This past November, the V Social Foundation accompanied Caguan Expeditions at its third Rowing Festival, “Paddling for Peace.”
Caguan Expeditions is an organization that operates in a part of Colombia that has faced prejudice following the conflicts of the 1990s. Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) operated for more than 50 years in Colombia. But since the peace agreement in 2016, guerrillas have put down their guns and taken up oars, leading rafting tours through the area’s uncharted rivers. V Social has been working with Caguan Expeditions since March 2022.
V Social supports the Rowing Festival and its aim to bring the community together to demonstrate the power of tourism, peace, and reconciliation to effect change. We were happy to join this year’s festival and see this change on the ground.
To get to San Vicente del Caguan, you have to take an hour flight from Bogotá. What seems like a short trip didn’t used to be so easy. Only a few years ago, this was forbidden territory for anyone not from there, called a “red zone” because of the presence of guerrillas and frequent clashes with the army.
We met Michele, an 18-year-old who is a tourist guide in the territory. She was born in the middle of the mountains, among the confrontations and constant bombardments of the early 2000s. Her parents were part of the ranks of FARC guerrillas, and left her in the custody of family in the city. Only after the peace agreement was signed was she able to return to the territory. Michele told us about her life and family, and how much she valued the promotion of peace in her community. She said that collaboration is not an option here, but a necessity.
Michele took us to a museum organized by ex-combatants to share their history and convey what life was like for the guerrillas. The museum preserves collected testimonies and materials such as old radios and uniforms. “If we don't tell our story, no one will understand why there was a war for so many years,” Michele said.
So why tourism? We asked Michele about this. “We have to remember,” she said, “but we also have to give ex-combatants economic alternatives for their well-being. And that’s what tourism is for us: a chance to stay in our territory. Or at least that’s the dream.”
V Social reaffirmed its commitment to contributing to the territory and its goal of transforming it through tourism. We could see how vital tourism activities were to improving the quality of life and the capacities of people to make the place they live in what they wanted it to be. “Think beautiful,” another ex-combatant told me, describing the approach the group has to their transformative work.
Michele is a prime example of what this project and youth leadership can do to make change. She has a livelihood and can see a future. She is able to enjoy a home of great natural beauty and doesn’t have to worry about witnessing war and destruction again.
And it has just as profound an effect on those who visit the area. Seeing the territory now, along with as talking to the community and visiting the museum that tells the story of how things once were, changes one’s perspective. We see how, in San Vicente del Caguan, rifles were exchanged for paddles, and a river that once divided warring territories now unites people in a spirit of adventure. People are empowered to care for the nature that surrounds them, and visitors are inspired by their efforts.
The Rowing Festival was a complete success, exceeding expectations in numbers, cooperation, and laughter. When you are in an area with so much history, in the middle of the Colombian jungle, "think beautiful" makes total sense. It’s in the connections with the people and being part of something bigger than yourself, joining hands with the young people, women and men, who are working hard at making their own beautiful future.