John Paul Lederach
Professor of International Peacebuilding, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
Interviewed by Julian Portilla 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
The context is, I had come to Boulder to work on my Ph.D., attracted primarily by the fact that this was the home of Kenneth and Elise Boulding and Paul Wehr and others and the sociology department here at the University of Colorado had just initiated an emphasis on social conflict that Paul was heading up. And out of that, my wife and recently-born daughter and I headed down to Latin America, Central America specifically, to work with a region-wide portfolio related to peace and conflict resolution training, mostly with church leaders and community leaders.
We were living in Costa Rica and I would work in the region more generally and as part of that period of time I was also working on doing a kind of ethnographic study of how people in a Central American setting make sense of conflict and respond to it from sort of an everyday perspective. I used the term in my proposal that I wanted to do an "Ethnoconflictology" and the word never stuck anywhere, I don't think anyone other than Kevin Avurch ever the idea was that people make sense of conflict from out of the meaning structure in which they're located and that's really where we needed to place emphasis on the conflict from the perspective of the and that there deeply cultural elements that accompanied that.
And that's what I was interested in and in the end I ended up, there was a lot of things that happened over those years, but one of the places where this term became clearer for me was what you referred to about the outside and inside was a year and-a-half- or two-year-long project that we were involved in in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, mostly aimed at the neighborhoods in Puntarenas that had what they call there in Costa Rica tigurios, which are the land occupations that people would do almost overnight. There's unoccupied land that somebody quite wealthy has disattended to and people who have no land would set up houses and try to negotiate their way in creating a neighborhood that could be legitimately long-term and set up.
Puntarenas has all around it what look like normal neighborhoods that are actually they grew out of these occupations All over Latin America so the particular initiative was in these areas to there was a lot of unemployment, there was a lot of delinquency, drug issues, social conflict and so with the ministry of education and justice and some international organization support, a couple of us were involved with being facilitators of a small group that would try to develop strategies of constructive response to the internal conflicts that were often accompanying these areas. It was youth - it went from about ages 14, 16 all the way up to grandparents. So it was a real diverse community of people and we used a very participatory methodology: who we are, what we do, what are our goals, what do we understand and then exercises to get us it was a very formative kind of thing for me. The writing that came later about the elicitive approach to conflict had some roots in that. But I'm eventually coming to a point here, Julian, one of the things that consistently happened in that group, is that when we sat and talked about specific instances of conflict and what to do about them and the places they were I mean we would work with things that were live in the communities at the time, we would sit and strategize.
I began to notice in very concrete ways how different the mindset was of sitting with this group of people and what I had been sort of trained to think in in reference of my formal training in the academic world in peace studies, or more specifically in mediation. When you would say, we have this problem going here with this set of people and this set of people, what's our approach? What should we do? Among the very first things that would happen was the immediate fallback was the relationships and the networks and I've explored a lot with the metaphors that accompany that of why conflict for example, one of the common words is ???, a kind of tangled net and the net is precisely where people go when they're in a conflict. And one of the terms I heard real consistently there was to get into the conflict, I'm translating now, to get into the conflict you have to get into the person. [Repeats in Spanish]. But to get to the person you had to know who were other people, and the term they use was one I had never heard, for example, in Spain, was la persona ???. Ajegar??? in Spanish, the word basically means a person who is like a door or entry point, someone who is very close to it - right next to, very close to. And what you look for, in Costa Rica they use the word Papas???. Who has the papas???, who has the feet that can carry you from one world to another and to do that you have to be able to locate the entry points into that person, into that community, and so looking for someone who is very close to and trusted.
You're actually doing it in a way that thinks about it on both sides. And if you can locate a single person who has it, then you got it. But often it's about finding some combination of people that kind of create the entry points. So what was curious of course was in their minds, who matters more than what. The who comes first, then you figure out the what. But if you just sit around and try to figure out the great negotiated solution to the problem, and you don't have your who's lined up - forget it. Anyway, so this is the backdrop of what then became a very intense experience of working with a conciliation team in Nicaragua between the Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan government that came out of the fact that I had done my early training in Nicaragua with Moravian leadership that was from the East Coast of Nicaragua and with an organization that was called Separ???, which was a development organization of the Protestant Churches of Nicaragua located in different places.
One the Moravians much more on the East Coast and Separ??? having its headquarters in Managua and working across the country. The conciliation team was, people have obviously read this from other articles I've written, but the conciliation team was people from these two organizations who as individuals especially kind of represented by the heads of the organizations which was Dr. Gustavo ??? on one side from Separ??? in Managua and Andy Showgreen who was the superintendent of the Moravian church but was Miskito-Creole from the East Coast of Nicaragua on the other; they combined in effort to create access points to both the Miskito-East Coast resistance essentially -- Yatama ??? was the formal organizational name at the time -- and the Sandinista government and as I started reflecting back, I could see the micro- and macro-level processes all using a similar kind of, what I consider to be, some very culturally-embedded understandings of this process. So I started writing, I wrote this into my dissertation that Paul was the chair of, then he and I combined on a couple of articles that followed that in which we coined, for the purposes of kind of looking at it theoretically that you could distinguish a kind of a spectrum of possibilities in which the North American mediation model and its normal presentation advocated very much a kind of an outsideness in order to create fairness. And that outsideness used different terminology from neutrality to impartiality to equidistance. But its always a kind of, you come from the outside and you will be fair because you're not connected.
You don't have opinions, you won't have agenda that leans one way or another. You don't have inappropriate connections to one side or another, and all of that adds up to a way that you can trust the process. On the Central American side in Puntarenas, the starting point was the exact opposite. Which then I saw again happening at the level of this macro-mediation effort. And that was that partiality was not necessarily an obstacle; it can be an enormous resource because partiality means you've got tremendous connection. The question is, how do you translate partiality into something that's constructive. And what typically would happen would be it creates some forms of combined bridging, that it, somebody ???(Spanish) close to this side and close to this side finds a way to create the linkages that is able to move these things forward and the characteristics are, actually, connection to - closeness to - deep trust and understanding. In the case of Miskito-Sandinista thing there are some very significant cultural components that accompany the difference between the indigenous worldview and understanding and one that came from a sort of national government that was Latino.
People who are close to one side or the other have understandings of why it is that people see things this way. Why is it that that's a sensitive thing? But it requires the creation of a different sort of a space that we refer to in this writing in the early part of the dissertation, the notion of insider-partials that link-up. That hook in ways that provide different kinds of spaces. I began to see it in a lot of places I was working. In a lot of the traditional societies, but even in the non-traditional ones, there's a lot more of this going on than meets the eye. We tend to give it a nice overlay of outside neutral impartial sorts of things but when you look really close, the real ways that things happen in the real world are often far more nuanced than are captured by those terms. So it was for me a very formative period. In large part because I became deeply convinced about how culturally formed many of the models are that we propose as universal. That was one of the big things that came out of that Central America experience for me in reference to the academic work that I pushed on in those early years.