Las ZIDRES Another Failed Attempt

Monday, July 27, 2015
By Enrique Herrera Araújo

(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator)

These special rural development zones did not work earlier in Colombia, and there is no reason why they should work now. Here are the reasons for this newly announced disaster.

Enrique Herrera Araújo*

A circular history

The Interest Zones of Rural, Economic and Social Development (ZIDRES for the initials of their name in Spanish Zonas de Interés de Desarrollo Rural, Económico y Social—SC), would be rural areas where the peasants could associate with big investors in order to further agrarian projects of mutual benefit. The Santos government expresses a lot of hope in these zones as a means of attending to peasants without land and at the same time promoting the necessary modernization of the countryside.

But as they were conceived in the proposed Law 223 of 2015, which was recently approved in the full Chamber and is on track in the Senate, they will suffer the same fate as the Entrepreneurial Development Zones (Zonas de Desarrollo Empresarial [ZDE]), created by Law 160 of 1994, of which in more than 20 years not one has been created.

That land is occupied although it is not legalized, titled or formalized, and under those conditions it would be difficult for big private investors to gamble on the ZIDRES.

Colombia has the tragic fate of repeating itself to the point of exhaustion, of choking on its deeds, of getting stuck and not moving forward, as if history were a kind of wheel that turns on itself, or like a dog that tries to bite its own tail, it moves in a circle without end or beginning.

That is how it has been up to now with the violence, with the rains, with the embezzlements, and with so much other “news” in this country of ours. It also seems that the same is going to happen with the ZIDRES.

The mistaken supposition

The projected law proposes that private initiative and investment should make possible rural development in certain abandoned and distant areas of the country, just as happened in the second half of the XX Century—although under other agro-ecological conditions and in locations closer to the centers of consumption.

The proposed Law 223 of 2015 will remain in the dead letter office for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it takes off from a mistaken supposition.

That moment marked the beginning of the modernization of agriculture, with the intensification of the use of machinery, the application of new technologies, the surging of a new entrepreneurial organization, and the international commercialization of products such as coffee, flowers, sugar cane, bananas and oil palm.

The intention to hand over rural development to private investors in those specific areas is valid and necessary (as long as it is regulated), and doubtless it is more urgent today, given the fiscal difficulties of the government, which is going to reduce the budget for the agricultural sector by practically 50 per cent between 2015 and 2016, from 3.3 to 1.4 trillion pesos.

That is why the ZIDRES project is pointing its energies towards Orinoquía and the High Plains, a territory that offers a broad availability of land suitable for agriculture where the cost per hectare continues to be low (although it has been increasing) and where there are great environmental riches.

Also, presently in that region there are
i. The absence of clear rules for private investment in the countryside,
ii. A high level of informality in the ownership of rural property,
iii. Judicial uncertainty about land, and
iv. Difficulties in incorporating the indigenous and black communities into productive alliances.

The ZIDRES are exactly trying to intervene in this type of area, classified as distant, with a low population density, high levels of poverty, with a great demand for investment in transportation and commercialization infrastructure, and that require, because of the low fertility of their soil and agro-ecological conditions, economies of scale and productive mega-projects that can maximize productivity and reduce unit costs.

But these goals will remain as good intentions, and it is with good intentions that the road to hell is paved.

The proposal takes as settled that the “unused” land where the ZIDRES will be created is empty, that those properties are unoccupied and that there is no one there who acts as lord and owner. But this is not true, and that is where the great error of this proposal lies.

This land is occupied even though it is not legalized, titled or formalized, and under these conditions it would be difficult for big private investors to take a chance with the ZIDRES. For that reason, before creating any “development interest zone,” a massive program of formalizing rural property would have to be carried out.

In that way judicial clarity would be offered about the property titles in a territory where they are lacking, and this would allow the peasant to negotiate his participation in a productive alliance with the entrepreneurs under better conditions.

