RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Crystalline waters and dream forests: although it seems an idyllic setting, the Pato River in Colombia has a dark past that its inhabitants decided to leave behind to build a better future with the opportunity offered by the Peace Accords.
Even though reincorporation projects were being planned in the area, with crops such as cassava, beans, tomatoes, and fish farming, a pioneering initiative came up with other options by chance. Rafting came up at the time of the laying down of arms,” Durverney Moreno, a former FARC combatant, explained to DW.
At the time, he and his comrades were looking for options to escape “an uncertain future.” “In the productive projects, everything was very dark, it was hardly seen in the long term,” he recalled. The initiative, which began to take shape in August 2017, came about by chance and from Carlos Ariel’s hand, then Field Delegate on behalf of the High Commissioner for Peace for the Miravalle Transitory Normalization Point, in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán.
“When the process was winding down, one weekend I decided to go to San José de Fragua, where a rafting training was taking place. Two or three days later, I met with the guys and showed them the photos I took,” Ariel explained to DW, who told the group about the potential of the nature of the place and the possibility of conducting a test to confirm whether rafting could be done on the river. “The instructor said that the river was perfect for the activity,” he stressed.
“This had never been looked at in this area. It was thought that tourism would be a failure, that it would not work,” Moreno said. “People thought that no one was going to pay to walk a trail, to eat a typical Caquetá dish, or look at a waterfall,” he added, recalling the area’s violent past. “All the time, it has been at war,” he declared.
However, “we insist on sport, on rafting,” Moreno emphasized. Thus, with the approval of the commander ‘El Paisa’, the group decided to move forward with the initiative by starting up an ecotourism company in which they were to be majority owners and for which they requested Ariel’s own involvement. “At the end of August and beginning of September, we transferred two boys to be trained,” Ariel explained. However, “at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, the commanders’ crisis began, and that put the project on shaky ground,” he recalled.
Rowing for peace and against stigmas
Faced with these difficulties, the initiative took on new momentum with the visit of Mauricio Artiñano from the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia.
“They told him what they wanted to do and he contacted Rafael Gallo, honorary president of the International Rafting Federation, along with other Costa Rican colleagues, and they were fascinated by the project,” Ariel explained. So, “they sent Costa Rican instructors who instructed fifteen boys, nine of whom finished the training,” he added.
“Rafael asked me if I could go as an instructor to train these boys in a ‘Rowing for Peace’ project and make them see the scenery they had there, the beauty of the Pato River, and give them that tip about how, instead of weapons, we could use oars and start rowing all together for peace. And that they could be trained as rafting guides to be able to start generating economic sources in that small town through tourism,” Roy Obando, a Costa Rican instructor with more than 25 years of experience in the sector, explained to DW.
Thus, for two months, “they were taught to love nature, to respect the rivers, which become a source of work for many families, and all the techniques involved in running a river, reading the water, the direction of the currents, the obstacles encountered in the rapids…”, Obando explained.
“When we finished the process, they were very excited. They had learned a lot and already wanted to have their clients and go to the water, but in the place where they were, taking clients was not so easy,” recalled the Costa Rican instructor. “It was also tough for them to acquire equipment on their own to be able to set up a business, as well as permits,” he added.
Although they already obtained the certifications in late 2018 and early 2019 and started bringing tourists to the area, the initiative took a giant step forward in May 2019 with the incursion of ‘Paddling for Peace’ in an international sports competition.
“The International Rafting Federation makes an invitation to go to the World Cup in Australia, and out of 40 teams, they came in 13th place,” Ariel emphasized. “We had an excellent reception, that fills one with a lot of motivation,” added Moreno.
The participation of ex-combatants in this competition on behalf of Colombia helped to break stigmas. Moreno has developed a task with the nearly a thousand visitors who have come to the area since this experience allows him “to tell all the experiences”.