“But where is the armed conflict?” This was a common question asked to us in Bogotá when presenting our investigation of land dispossession in the region of Urabá, to the different groups working at the Colombian Truth Commission. The question was a symptom of deeper concern that originated in the peace negotiations with the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Then-president Juan Manuel Santos stated at the onset of these negotiations that the “economic model” of the country was not going to be discussed. By conjuring the economy, Santos was referring to—among other things—the use of ‘nature’ as a resource and Colombia's economy's deep reliance on extractivism. Grassroots organizations demanded to stop extractivism, at the same time that a widespread fear that negotiating with a leftist guerrilla would lead to some sort of communist regime and a national economic collapse. Santos’s statement also pointed to the idea that environmental concerns did not belong to the realm of war—considered a human activity—, and thus that the violence produced by the armed conflict could be sharply differentiated from environmental violence.
The resulting visual investigation around land dispossession was a collaboration between Forensic Architecture and the Truth Commission (we were the project's leaders—coming from both of these entities respectively). When the Commissioner with whom we were working requested that we conduct one of our investigations on the dynamics of land dispossession, we proposed to develop a methodology based on the concept of ‘earth memory’ (Tavares and Biemann 2014; Martin 2018). The concept holds the assertion that the earth is not a passive recipient of human needs and desires, on the contrary, it speaks and records the history of crimes and violence that have been enacted upon it (Pedraza and Martin 2022). What we proposed to call ‘violence-via-environment’ (Pedraza and Martin 2022) aims to overcome the fractured ways in which violence is articulated in contexts of war. Instead of framing violence through normative definitions inscribed in international legal arrangements, multilateral institutions and discourses—which is often fractured into different labels: political, environmental, economic—, we proposed an inherently entangled understanding of violence by following its inscriptions on the environment. A method of visual analysis was developed that was intended to sew together these strands that are viewed independently. The process entailed an intense collaboration with campesinos, architects, and earth scientists to study the material forms of the traces of this memory in the plants and their fruits, the design of the farms, the trace of the roads, the division of plots and the organization of villages, the coastal erosion, and the carving of the earth to make an intricate system of water canals.
The question over ‘where the armed conflict was’ in our project does not only come from the limited foundations of the peace negotiations with the FARC. Historically, transitional justice institutions, discourses, and actors usually prioritize a notion of violence that is fundamentally anthropocentric, subordinating the environment to a subsidiary role. Furthermore, they tend to create hierarchies that organize modes of knowledge and their public relevance. In that way, campesino/peasant epistemologies and, as we will discuss, artistic practices are displaced to the margins of the transitional discourse and treated as an afterthought, the addendum to what is considered more relevant for the future of transition in the country.
While working in the vereda (village) Coquitos, situated in Nueva Colonia, we spent a day measuring different types of canals. Canals are essential to the modes of agricultural life that comprise Nueva Colonia, an area with endless rows of banana plants on industrial farms with elusive owners, and embedded in between, campesinos construct canal systems to irrigate their plantain and cultivos de pancoger. Measuring the canal system was not a whimsical artistic intervention but a crucial concern of campesinos, whose lives depended on the use and access to clean and wide canals to drain the fields and make possible sustainable agriculture. The tentacles of what is referred to as armed conflict—we say the war—extend through that canal system that enacts violence on the fincas (small farms) of the campesinos, and this is fundamental to understanding the mechanisms of land dispossession in the region of Urabá.
We actually had to insist on taking a day to measure the canal system. We could sense the general unease of the people we were working with—why are these insane artists making us measure canals for hours on end? The questions did not stop here, especially when we spent around six months tracing the canal system through decades of aerial imagery. Our focus on canals did not coincide with the standardized concerns of war and violence in transitional justice institutions, in which the expectations revolved around the need to map massacres, disappearances and the presence of different forms of military activity (we did that, too). It was not immediately clear why we were interested in registering the quotidian lives of campesinos and their relation to water and soil, or why we would spend hours trying to make sense of the effect of water on the rotting of the plants. But the canal, as a carving into the earth’s surface, is also a registry of campesino life, and when contrasted to the monocultures of bananas that encroached into these lifeworlds, the entanglements of war, violence, and the environment are materialized.
