By María Alejandra Medina Cartagena, EL ESPECTADOR, September 2, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Even though the project states that its objective is to augment productivity and competitiveness, there is concern about the possibility that lands that ought to be for campesinos will end up in the hands of big companies.
In the previous administration few things united the Juan Manuel Santos government with the opposition—today running the government—as did the Zidres (Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic, and Social Development). These, after being extensively debated and controverted by those who considered them detrimental to the rights of the landless campesinos, were finally approved by Statute 1776 of 2016. Later they passed through the filter of the Constitutional Court, but even so, certain conditions were placed on them.
Now, after all that effort, it looks as if the Zidres will be taking a back seat, because the National Land Agency (ANT in Spanish) just published a draft agreement that would bring back to life an article created in the 1994 agriculture reform law (Statute 160). The goal is to regulate it. It’s the Business Development Zones (ZDE in Spanish), Article 83 of Statute 160, which was created at the same time as the Campesino Reserve Zones, but which was never implemented. It would allow, by means of contracts, the cession to companies or cooperatives of amounts of land greater than those available under the Agricultural Family Unit (UAF, the minimal amount of land it takes for the subsistence of a campesino family) and would allow, after a minimum of fifteen years, definitive adjudication of title.
The current proposal would retake areas like open lands (belonging to the nation) that have the purpose of “being used for productive agricultural or livestock-raising, fish farming, or large scale lumber projects, with the purpose of fomenting productivity and competition for the efficient use of the land, for sustainable management of natural resources and the generation of employment.” Investment, employment, capital that leverages voluntary associations, sustainable development, among many others, are the objectives.
Who could benefit from those? According to the proposal, “societies of any kind, associations for agricultural vocations, or cooperative organizations in solidarity with vocational agriculture, and cooperatives made up of former combatants in the process of reincorporation that are dedicated to producing agricultural crops or cattle-raising (…).”
On the other hand, those that have titles to open land, to properties in the National Agricultural Fund or the Fund for Parcels in the Integrated Rural Reform in the fifteen years prior to the application for delimitation of ZDE would not be allowed to benefit. Nor would anyone who has been declared to be a wrongful occupier of land, and, finally, those who occupy areas greater than the Family Agricultural Unit or have accumulated lands that were originally adjudicated as open land (known as wrongful accumulation of land).
The matter becomes complicated when you consider the requirements to make up a ZDE and the productive projects that you can develop there. For Jenifer Mojica, a consultant and expert in land issues, these are much less demanding than those that, for example, are required for Zidres. And, in fact, that could be the reason that now they want to regulate the ZDE: the Zidres, as actors in the agriculture and livestock sector and even members of the government have admitted, have been very complicated to implement and even have more regulations pending.
One of the conditions for the Zidres is that they be constituted on land that would be very expensive to cultivate, “badlands” Mojica calls them. That requirement now appears not to exist. Nevertheless, they do require that the beneficiaries of the concept comply, for example, with the standards of the companies designated as BIC (Statute 1901 of 2018) with regard to transparency, evaluation, and management reports, above all in relation to social impact. Besides that, the productive proposals must have components that are technically, socially, environmentally, and financially productive.
On the other hand, the ZDE must have appropriate permits from environmental authorities, and certification that the development project is in harmony with the territorial planning regulations.
The approval of the proposals (from the office of the Assistant Director of the National Land Administration) requires basic criteria (investment, innovation, generation of employment, among others) and “priorities”, among which are “associativity” and environmental sustainability; and further, it requires a prior study of the delimitation of the ZDE. The latter must have, for example, the identification and characterization of the open lands that make it up. This is anticipated to be problematic, because the inventory of open land in this country is precisely one of the great unfinished tasks in the agricultural history of this country.
The proposal also mentions land that would be excluded from the ZDE: Indigenous reservations, Areas Reserved for Campesinos, land in the Registry of Lands Stolen or Forcibly Abandoned, natural parks, forest reserves, along with other protected areas.
The concept under which one could take advantage of the land would be a contract for no less than fifteen years, which requires the beneficiary to exploit surface area no less than two thirds of the amount requested for the activity proposed in the productive project. Failure to commence work in three years would give rise to a penalty and would require the termination of the contract.
By way of rental payment, the government would receive “installments that are to be paid in advance, in exchange for furnishing the use of government-owned real estate demarcated and constituted as ZDE and earmarked for the Land Fund for Integrated Rural Reform”. For Mojica, the foregoing makes no sense. “Why (instead of collecting the remuneration and sending it to the Fund) wouldn’t it be better to title the open lands to the subjects of agrarian reform and carry out the peace agreement in one shot?” she questions.
However, perhaps what will generate the most debate is the possibility that, by means of the contract mentioned earlier, if its requirements are carried out, the lands will be titled definitively. Besides: “in case the titling requires an additional extension for its exploitation, besides the one initially awarded, you could be allowed to design a new contract for exploitation in favor of the highest bidder, even for an equal extension, for a term of two years, at the end of which, if the contractual obligations had been carried out, you could authorize the sale of the open land in your favor at the price dictated by the Board of Directors of the National Land Agency.”
The highest bidder would have some obligations, such as continuing the productive exploitation and not selling the land, with some exceptions.
For Jorge Enrique Bedoya, President of the Colombian Agricultural Society (SAC in Spanish), the debate about this concept is something positive, because it opens the door to a kind of “agile” development in the countryside.
Besides that, he says he expects that, in the end, there will be a process that “will come hand in hand with and will be coordinated with the rest of what the government is offering: the Agricultural Bank, the Finagro (Financing the Agricultural Sector) lines of credit, the programs for rural women”, he claims-, but, even though “the land is a fundamental factor, land alone solves nothing.”
He admits that analysis of this draft agreement is preliminary; it has only just been published, and the discussion will have to take place in the ANT Board of Directors.
According to the supporting document for this proposed agreement, which was also published by the Agency, the ZDE would help with economic development through productive alliances, but it would also “control the improper expansion of the agricultural boundaries” and “avoid and correct the phenomenon of inequitable concentration or uneconomic fragmentation of rural property.”
It has been said many times that Colombia has the potential to be a breadbasket for the world, and that its agricultural boundaries are untapped. However, the system that this agreement proposes will lead to ferocious opposition in the public debate.
Senators such as Jorge Robledo and Wilson Árias opposed the Zidres, invoking the Constitutional Court’s decision that, in 2012, found three Articles in the Juan Manuel Santos’ first Development Plan unconstitutional; the three that clearly intended to go back to Business Development Zones.
The Court said at that time: “even though it would certainly activate a pre-existing concept not yet sufficiently explored by the Colombian government (the ZDE) it established an uncertain legal system for its functioning. That system completely ignores the compensation that the government should receive for permitting the use of part of its land wealth, especially considering a dramatic number of campesinos displaced by violence and a well-known shortage of available land. The government presented no argument to defend such a plan.”
For this reason opponents of the Zidres and of other proposed reforms to the land law that have been offered in recent years have maintained that it is unacceptable to turn open land belonging to the nation over to businesses when the poor campesinos who have no land or not enough should take priority.
We tried to contact a spokesperson for ANT and for the Agriculture Ministry, but up to the time of publication it has not been possible. Neither have we been able to speak with anyone from those agencies about the publication of the proposed agreement.
The draft published by ANT will be available for public comment during the next eight days.