Being a delegate with Witness for Peace is one of the most unique and interesting travel experiences available to the passionate, social justice minded traveler. Witness for Peace hosts groups of American delegates interested in creating peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by learning about and working to change U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America.
Specifically, “Witness for Peace concentrates on issues such as peace in Colombia, fair trade, labor rights and international debt relief.” (http://witnessforpeace.org/article.php?id=75). The organization is committed to non-violence and dedicates pre-trip training sessions to the principles of non-violent and grassroots organizing.
Volunteers who participate in a nine-day or two-week delegation learn about policy advocacy, international peacemaking, conflict mediation, cross-cultural sensitivity, diplomacy, and foreign policy, while also gaining an insider’s look at a country in a way that wouldn’t be possible on one’s own. If you want an intimate look at daily life in Latin America and are ready to challenge your understanding of the world, a WfP trip is definitely for you!
Personal Experiences: Volunteering with Witness for Peace in Colombia
As a Witness for Peace delegate to Colombia I had the opportunity to see the effects of US drug war policy on Colombia first-hand. Witness for Peace (WfP) delegations to Colombia are the riskiest of the organization’s trips as the country is in the midst of a 40 year old civil war and traffics most of the world’s cocaine.
Though a WfP delegation is not for the cautious traveler, these trips are neither reckless nor ill-conceived. While there is an inherent danger of traveling in the region, all precautions are taken to ensure a safe return.
Feature photo by Programa No Gubernamental de Protección a Defenso.
The background on Colombia:
Through Plan Colombia, the US funds the destruction of crops and coca fields on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border zone of Putumayo, a sparsely populated region of the Amazon. In the drive to eradicate coca crops (the raw material for cocaine), however, the US gives billions of dollars in aid to a Colombian military rife with corruption and boasting one of the worst records of human rights abuses in the world.
During my two weeks in Colombia I got an intimate look at the results of these policies on everyday Colombians.
WfP believes that the truth can best be reached by hearing all sides of the story, so throughout our trip we met with people with many different vantage points on the politics of Colombia and the US war on drugs. These included human rights activists, clergy working for social justice, military officials, farmers growing coca and farmers growing food, US Department of State officials, and community leaders.
Our bus was boarded by right-wing paramilitary troops, we saw oil pipelines recently bombed by the left-wing guerrillas, and visited coca farms and processing sites which turn raw leaves into coca paste, soon to be cocaine.
We also documented the destruction of food crops and the sicknesses caused by the coca eradications, which we presented to the US State Department officials during our meeting with them. All in all we got a very well rounded, in depth portrait of the country in a short time, and with many moments I will remember for the rest of my life.
Rarely while traveling have I gotten such a complete picture of what daily life is for someone so different from myself than that of farmers living in Putumayo, Colombia. Walking through their farms and seeing their crops, coca fields, and the military presence, I gained a greater understanding of the daily pain and sacrifice that life in a war zone can require.
When I think of the trip, brief moments of struggle and strength flash through my mind: a 65 year-old woman digging into the mud to pull out a WfP delegate’s shoe that had been sucked off his foot and into her muddy field; a farmer crying as he spoke of the fish dying off when his pond and fields were fumigated for the fourth time, destroying his livelihood yet again.
I will carry these stories and these lives with me forever, along with the beautiful ways Colombians cope with their hardship through warmth and kindness and sharing generously with others.
Photo by adman_as.
The Trip: Logistics
Every delegation is accompanied by two WfP staff members, Americans who live in the country and act as translators throughout the trip. There are 12-14 delegates, including two trip leaders who organized the trip from the US and are particularly expert in the topic of your delegation.
Once you pay for your international flight and delegate fee (around $1000), everything is arranged for you – all meals, hotels, and in-country transportation, as well as trainings and scheduling.
You are well informed of health and safety precautions and background material on the country before you leave. There is also a full day of training at the start of your trip which addresses cultural awareness, the principles of consensus process and non-violence, as well as the historic and current political reality of the country you’re visiting.
Back Home: The Lasting Lessons of WfP
In addition to providing an amazing travel experience, WfP helps give travelers the tools they need to create change at home. At the end of the trip you learn how to use what you have seen and learned to influence change in US foreign policy.
With your fellow delegates, you develop talking points to discuss with your elected officials, receive helpful advice about writing letters to editors of newspapers and other publications, and are assured of ongoing support from your contacts at WfP. This program and the training I received helped me to become someone who meets with and contacts my elected officials about the issues that are important to me, in Latin America and beyond.
Check them out on the web at: witnesforpeace.org
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