The Colombian Countryside Needs More Than a Land Fund

(Translated by Deryn Collins, a CSN Volunteer Translator).

The creation of a land fund, proposed in negotiations between the Government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba, is an important step towards resolving the problems of access and Land Use in Colombia, but it is not the solution; especially when the Government puts forward proposals to legalize land theft.  

This is the way that César Jerez, spokesperson for the National Association of Peasant Reserve Areas (ANZOR), expressed it during the XI Seminar: Another Economy is Possible, held in Medellin by the Network of Economic Solidarity (Redsol).

In an interview with the press agency IPC, Jerez said that in Colombia one has to think that ‘when developing rural areas, there is a negative context: the plan is one of mining, which takes land and is predatory.’

Jerez points out that this development model requires all the land and all the resources, which makes it unfeasible and unbalanced, especially when compared to other visions of rural development for the indigenous and Afrocolombian campesinos. Because of this, the campesino’s leader believes that a balanced plan is required, where wealth is redistributed and the territory is organised. If not, “there will be an unstable and difficult peace.”

Regarding the integrated rural development plan agreed to in Havana, Jerez considers that there must  be better guarantees, and that the State really must implement and follow through on whatever plan is agreed upon.

“The lack of trust is not very obvious,” according to Jerez, “Colombia is a country where historically the Government has failed the rural people; and worse still, has talked about creating a land fund, while at the same time proposing a law about so-called Zones of Interest Rural, Economic and Social Development (ZIDRES).”

This initiative, which aims to grant entrepreneurs an open field, ‘does nothing more than mock Law 160, which states that these areas are for campesinos without or with little land’, says the agriculture director. For this, what the Government is looking for with ZIDRES, is to ´legalize all the Colombian land held by illegal landowners and landlords, who concentrate on land in different regions of Colombia.

Q: César Jerez, as campesino’s leader, what is your point of view about the integrated rural development agreement?

That there has been some advance in partial agreement has generated a lot of expectation. After 30 years of trying to reach agreement with the FARC, we finally have a process that has advanced at least 4 points with partial agreement. This says a lot about the quality of the process that happened in Havana.

But the agreements are only partial, and the most pivotal topic on the agenda, integrated rural development with a focus on territory, has already raised some doubts. That is, agreements cannot be partial because they will solve nothing. It is necessary to move forward. There are caveats on the subject and this agreement needs more compromise and more concessions on the part of the Government.

While a land fund can help change the situation, the fact that there is a register in not enough. There has to be a solution to land access, the formalization of the property, and predatory and land-consuming mining must be taken into account when designing the development of the rural zones of the country.

Therefore, there is much left to agree on. The final agreement on this matter must have more guarantees: the sovereignty over food, which was lost, must be recovered; and there must be dignity for the, at least, 15 million people who still live in rural areas in this country. They must be guaranteed political participation and full human rights.

If this does not happen, what comes after a final agreement with the FARC would likely be very ambiguous and cause a lot of anxiety for the people on this land. For example, there are people who have lived their whole lives in zones under the control of the FARC, where the insurgent group has held de-facto power. These individuals are worried about who will guarantee their security against drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and aggression by the State.  In one way or another, this has been the role of the guerrillas in these areas. I am not justifying whether this has been right or wrong.

Q: There are various visions of rural development in this country, on one hand, agriculture and the other, mining, and other initiatives such as the Zonas de Reserva Campesina (Campesino Reserve Zones), agricultural districts… Should or could there be a balance between these visions? Or would that need a profound transformation?

The lack of territorial order, the lack of public policies, the lack of investment, the structural problems the land has have converted the Colombian countryside into chaos, with the added circumstance that it is a zone marked by armed conflict.

The actual scenario is of antagonism between two sectors:
On the one hand, campesinos without rights; Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples with partial rights; small producers who have lost market guarantees, and those for whom small scale production is unviable; all this associated with the reforms of the last decades which are consolidated in the Free Trade Treaties.

On the other hand, the mining, fundamentally increasing the petroleum business, having mining and generation of electricity in the territory, and agro industry. This makes balance impossible because this plan needs all the land and resources, with the added serious problem that it is a non-distributive plan; it does not redistribute wealth, nor does it generate development and well being in the zones where the resources are being extracted. What is generated is a large contradiction, and this is evident in the number of social and environmental conflicts throughout the whole country, which this plan would result in.

I think balance is necessary… that is, a balance in giving rights to campesinos,  including rights of access to the land and use; increasing the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people; and guaranteeing sustainability in rural economy and for small producers.

This can be achieved with resources, but because there is a situation of backwardness, ostracism and marginalism this would require a lot of investment. These resources could come from a measured mining and energy plan, and the expansion of the petroleum business; with some territory defined for this, with consultation where necessary, because the worry with this plan is that it is against all the odds and the will of the local people.

With this dynamic of exclusion in land use and economic planning it is difficult to think that a lasting and stable peace is possible, with the full agreement of the FARC.

Q: Your answer touches on the subject of the rights of the communities to the territory. How could these communities increase their capability to exercise these rights?

In a scenario of an eventual agreement there would have to be a guaranteed framework for land use. In one way or another, it was intended by the introduction in the agreements of a Zona de Reserva Campesina National Association of Peasant Reserve Areas (Anzor) to give the campesinos what they were looking for: land rights for Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples, which have been recognized in the Colombian Constitution since 1991 and need to be amplified – but what is new is that for the first time campesinos rights, that have had a legal framework since 1994, would be included.

Now, the way to ensure that these rights have more guarantees, that is, they must respect previous free and informed consultations with the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, and more than one or two rural territories need to be included. The regulation of the rest of the areas is still to be completed so that the communities will not face a future threat, for these life plans, for the rural economy.

So one of the biggest challenges for the future of the country, where politics is done without arms, is to gain consensus in territorial planning which includes all the interests, which protects the environment and with guarantees.

Q: What are the issues of restitution and vacating of lands in the country?

These are two of the topics where the Government is sending messages contrary to the Havana agreement, and contrary to the compromise that exists in Law 160 and Law 1448 of Victims and Land Restitution.

There is a total paradox. While in Havana there are advances with partial agreement, it is in vain and there are delays in the restitution – in restitution because the figures speak of a failure. There is no restitution with guarantees, no security for the return of the farming families and there is an element of military doctrine by the Ministry of Defense, which decide whether land is returned or not depending on various security determiners. So the amount of failures is high, the number of restitutions low, and the lack of guarantees is evident.

As we have said although the law is an advance, with all its little success, the fact that there is a law of restitution is very important in a conservative landowning and land-grabbing country such as Colombia.

We have proposed a plan where land is restored with rights in the Zones of Reservas Campesinas. Obviously the Government has not responded to this proposal. The failures of the judges who could help with the upholding of Law 160 which constitutes the farming areas as ZRC that development plans are funded and this could be an error of the judge, and these repairs and returns would be in a collective form in these territories.

On the other hand, in baldíos (untitled lands) the Government, at the same time as coming to an agreement about a land fund with the FARC in Havana, has also opened the way to a plan for a law about ZIDRES, the supposed zones of Interest for Rural Economic and Social Development, which are nothing more than a mockery of Law 160 on the subject of baldíos. This law is clear and says that this land is for campesinos with little or no land. With this rule, the Government seeks to legalize the illegal manner in which the land was taken and concentrated by large landowners and landlords in Vichada, in the eastern plains of Colombia.  The government seeks to give these lands to the same peoples as always: large landowners and landlords who plan to use the lands to start businesses using foreign capital.

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