Puente on Courtheyn, 'Community of Peace: Performing Geographies of Ecological Dignity in Colombia'

Christopher Courtheyn
Javier Puente

Christopher Courtheyn. Community of Peace: Performing Geographies of Ecological Dignity in Colombia. Pitt Latin American Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. 304 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4714-1

Reviewed by Javier Puente (Smith College) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57910

The pursuit of peace in Latin America, a region riddled by Cold War and other forms of conflict, has left behind a trace of narratives often centered on the role of the state either as a perpetrator of violence or as a restorer of foundational balances. Pivotal studies about human rights abuses and truth commissions have come to structure a fairly binary understanding of conflict and post-conflict societies. In most of these accounts, civil society has been confined to specific roles that emphasize victimhood and the search for justice, always within the institutional contours of the state. In the case of Colombia, where the modern state was formed out of partisan violence, little attention has been paid to the political imagination of civil society and grassroots movements. Community of Peace, Christopher Courtheyn’s study of San José de Apartadó, sheds light on the generative processes that civil society has engendered despite decades of all forms of obliteration.

San José de Apartadó, located in the Gulf of Urabá, a major epicenter of violence in the country, first entered the landscape of Latin American sociopolitical conflict in 2005, when the Colombian army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) massacred a group of villagers and revealed the depth and extent of the alliance between the Colombian state and paramilitary forces. The history of San José de Apartadó before the massacre converges and diverges with the trajectories of thousands of other communities elsewhere, making it both universal and singular at once. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of all is the villagers’ origin. Villagers of San José came from other neighboring towns and communities, displaced by paramilitary and guerrilla violence and state complicity. With violent dislocation and resettlement at its origins, the villagers embraced a collective ethos of peace as the foundation of their communal livelihood. Community of Peace delves into the intimacy of this distinctive community, offering a vivid account of the intricacies of conflict and post-conflict dwelling—and the generative capacities of civil society despite everything.

Community of Peace is a multidisciplinary ethnography in the most profound sense of the term. Historical in ambition, the book places the case of San José de Apartadó within a much larger narrative of the Colombian state, civil society, and the latter decades of conflict that lie at the core of the origins of the community. Anthropological in execution, this book reveals the textures of the social fabric of conflict and post-conflict Colombia, including the entanglements of racialized and ethnic experiences of violence. Geographic in emphasis, Community of Peace advances a conceptualization of place and space that may seem foreign for nonspecialists, one in which they are much less fixated on categories and in which terms such as “site,” “land,” and “territory” are in a constant sense of flux. Ecological and performative in methodology, this book details how everyday lives and both “staged and vernacular acts” generate meanings of places and peoples and constantly reinvent livelihoods despite and because of enduring processes of social suffering (p. 19).

Among the many achievements of Community of Peace, scholars of conflict and post-conflict Latin America will find the second part—“What Is Peace?”—particularly captivating. Here, Courtheyn proposes a major intervention. Unlike other definitions of “peace” that favor state conceptions of demobilization, decompression, and mere de-escalation of violence, Community of Peace defines peace as “a spatial process of creating self-determination and living with dignity that does not compromise the dignity of other people, places, and beings” (p. 106). This definition, “transrelational” according to the author, encapsulates the multidisciplinary aim of the book and conveys the sheer degrees of complexities in approaching the holistic study of communities like San José de Apartadó. Often cast as holding a place in between fires—revolutionary, military, and paramilitary in the case of Colombia—the pursuit of peace for the villagers of San José exceeds and transcends institutional interventions, official agreements, and armistices. Instead, peace is an ecology, a form of being and relating to others, and way of existing in a world that transcends the human, the parameters of an earthly condition that is both ontological and epistemological at once.

Community of Peace also joins a thriving literature on post-conflict and memory, a field largely dominated by historians and anthropologists. As a geographer, Courtheyn holds place as a centerpiece of memory building and memory as an equally central element of his transrelational peace. One of the aspects of the “memory question” in Latin America has been the institutional nature of its quest: namely, the struggle for belonging of those whose histories and very existences had confronted annihilation. Usually through institutionalized means of reckoning, typically sponsored by the same state that had beleaguered them before, the subjects of social violence and political conflict remained wrestling within the borders of the state—as a truth commission, as a memory museum, as a final report, and so forth. In San José de Apartadó, Courtheyn provides a thick description of peace building as an alterity, as another form of explaining absences and presences outside the margins of the state, as “a dynamic and forward-looking political discourse and practice” (p. 220).

Somewhat riddled by seemingly hyper-specialized vocabulary and with an entangled prose at times, Community of Peace may be a better assignment for the graduate classroom. The scarcity of references at the end of every chapter is striking, and some future conversation may be inclined to address a certain obscurity projected around the book’s sources and the “archives” employed, or perhaps even constructed, in the course of the research. Otherwise, Courtheyn’s first book is a superb contribution to many fields within Latin American, conflict and post-conflict, and peace studies. Scholars and students of race, ethnicity, place and space, violence, and truth telling—in Latin America and elsewhere—will find much inspiration in all its chapters. A translation and availability in Colombia and for other Spanish-speaking readers is in order and will expand the impact of this intellectual milestone.

Citation: Javier Puente. Review of Courtheyn, Christopher, Community of Peace: Performing Geographies of Ecological Dignity in Colombia. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57910

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