 2002:2004).


Likewise, the control of labor and all areas of life in the colonies allowed the colonizing countries to develop. In contrast, the development of the exploited countries was "conditioned by the pattern of reproduction of capital"(Treacy 2019:16). Today, there is still this division of labor that can be related to geographical spaces and whose inequality "is expressed both in productive specialization and in working conditions, levels of remuneration, and resources and technologies used, etc." (Treacy 2019:15). In short, capitalism as an economic system and as a legacy of the colonial era continues to maintain power structures at the global level and is closely linked to the idea of race.


The roots of the armed conflict in Colombia are complex and diverse. However, they can be linked to two central aspects that emerged during and after colonial times: social inequality and land distribution. During colonial times and under the logic of capitalism, indigenous people were exploited and ousted from their lands. Also, after independence from Spain, economic and social transformations in Colombia were controlled by resource export-oriented companies (Fajardo 2014:6). There was no reward for those, who during the colonial era, lost their lands. Instead, "[...] starting the nineteenth century, land titles were not clearly defined after the royal concessions and capitulations granted in the colonial period" (Machado 2017 in Restrepo Restrepo & Vargas Angel 2018:35). Thus, land became a central aspect when property rights needed to be clarified. The distribution of land and control over territories became an expression of power relations in Colombian society.


Guerillas in armed conflicts, such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia), were initially founded by peasants and as a communist agricultural movement. Their objective and that of other guerillas was increasing access to land for the popular classes. The importance of land distribution to this day can be seen because the first point of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC is called Integral Rural Reform (http://tierraendisputa.com).


The above allows us to summarize in broad terms that the armed conflict in Colombia results from the capitalist social order, which developed under colonialism and consists of the accumulation of property and the domination of minorities. Because of the need to integrate into the capitalist world system, peasants were more and more excluded, while large (foreign) companies took control over production territories.


These two realities, racism and capitalism, form the central axes to understand that the armed conflict did not come out of anywhere but is related to this colonial heritage.

Photo of an arm with the map: Representation of the extension of the planet and its multiculturalism.

Author: Don Ross

The most logical consequence then would be the overcoming of colonial differences through a decolonial transformation. Eurocentric ideas and visions determine the concepts of peace and the conditions under which peace processes develop. Thus, any state of peace that excludes the knowledge and knowledge of Afro-descendants, indigenous, or other historically undervalued groups is a peace imposed under colonial logic. Therefore, the engines for a decolonial transformation are the spheres of education and political institutions at the local and national levels, places where interculturality is lived and transformed.

Through its awareness of its colonial heritage, the ultimate goal is for society to create a multicultural nation that recognizes and benefits from its diversity. The visualization of the existing colonial difference and then the participation of the oppressed side in the institutions that reproduce coloniality to overcome it could mean the road to peace in Colombia.