I am sitting on a shady terrace in the verdant hills of Vaucluse. It is my favourite place to write. Avignon, that jewel of Provence, beckons imperiously from across the Vallée du Rhône where lavender fields have exchanged regal purple for the soft mauves of late summer. The deafening timbals of cicadas are a poignant reminder of my Sydney girlhood. The lush crimson flowers of oleanders are in perpetual bloom, seemingly impervious to the summer furnace. The pungent scent of lavender lingers from dawn until dusk. One might think that Provence - with its sun-kissed stone villages perched atop craggy hills, its Mont Ventoux, its Mont Saint Victoire and peerless rosé - has always been a sanctuary of peace for inhabitants, writers, artists, and tourists alike.
Lessons from the past
But this is not the case. For beneath this beautiful mise-en-scène, history hides its secrets. In 1545, four villages, not far from our home, were razed to the ground, their inhabitants massacred after the Parliament of Aix-en-Provence decreed that the Italian Piedmontese settlers (“Les Vaudois”) were heretical. It was, I think, a tragic example of early ethnic cleansing. Fear and bigotry flourished.
In 1720, the plague was imported to Marseille by a selfish shipping merchant who ignored quarantine rules to offload his profitable silk cargo. It quickly spread across the region, decimating the populations of Languedoc and Provence. Again, near us, the crumbling plague wall (mur de la peste) that once extended dozens of kilometres with armed guards at check points, bears testimony to the maxim, “survival of the fittest”. Refugees from Marseille, seeking sanctuary, food, and water, were shot while attempting to scale the walls.
After the Revolution, Provence was incorporated into the new republic and gradually lost its ancient Provençale dialect (Occitan). As we know in our own times, the loss of cultural identity is felt for generations, from Ireland to the Balkans. Today, some street names still bear their Occitan names in deference to a lost language that few understand. These chapters of hidden history conclude with the harsh memory of Occupation, 1942-1945. Most villages, our own included, have squares or streets named in honour of heroic resistance fighters.
These are stories of communities impacted by war, religious conflict, and pandemics. Yet each generation learnt that civic regeneration lay in ésprit de communauté, and that healing must begin from within, if peace was to be reclaimed. Over time, it was recognised that religious tolerance, not persecution, and that liberalism, not autocracy, were the prerequisites for flourishing and inclusive communities.
The Rotarian Peace Projects Incubator: applying the lessons of history
There is, of course, a parallel here with the Rotary Peace Project Incubator’s understanding that a community’s history will highlight those fissures and fault-lines that created conflict, disempowerment, and intolerance. From here, relevant, durable solutions can, in the right circumstances, facilitate lasting peace. And it is this inspiring vision that underpins the philosophy of the Rotary Peace Project Incubator and resonates in its core peace-building projects. The Rotary Peace Project Incubator is a global champion of peace, working at local levels to ensure that opportunities for civic reconciliation and regeneration are nurtured and diffused. Connection at the local level is critical for engagement, participation, and lasting impact, ensuring that its projects are more likely to achieve their long-term objectives.
Indeed, as with my Provence example, all that glitters is not gold, and often, the alchemy from conflict to reconciliation, disempowerment to empowerment, is achieved, not by grand peace conferences, but by engaging with local narratives and experiences, however painful. Over the past eight months, it has been my great privilege to work as a pro bono communications advisor with projects at the nucleus of the RPPI. The project leaders, all globally prominent in their respective humanitarian, gender equality, economic, climate change and conflict prevention-reconciliation fields, have identified outstanding projects that will become catalysts for peace in the local communities for whom they have been designed. They are practical and urgently needed projects that can be delivered in collaboration with the local communities who need them most
These peace projects, that will be ready for implementation by Rotary Clubs across the world in November, need the support of talented, passionate Rotarians. People just like you. So please join our event in Geneva, on November 2, 2020. You will be inspired by the projects and be able to make your own invaluable contribution to the peace process.
Perhaps you, too, will write a letter for peace.
Dr. Susan Laverick is the Director of Beaufort Group Consulting, a communications and executive training consultancy. She is based in Geneva.