For those seeking the solitude of nature, the mountains have had an enduring attraction. There is something mystical about the mountains covered in ice and snow and shrouded by clouds that has drawn people through the centuries. The farm we visited, located in the Central Colombian Andes, is in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by hills on all sides, the farm sits in a small valley. The nearest neighboring farm is an hour away by horse and two hours by foot. Yes – you read that correctly. One hour away by horse. There are no roads in this area. Very few people pass by – only tourists trekking the Colombian wilderness in the Los Nevados National Park. The farm spreads over an area of 150 hectares. You can literally walk for hours on end without meeting anyone else. You are one with nature. At night, when the sky is clear, the stars put on a magical show.
Alberro Gonzalez, the owner of the farm, is a simple man. He lives with his wife Gloria and their ten year old son Santiago. They have a humble home with three rooms, two of which have been set aside for tourists. Their kitchen, though small, is seasoned with love and the wood fired stove in the center gives the place a cozy feel. It also doubles as the dining room with the couple of chairs set in one corner and a bench near the stove set against the wall. This is where Gloria does her magic!
Santiago is now old enough to ride a horse. He rides for an hour every day to go to school. The school has a total of 5 children all from the farms in that area and only one teacher. After a few years Santiago will have to move to Pereira, the nearest town, if he wants to continue his studies and get a school certification.
Right in front of their home in the middle of the farm sits a weird looking contraption. I found out later that it was a press to make cheese. Since the farm is so isolated it is very difficult and expensive to transport the milk produced there outside. Gloria uses the milk produced on the farm to make cheese. Every morning Alberro sets off on his horse to milk the cows and comes back with a canister full of fresh milk.
Chicken skitter about on the ground around the whole house. Cows and horses graze nearby. The day I was there, one horse had given birth to a foal. Everyone was in a celebratory mood. The baby horse, only a few hours old, could barely stand. The mother stood nearby looking suspiciously at anything that approached her precious baby!
But this idyllic setting hides a dark history. They refer to it as the Dark Years of Colombia.
I asked our trekking guide, about how long Alberro had had the farm. It had only been a few years he said.
“Where was he before that?”
“That is a sad story….” and he trailed off. I decided not to pursue the topic. Later that day, on our hike, he told me the story.
The Dark Years of Colombia refer to the period when the writ of FARC ran in the mountains. Tourism had dried up. Heavily armed guerrillas had commandeered the tourist lodges in the mountains.
The FARC – Spanish for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia”), is a Marxist guerrilla organization in Colombia. Formed in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Colombia; PCC), the FARC was the largest of Colombia’s rebel groups largely drawn from Colombia’s rural areas. The FARC born out of the rural landless laborers and farm workers supported a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to the poor and opposed the severe inequality of wealth that afflicted Colombia at that time.
Colombia has historically been a country that suffered from severe income inequality as large land areas were owned by a small elite. The Colombian government had sold off vast areas to private owners in the past to pay off its debts. In the 1950s, inspired by the Cuban revolution, elements of the communist party had organized an agricultural commune in the central Tolima province. This commune was looked upon as a threat by the government and the land owners and the army was sent in to disband it. These initial clashes were the trigger for an all-out war.
To most people, the guerrilla movement began in 1964 but the truth is that political violence predates the FARC. During the 1940s and 1950s, Colombia was racked by the “La Violencia” civil war. During that time, the communists developed links with many guerrilla groups. These groups affiliated to the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) evolved into the FARC later.
“It is the same war that has been going on for close to a hundred years! Only the banners of the opposing parties have changed” were the words of our tour guide.
Even if the origins of FARC were rooted in noble egalitarian ideas, the movement soon degenerated. Analysts believed FARC to be one of the most well financed militant groups worldwide with their income mostly coming from drug running or levying taxes on others in the narcotics business. Many of their victims were civilians including children. Kidnapping for ransom became a staple of their operations. The cure (FARC) turned out to be worse than the disease (inequality) it set out to cure!!
It was the year 1994. Our host Alberro was a 7 year old boy. His father ran a farm in the mountains of the Central Colombian Andes. Alberro and family were happy with whatever little they had. They loved the farm life. But their happiness was not to last.
War was in the air. The Colombian army and the FARC were playing a game of cat and mouse up in the mountains. Innocent bystanders such as Alberro’s family paid a heavy price. You could not remain neutral.
“If you are not with us you are with them!”
