When the reporters and camera crews left Colombia in the wake of its historic peace deal, Pulitzer Center grantee Mariana Palau did otherwise; she stuck around to report on the deal's aftermath.
"We thought it was really the wrong moment to lose focus on Colombia because it’s one thing to sign this [peace deal], and it’s really another to do it," Palau said during the introduction to her Talks @ Pulitzer presentation on February 3, 2020.
Palau said the signing of Colombia's peace deal by Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 promised to "transform" the country. That claim led her to report on the effects of the peace deal and whether or not they were transforming Colombia, as promised.
She began her presentation with background on the conflict that killed 200,000 people and internally displaced at least 6 million Colombians and the illegal armed groups that contributed to it. The lengthy fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an illegal armed group tired of inequality, eventually led to the devlopment of a peace deal.
After discussing the conflict itself, Palau explained to the audience what she wanted to accomplish through the reporting in her Pulitzer Center-supported project: "I’d like to go into the details and see what is being done, what isn’t being done, and what are the consequences."
Although she initially had trouble finding outlets for her reporting, Palau said that her grant from the Pulitzer Center became an "additional selling point" that editors appreciated. The remainder of her presentation focused on the stories she was able to tell with support of the Pulitzer Center.
Palau first described a piece she reported for The New Humanitarian in May of last year, which focused on the continued presence of armed groups in the Colombian city of Tumaco. "Anyone can tell you there are illegal armed groups in Colombia," Palau said. "But I was able to focus on the humanitarian crisis that they were causing as a consequence of their existence."
In a reported argument for Foreign Policy, Palau delved into the issue of Colombia and its coca, the plant used to produce cocaine, which she notes "is a problem of development and not of criminality."
The piece explores the effects of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illict Crops, which aims to help coca farmers replace the illegal crop with a different one. "I found that this was the best bet that the government could take to actually eliminate the coca problem," Palau said. Compared to the forceful eradication of coca, crop replacement helps to lower the replanting rates, Palau said.
In a piece focusing on justice for victims of Colombia's conflict for World Politics Review, Palau tackled the issue of land theft and displacement. She shared with the audience that her investigation into the issue revealed the lack of effectiveness in Colombia's land reclaiming laws. Out of 2 million hectares stolen during the conflict, only 316,000 have been returned to their rightful owners.
Outreach Coordinator Holly Piepenburg opened the Q&A portion of the event by asking Palau what most suprised her during the reporting process as a native of Colombia.
Palau explained her surprise at the intricacy of Colombia's conflict: "The conflict has touched everyone’s lives in Colombia," she said. "...many issues actually resulted from this conflict that I was never aware of, even though I was Colombian and lived in Colombia my entire life."
One audience member asked Palau about her own feelings of safety in the field as a freelancer. "I feel like independent and freelance journalists take risks that many times they shouldn’t take, but that they have to take in order to make a career," Palau answered. She noted that journalists can be targeted by armed groups during their reporting in Colombia, and that it is important to know when not to take risks.
"The Pulitzer Center is incredibly important for independent journalists," Palau added. "These are stories that need to be told."
When asked about the future of cocaine production in Colombia, Palau suggested that the world needs to question the effectiveness of its war on drugs: "As long as there is demand, this kind of situation will continue," she said. "I think that Colombia will always have a coca production problem, and that will always stall its development."
By the end of her presentation, Palau affirmed to the audience that she believes Colombia is better off now than it was before the peace deal, but also recognized the fragility of the country: "The strength of the lasting peace in Colombia really depends on the government tackling issues like the ones I’ve talked about; land inequality, cocaine, and justice for victims."
To read Palau's reporting on the Colombian peace deal and its aftermath, click here. Watch the event in its entirety below.