But the question of the armed conflict came from those situated in Bogotá—a city far from this region. Once we started to present the analysis in public forums, the response from those working in the region or living in the different villages of the investigation was one of recognition. For the campesinos of Coquitos, California, and La Teca, it was recognition of the forms of violence they had experienced throughout the decades. Actually the first point of recognition was the canals. The afterlife of our work is still in effect, moving across Colombia—and other parts of the world—as an exhibition called ‘Huellas de Desaparición’ (Traces of Disappearance). But this long afterlife is distinct from the other parts of the Commission’s findings in the public realm.
This past July (2023), on the one year commemoration of the release of the Truth Commission’s final report, many of the former members went to social media to share and promote the sections in which they had been involved. Tweets and posts about the different aspects of war covered by the report were promoted as a way to highlight the importance of the ten volumes written as a result of the multi-year initiative. A few days later, the former president of the Commission and Jesuit priest, Fancisco de Roux, was decorated by the Congress of Colombia. In his speech, he asked, “Where were the Colombians during the horror of war?” His question was a moral inquiry that aimed to direct the concerns about the shared responsibility of Colombians, not only at a structural level, but in this case, as individuals who allowed the horror to occur.
Besides occasional comments on the moral—and Catholic—tactic of guilt-tripping his audience, few things were commented on in public. In fact, the impact of the Truth Commission in public has been very mild (to put it mildly). Before coming into office, the current president, Gustavo Petro, attended the launch event of the Commission’s final report and promised to uphold the findings of the report and its recommendations (President Ivan Duque—still at that moment in power—did not attend). The Petro government then attempted to include the recommendations in the National Development Plan, but they were cut from the final version of the Plan by the Congress. Similarly, the promotion of the Commission’s volumes by Petro’s government has not matched the expectations that were created when he went to the official release.
The Truth Commission was a massive transitional institution, with thousands of workers and offices situated around the entire country. However, after the publication of the report, the institution ceased to exist and only a small group with the role of monitoring its reception and tying up loose ends remained in place. Hence, the promotion and possible impacts of the report fell into uncertainty, with no clear direction from the government and disconnected attempts of public dissemination.
Certainly, as it has happened with other truth commissions historically, the written volumes are difficult to promote. They are dense, long, and often inaccessible to the general public. But in the case of Colombia, the lack of a clear responsibility to disseminate the work of the Commission led to the silencing and general suppression of its content, modes of analysis, conceptual and historical approaches. It also made it difficult to understand the many internal debates about the use or introduction of terms and topics. One of those terms was ‘environment.’
When the Transitional Justice institutions were announced, civil society groups already were concerned about this negation of the environment, the economic model, and its role in the war. This is where the concept of ‘environmental memory/memoria ambiental’ began to surface in debate. Rios Vivos and Censat Agua Viva spearheaded a series of talks, conferences, and meetings that proposed to forward the idea of developing an ‘environmental truth commission’ that would be capable of dealing with environmentally entangled violence.
The call for ‘memoria ambiental’ to be considered within the Transitional Justice framework was not heeded in the beginning. The arbitrary distinction between violence within ‘the armed conflict’ and within ‘the environment’ led to significant problems in the analysis of the Truth Commission. While the environment did feature in their final report, scattered throughout the thousands of pages and assumed quite a marginal role, it was mainly framed as a victim of the conflict.
The failures of this interpretation are still apparent. While nature was converted into a victim, a similar process took place that occurs when humans are considered as victims, that being, as victims are defined through suffering and pain, their political agency is reduced to their capacity to act as vessels of pity. In this way, the environment lost its agency; its role in conflict. Moreover, the environment was not considered as an entity that could give evidence or indeed, or could provide a mode of analysis when thinking through the history of violence in the country. So predominantly, it fell to artistic practices to incorporate the role of the environment in war into their work.