One fine afternoon a group of heavily armed guerrillas descended from the surrounding moutains to their farm. Sensing danger Alberro and his brother Oscar hid nearby. Alberro’s father met the guerrillas as they arrived. The guerrillas suspected Alberro’s family of being army informants. They had been some clashes in the nearby areas recently and the guerrillas had suffered losses. They wanted revenge.
Alberro’s father tried to explain calmly that they were simple farmers and had nothing to do with the army. But the guerrillas were in no mood to listen.
As they hid, Alberro and Oscar heard loud voices followed by gun shots. They ran for their lives. The nearest town, Pereira, is a two-day hike by foot. During the night the temperatures drop below freezing. In that deserted landscape, it is easy even for experienced hikers to lose their way. The Paramos at that altitude have high winds and very few trees. Even the few trees that are there are more like shrubs. In other words there is nowhere to hide from the elements! If it starts raining, which is the case 300 days in a typical year, the temperatures can drop dramatically even during the day. I cannot even begin to imagine how those two young boys, aged 7 and 10, managed to find their way to Pareira. But they did.
They were taken in by relatives and started their new life in Pareira. Given the circumstances, Alberro had to start working in his early teens, doing odd jobs in the city to support himself. The same was the case with Oscar.
As we stood in the early morning sun to have our souvenir photos taken with the farm in the background I reflected that things had turned out well for Alberro eventually. He met Gloria and got married sometime along the way. It was very difficult for me to visualize these lush serene mountains overrun by fighters in camouflage. Ten years ago, there were no civilians in these mountains, I was told. These were the refuge of the guerrillas where the army dare not venture. It was only about five years ago that the farms were rehabilitated and the tourists only started coming in then.
Our tour guide narrated his personal experience of how he had to abandon his beloved mountains and head to Italy where he worked as a plumber for five years and then went to Denmark to work as a welder for another five years before coming back to Colombia. I can only imagine his agony of being uprooted.
“Have you heard of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?”, I asked our guide once. He hadn’t. But when I described Gurudev briefly, he remembered immediately. “I remember seeing him on TV. The President had invited him.” I proudly told him “He is my boss”.
By the year 2010 – 2015, everyone was getting tired of the war but didn’t quite know how to go about accomplishing peace. FARC had been negotiating peace terms with the government since 2012 to bring an end to the conflict, responsible for more than 2,00,000 deaths and uprooted more than six million people.President Santos of Colombia was actively negotiating but there were roadblocks and a severe lack of trust between the parties.
On his three-day-visit to Cuba in June 2015, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had several rounds of discussions with leaders of the FARC in an exercise of confidence-building for the peace process in Columbia, which faced many hurdles in the past three years. He met President Santos before travelling to Cuba. FARC requested Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to participate actively in the peace process. Speaking in Havana on June 28th 2015, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said, “In this conflict, everyone should be considered as victims. And inside every culprit, there is a victim crying for help.”
On July 11, 2015, the Colombian Government and FARC had reached a de-escalating agreement. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar asked the Colombian government to give time for the ceasefire to take hold. “This is because some of the guerrillas are unreachable in the jungle, and it will take a couple of weeks for them to realize that a ceasefire has been declared and that the FARC leadership is now pursuing non-violent and peaceful means,” Christoph Glaser, spokesman for the Art of Living Foundation had said in a statement.
Further, in August, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar facilitated a meeting between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and a peace delegation of FARC. This was to iron out the thorny issues of justice for the insurgency era violence in the context of a peace agreement.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was conferred with Colombia’s highest civilian award in June 2015 itself. “I promise I will do all that is in my capacity to bring peace to all in the conflict in Colombia,” the spiritual leader, had said while receiving the honour. Re-affirming his commitment to a violence-free and stress-free world, Sri Sri had dedicated the award to those who are working for non-violence.
“When the conflict is between justice and peace it is a humongous task to reconcile the two. Only a spiritual dimension can ease the situation” – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
“Your commitment in Colombia for more than eight years compels us to recognize your achievements in peace matters in our overwhelmed nation, and to thank you for the undeniable presence of The Art of Living in our country,” Mr Saleme (President of the House of Representatives, Congress of Colombia)
It is in no small measure to the efforts of the Art of Living and Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar that the mountains of Colombia now bask in peace as cows and horses graze and the people go back to welcoming tourists and making cheese.
(All names in the story have been changed for privacy)
Dr Rajesh Kumar
Art of Living Happiness teacher
BTech (IIT Kharagpur), PhD (USA)