Isabel Güiza-Gómez (Peace Studies & Political Science)

Author: Anna Romandash

Isabel Güiza-Gómez, a Ph.D. candidate in Peace Studies and Political Science, was recently awarded an Alejandro Angel Escobar Prize in Human and Social Science. The award recognizes her research and a recently published book on rural mobilization in her native Colombia. Isabel is interested in political economy in societies going through war transitions. In this Q&A, the student shares her experience with the Kroc Institute and how her upbringing in Colombia influenced her vision of peace. 

What are the key things you study, and what do you want to discover through your research?

I study the political economy of redistribution and social mobilization during civil war political transitions. We usually conceive of political transitions—and peace processes can be understood as a type of political transition—as the reworking of institutions to strengthen political inclusion and competition for previously sidelined actors. For instance, peace agreements often include commitments on rebel-to-party transition or electoral reform aimed at boosting competition for marginalized communities. However, civil war political transitions also intend to engineer the status-quo distribution of wealth, which usually performs as a vector of armed confrontation. A case in point is peace agreement dispositions on land and property issues that are found at a higher level than expected and we still lack a richer understanding of why such stipulations are committed and the extent to which they are implemented in the aftermath of war. I investigate this research puzzle by diving into two Colombian political transitions: peace negotiations between the government and several guerrilla groups from 1982 to 1994, and the peace process between the government and the former guerrilla group FARC-EP from 2012 on. Particularly, I analyze the impact of rural-poor mobilization on political commitments on land redistribution at the negotiation stage and subsequent land policy outcomes in the implementation phase. 

What made you interested in studying Peace in the first place?

My lifelong reflections on political and economic inclusive peace have steered me to the study of wealth redistribution, social mobilization, and peacebuilding. My interest in effective peacebuilding emerges not only from my professional and academic background, but also from my personal background. I grew up in a family that has been directly impacted by political violence for generations and forged peace through homegrown improvised approaches. My maternal grandmother was an illiterate peasant, who was forcibly displaced at the age of fourteen during “La Violencia” (The Violence), a bloody partisan-motivated conflict that turned Colombia into an apparently endless battlefield. Thousands of civilian peasants were hacked to death. After surviving hundreds of attacks and boldly defending her own rights, my grandmother became a grassroots human rights defender thus leading marginalized communities to occupy uninhabited, uncultivated public lands. Her bravery and political engagement inspired my own contributions to the pursuit of peace. 

As a first-generation college graduate, I began working for the Colombian land restitution program aimed at documenting land dispossession during wartime and ensuring that dispossessed peasants could return to their land. Such experience enriched my understanding of the intertwined links between wealth inequality and political violence in Colombia and its long-running quest for peace. Afterwards, I worked for Dejusticia (a think-and-do tank based in Bogotá) where I served as a research assistant and then principal investigator on peasant politics, peacebuilding, and economic and social rights. I gained firsthand knowledge of peacebuilding and redistribution in Colombia by working directly with the Colombian government, former combatants, victims, opposition movements, and grassroots movements. Concurrently, I worked for Universidad Nacional de Colombia as a lecturer and researcher for five years. Such experience nurtured my academic interest in land redistribution, rural-poor mobilization, and peacebuilding, which I have further developed at Notre Dame.

What are the biggest challenges in your research?  

Research on rural-poor mobilization and land redistribution in conflict-affected settings raises several challenges for fieldwork and then knowledge production and dissemination. I am constantly concerned about not only security issues in the field but also, more importantly, no-harm principles that should guide our research endeavors at any stage. Marginalized communities have been overexposed to international donors and development agencies, government officials, and scholars, who claim that their involvement in such scenarios will be beneficial for research participants. However, this is not always the case. Most communities experience research fatigue and are quite skeptical about sharing their lifelong reflections with outsider actors, who frequently learn about homegrown approaches to peacebuilding from local communities and are rewarded in their professional careers for research outputs informed by their stay in the field. However, such actors  barely return research and policy findings to locals. I might have also reproduced those dynamics as a researcher.  It raises key questions on reciprocity, respect, and responsibility to local communities, who ought to be regarded as research participants and not merely as the recipients of treatments designed and implemented by foreigners. 

What do you wish to do after graduation?

I envision myself as a scholar committed to peacebuilding efforts either in Colombia or elsewhere. My primary interest is academic research and teaching in educational institutions yet I also aim to engage with practice work along with marginalized communities building peace in creative ways.

What is lacking in the current peace curriculum or discussions?

Peace studies has been at the forefront of generating data-driven analysis on war emergence, duration, and termination, nonviolent resistance, oppressive structures operating beyond war zones, relationship transformation processes, and trauma-healing to name a few themes. Crossing academic boundaries, peace studies has offered policy recommendations and informed international and domestic initiatives in war-torn settings given its normative concern for ending diverse forms of violence. Initially, peace studies revolved around Western, timeless, and universal views of peace, which overlooked political ingroup disparities underlying violence and preventing peace from taking root. Early critical approaches engaged in intellectual contestation with the liberal peace theory by voicing the field’s silence on cultural and context-specific power dynamics, which were blurred by top-down peacebuilding efforts. Such critical views called for peacebuilding initiatives tailored to local needs and aimed at encouraging local ownership. 

While the agential dimensions of peacebuilding were voiced and gained traction in peace theory and praxis, other structural facets of peace such as racial and economic inequality have lately come to light through critical accounts. Peace studies should devote larger attention to the structural aspects of peace rooted in racial and economic power structures. Race and class as analytic devices are largely absent in theorizing and practice. Although structural violence has served as an overarching, analytical device to elicit diverse forms of oppression entrenched in power structures, racism remains underexplored in the field except for flourishing work by Angela David and my colleague here at the Kroc Institute Amaryst Parks-King. Similarly, maldistribution of resources is barely tackled in the field though it is a pressing issue that hampers the prospects for peace across the world.

Describe your research that received the Alejandro Angel Escobar Prize.

My co-authored book La Constitución del Campesinado. Luchas por Reconocimiento y Redistribución en el Campo Jurídico, which translates to The Constitution of the Peasantry: Struggles for Recognition and Redistribution in the Legal Field, analyzes Campesino, or peasant, mobilization for recognition, redistribution, and parity of participation in Colombia. Particularly, it studies how Campesino movements have sought to be formally recognized as political subjects and rights holders within the 1991 constitutional framework, seeking to bring about redistributive rural change and meaningful political participation. By drawing upon participatory action research, the book shows that Campesino movements have secured significant wins in judicial claims-making by framing demands along the lines of material equality and cultural identity. In doing so, such movements have achieved a more leveled legal footing as opposed to limited status established by the 1991 constitution. This award pays tribute to Campesino movements as knowledge bearers and co-producers.