Before the final publication, the Truth Commission in collaboration with many different kinds of artists, collectives, and theater groups, released a series of exhibitions, performances, and visual products that had a significant impact, at least compared to the official results of the written report. ‘Huellas de desaparicion’ was one of those exhibitions. Not all dealt with nature of course, but many did, in fact, the artistic outputs of the Commission offered a more complex understanding of war, violence, and the environment than the written report, the notable exception to this, was the volume of testimony ‘Cuando los Parajos no Cantaban: historias del conflicto armado en Colombia’, which Castillejo-Cuéllar compiled as editor-in-chief.
Castillejo-Cuéllar’s piece ‘Murmullos I, o la Herida da la Naturaleza’, derived from his experience of putting together the chapter on testimony, sits within the constellation of artistic practice that orbited the Commission and was able to have reverberations outside of the country, traveling to Documenta Fifteen with Más Arte Más Acción. Documenta Fifteen featured many artists, collectives, and social organizations from the global south, who had never received a place in an international art festival before. We also cannot mention Documenta Fifteen without referring to the backlash that came against some of its participants from nearly all directions—including the German government—that can only be described as deeply racist and drove many artists to withdraw in protest and out of fear for their own safety.
But let's stay with the issue at hand, that being the relegation of earth memory into the sphere of art. Here is where we tried to forward the particular confluence between practice, research, and analysis in our investigation with the Commission. And to be clear, this is not a critique of those artistic practices—it’s a critique of the separation between ‘research’ and the ‘artistic’ from the perspective of transitional justice institutions, discourses, and practices. The latter was only that warranted a place within the commission’s final report.
Castillejo-Cuéllar ends his written piece ‘Recalibrating Listening: Of Trees as Subjects of Pain,’ which accompanies the audio installation, by asking how ‘arts’ or ‘artistic practices’ can help ‘amplify this concern, not only in Colombia but globally?’. What we propose is to flip that question back around and ask it to transitional justice systems, as art—especially in the last eight years—has done a thorough job of looking at the agency of non-humans in political conflict, amplifying the terms of violence and questioning human-centered subjectivities in the retelling of colonization and global climate change (see the works of Jumana Manna, Ana Vaz, Paulo Tavares, Maria Thereza Alves, Isabelle Carbonell, just to name a few).
To conclude, we need to emphasize something crucial that may not be evident to those who are not familiar with the process of transitional justice in Colombia. Despite its shortcomings, the work of the Truth Commission needs to be promoted, not only nationally, but also in global arenas, and for this Castillejos’ initiative is very important. As the country continues in this period of transition, where violence is also escalating, the work of the Commission cannot fall into oblivion. Finally, when looking back at the history of violence, its present, and its future, the role of the environment in war cannot be consistently placed in the role of art and artistic practice to tell—yes it does it very well—but this is not only the work of art, is the work of all of us who produce knowledge and labor around war, and also, work to challenge and stop it.
Biemann, Ursula, and Paulo Tavares. 2014. Forest Law—Selva Jurídica. Dexter, Mich.: Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and Michigan State University.
Meszaros Martin, Hannah. 2018. “‘Defoliating the World’: Ecocide, Visual Evidence and ‘Earthly Memory’.” Third Text 32, no. 2–3: 230–253.
Meszaros Martin, Hannah, and Oscar Pedraza. 2021. “Extinction in Transition: Coca, Coal, and the Production of Enmity in Colombia's Post-peace Accords Environment.” Journal of Political Ecology 28, no. 1: 721–740.
Pedraza, Oscar, and Hannah Meszaros Martin. 2021. “The Memory of Earth and Land Dispossession in Urabá.” Journal of Visual Culture 20, no. 3: 543–562.