The reasons for the failure

But there are other reasons that predict the failure of the ZIDRES:
• The proposed law does not present profiles of one or more association models for the productive alliances between the large, middle and small producers that would incorporate more that a Family Agricultural Unit ( Unidad Agrícola Familiar [UAF]) based on unused land, and that would respond to what was stipulated by the Constitutional Court in their Sentence C-644 of 2012, by which the peasant should not be separated from the land, that he should be engaged through his work in the activities of the project, share in the profits and improve his living conditions.

The proposed LIDRES law ignores the actors of the region.

The proposal says nothing about that Sentence and does not establish the rules of the game through which large-scale investment would get to the areas where there are many UAFs based on “unused” land and legal uncertainty about rural property ownership is common. This situation means that there is too much legal uncertainty in the world of business, where legal clarity is needed in order to invest.

Further; the lack of a regulated model of association owes itself to the well-known “incident” of Riopaila Castilla, Cargill, Mónica Semillas, Poligrow and other companies that fell into the accumulation of empty-land UAFs and that meant the resignation of Carlos Urrutia, Santos’ ambassador to the United States.
• The ZIDRES proposal plans to give concessions or to rent, but never to adjudicate or title the lands that are good for farming or animal raising.

That is, it wants to keep vast areas of the country in an informal status or as property of the nation, and in that case, the State would continue to be a property owner on paper.

Furthermore, the state should not continue holding on to areas that are good for farming or animal raising, and less so when the nation is the biggest landowner in Colombia, as it has more than 450 thousand hectares in the National Agrarian Fund (Fondo Nacional Agrario), even though those areas may be occupied and worked by others while the Colombian Institute of Rural development (Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Rural [INCODER]) and the Ministry of Agriculture are those who pay the real estate taxes.

Public policy should be aimed at titling of productive lands, and that the State release them in order thus to create a country of landowners. There is a separate issue when the areas in question are forest preserves, are under environmental protection or are militarily strategic. In those cases, it is true that the nation must hold on to them; but in other cases they must be legally handed over to the many landless peasants who exist in Colombia.
• In the agrarian policies of Colombia a dominant paradigm exists of centralized development, “from above” and with a view towards sectors. But this has not only not given the hoped-for results, but has even produced the opposite results.
That’s why it is not understandable why, knowing about the previous experience, the ZIDRES should be declared from Bogotá and in Bogotá. There, the Rural Agrarian Planning Unit (Unidad de Planificación Rural Agropecuaria [UPRA]) will carry out the technical study, the national government, through CONPES [Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social—National Council of Economic and Social Policy, a division of the National Planning Department—SC], will draw the boundaries of the zones, and the Council of Ministers will approve them by decree.
If the national government has been proclaiming to the four winds that rural development will have a territorial focus, the question arises: What role will regional and local institutions play in constituting the ZIDRES?
As things are planned, the department, the municipality, the agricultural associations and those of the peasants, the labor organizations and the Departmental Rural Development Councils (Consejos Departamentales de Desarrollo Rural [CONSEA]), among others, would be excluded from the decisions that they will be responsible for and that will affect them.

By and for the regions

That is why it would be opportune to bring into the mix what was written in the document Rural Development with a Territorial Focus (Desarrollo Rural con enfoque territorial—a UN radio broadcast in Colombia—SC) Of the United Nations: “The policy of rural development requires a great deal of knowledge, and this does not exist only among the educated technocracy of the central level: a great deal of it is there in the regions and localities of the country, in formal and informal organizations, in public and private agencies, in the research centers and think tanks in the territories, with their different visions and conceptions.”

The proposed ZIDRES law ignores the actors of the region, who are the ones who most know the territory because they have the closest reading.

Little will be accomplished if the occupation status of that land is ignored and if clear rules are not established for private investment in these originally unused areas, through models of association that include the peasant in terms of work and productivity.

Nor will things go very far if rural property ownership is not formalized and if the State tries to continue to be the title holder or owner of land that should be adjudicated.

* Lawyer, specialist in rural development and MA in public administration. Expert in land and rural development, and post-conflict advisor.

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