The “Peace Laboratories” (Laboratorios de Paz) - a joint initiative of the European Commission and the Colombian Government with the objective of promoting the collective construction of suitable conditions for achieving sustainable peace in Colombia  - offered an interesting insight into innovative ways of peace and community building. They showed that in various significant peacebuilding experiences inside conflict zones, the school would establish itself as a 'neutral territory', respected by armed groups and providing - in many cases - the only possible entry point for targeted actions related to the promotion of a culture of peace and democracy, as well as community-building and social mobilization. FEN

This very experience was witnessed by Fundación Escuela Nueva during one of its recent educational projects in the municipality of La Macarena in the Department of Meta, Colombia.  La Macarena had been part of the so-called 'Distension Zone' set up in 1998 by the government of President Pastrana to facilitate negotiations for a peace process with FARC guerillas. This involved the territory coming under the full command of the guerilla group with an almost total absence of the Colombian state. After the zone was revoked in 2002, the regular presence of different illegal armed groups, as well as fights between the guerrillas, paramilitary groups and the public armed forces, became widespread. To regain territorial control and eradicate the illicit crops that had thrived during the dominance of the FARC, in 2007, the government of President Uribe implemented the 'Comprehensive Consolidation Plan for La Macarena'. 

In this area with a continuously high level of conflict, Fundación Escuela Nueva implemented an educational project in 2008–2009 to improve the coverage, quality, equity and efficiency of basic elementary education. Priority was given to strengthening student governments - an Escuela Nueva pedagogical strategy that succeeds in empowering students in their self-esteem, leadership and participatory competencies. The same concept was adapted for adults to build 'parent schools' and 'parent governments' which strengthened social ties within the community. These meetings with families also made it possible to work on the construction and promotion of human values and to improve the conditions for peaceful coexistence both inside the families and the community as a whole. 

Using the Escuela Nueva model, the schools facilitated greater access to the community. Students shared their learning experiences with their families in their everyday lives, which strongly encouraged motivation and involvement in community issues on the part of their parents. Seeing their children get organized and participating in student governments made them change perspectives. Before Escuela Nueva’s involvement the very notion of 'government' had been taboo due to the lasting control that the guerillas had exercised in the region. However, inspired by the example of their own children, community members organized themselves in parental governments to contribute once more to the common good of the village. 

The testimonies of some of the community members show the success of this approach. “I have never seen the parents so highly motivated and willing to participate at this school. That makes you think that this school does good things and that we have to work more hand in hand with the teachers,” was the observation of the president of the local Community Action Council of Caño Blanco Village in Puerto Rico. A father added: “We need an Escuela Nueva for us parents because we do not know how to listen to and respect one another.” 


A similar example of successful community-building can be seen in another project in the municipalities of Barbosa and Barichara (Department of Santander), which were facing the risk of social tensions due to a scarcity of natural resources, particularly drastic water shortages. Based on its participatory methodology, Fundación Escuela Nueva set up an educational project with an environmental focus, with the main objective of consolidating a series of smaller environmental projects in Escuela Nueva demonstration schools that would encourage behavioral changes, strengthen human values and promote positive, equitable attitudes towards a rational use of water by children, teachers and the community. 

In a collaborative effort with the communities, several wells were recovered and hundreds of trees planted, increasing the water resources available and easing tensions that had previously prevailed. The great success of the project caused 20 schools to take an interest in implementing the Escuela Nueva model, and 5 other municipalities in the region asked to be linked to the project. 

The fact that children were significant promoters of behavior and attitude change - especially within the family - was one of the main lessons and conclusions of the project. It was confirmed that the Escuela Nueva pedagogical model not only improves the quality of education for children and teenagers, but that it is also highly suitable for applying to situations where there is a need to find community solutions to fundamental problems such as water shortages. 

In the light of these successful experiences, Fundación Escuela Nueva seeks to develop new projects which - through the implementation of the Escuela Nueva pedagogical model - reach out to the larger communities and contribute to the generation of a 'culture of peace'. The current framework of the 'Victim’s Law', and especially its provision about the effective participation of affected communities, is of particular interest to FEN, and is therefore considered as a preferred field of potential application. Through its participatory and inclusive methodology, the Escuela Nueva model develops a powerful process which assures ownership by the community and contributes to the empowerment of its members, which would be an important asset in the promotion of effective participation by communities with a history of conflict or current zones in Colombia with a large number of victims and/or demobilized combatants. This intervention would contribute to creating conditions for reconciliation, an explicit objective of the Law of Victims and Land Restitution. 

We therefore invite interested organizations and institutions to contact us to investigate potential forms of cooperation in the design of common projects that seek to foster peace and community building in conflict zones through the implementation of innovative pedagogical strategies that - stemming from the school - reach out to the whole community and contribute to their collective empowerment. 

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(Opinions voiced in this section do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal).