By Enrique Gamboa, RevistaRAYA, June 18, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

This week the Congress passed two historic laws for Colombia’s campesinos; it recognizes them as special subjects of rights and agrarian jurisdiction. The Minister of Agriculture, Jhenifer Mojica, spoke with RevistaRAYA about what will change in the countryside with this package of legal tools that seek to help small farmers obtain land and thus strengthen their agrarian tradition.

Last May 1, Jhenifer Mojica became the second Minister of Agriculture in the Gustavo Petro administration in the first year of his term. The new head of Agriculture is considered a defender of the territorial rights of the ethnic peoples of Colombia, and she is convinced that the land policy that President Petro is pushing is what’s called for to bring the millions of Colombians who cultivate the countryside out of the horrible darkness of the war.

Mojica entered the administration after the exit of a Minister from the neoliberal side, as was Cecilia López Montaño who in her short period did not show herself to be as decisive in promoting agrarian reform, which was President Petro’s unwavering promise in his election campaign. That’s why, she says, one of the tasks that the President demanded of her is to turn the countryside and food production into the catalysts of his political project, known as “Colombia’s Worldwide Potential for Life”. After nearly two months on the job, Minister Mojica spoke with RevistaRAYA about the new agriculture legislation and how to get land as redress for the campesinos that don’t have it, about people whose land has been stolen, and who need land so they can work and raise food.

What’s going to change for campesinos in Colombia with the passage in Congress this week of the law that makes campesinos the subject of rights?

There are three generations of families that have lived through a process of abandonment and desolation in their role as campesinos and farmers. Finally they have this constitutional reform. What’s changed is that campesinos are now recognized as the subject of special constitutional protection, and also as a collective that has special characteristics in their relation to the land, to the countryside, and to the environment. This is because of their ways of producing, by families, by campesinos, and recognizing ecology, as well as because of their ways of organizing and their capacity for social mobilization, so as to be participants and protagonists for change. As far as the government is concerned, that implies its obligation to implement affirmative public policies; that means the policies have to be different to answer their needs and urgencies for social and economic development. Those policies must also permit the correction of the material inequalities of the campesinos and make progress toward campesino life that is productive and prosperous.

In that respect, how do their rights compare to other population groups like the indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples?

The Constitution of 1991 opened important areas for the recognition of the ethnic peoples, the Afro-Colombians, the “raizales” (native islanders), Palenqueros, and Roma people with measures to protect their communities that were immersed in extreme inequality, but none for the campesinos. What this constitutional reform does is correct that omission and allow the campesinos to be treated with special care, considering that Colombia is a diverse, ethnic, and multicultural State. Now these characteristics of our nation can be materialized, with all of its riches and diversity.

So the campesinos will have popular consultation to decide to approve or disapprove external projects in their territories?

Among the rights of the campesino people there is also the right to organize and establish participatory organizations and collectives and be consulted to seek opportunities for consensus, like those that are contained in the National Development Plan. That is a joint mechanism for participation in all of the structuring, design, and implementation of the public policies that affect the campesinos.

So this law could promote agrarian reform without Congress needing to pass another Statute?

The constitutional reform has an immediate application. Obviously, all the laws, decrees, and regulations in effect have to be oriented toward making the reform more effective. We have installed a National Campesino Agenda, which the President put into effect last year, and that has already had a session at the National University. We are going to call another meeting very soon so we can make progress with the discussions and reach joint positions for the implementation in the National Development Plan of this participation mechanism, but right now this has acquired a constitutional text and it has to be a part of all our public policies.

With the recognition of the campesinos as having rights, what barriers to access to land will be overcome for them?

The President feels an urgency about the implementation of agrarian reform, and it has many components. One of them is the purchase of land, and that is moving forward much more rapidly than in the last two decades. It also has to do with the land fund for peace and with other sources that were established in the Peace Agreement and have to be implemented in order to respond to that land requirement and to the necessary redistribution. One of the sources is the properties now belonging to SAE (Special Assets Society) which are established in the National Development Plan to facilitate their transfer to agrarian reform. And we are also implementing everything related to the strategies for formalizing and adjudicating properties; that means being able to recognize ownership of the land and stabilize property ownership for people who have been using land informally.

What progress is there with the 3 million hectares to be furnished to landless campesinos as agreed in the Havana Peace Agreements?

A goal of 3 million hectares was established for implementation in the Peace Agreement. So we are an administration that has to set a very aggressive pace to be able to carry this out, because President Juan Manuel Santos started out in the first year of implementation with all of the institutional preparation, regulatory reforms, and the rest. Then came the Iván Duque administration which had said they would tear the Agreement to shreds, and in fact, that’s what they did. In the area of land, they didn’t carry out the markers for implementation that were in the Agreement. For example, in the purchase of land; they didn’t buy land to the necessary extent. Neither did they provide the institutional attention necessary to go ahead with it, and in the land court, they based decisions on gaining information about which cases, or which legal proceedings had taken place, but not on achieving results.

How many years are we behind on the subject of land to comply with what was agreed to?

From 2016 to 2022. What I mean is that we have to get up to speed with the homework that the two previous students did not do, and they were not very clear-sighted, especially the latter one. We have to get up to speed so that the administration that follows ours finds a scenario that is more reasonable and reliable with respect to implementation. The President has said that he is committed to deliver a million and a half hectares in the agrarian reform in his term, one half of the goal that was promised in the Agreement. To accomplish that, we are working to improve the National Land Agency (ANT) which we found to be a tiny agency, centralized with all of its functions stuck in Bogotá. Now we have created an ANT some six times larger than before, not just in its budget, but also in its staffing, as well as in its effectiveness in the countryside. We have an office in every one of the departments and we are starting to open work teams in different territories which by their nature and diversity require a start from the beginning. For example, in Tumaco, that means we have a capacity for growth that allows us to have much greater results than we had expected to see in the second part of this year.

Will the land bank be built by the purchase of properties within the framework of the agreement between the Gustavo Petro administration and the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers (Fedegán)?

The agreement with the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers is a very important agreement for generating the purchase of land. The Federation is making a gesture with its affiliates that are interested in contributing properties for voluntary purchase, not just from Fedegán, but we are also getting offers from other trade associations and people with individual titles who want to sell their properties. This also shows that there is a process of bleakness in the countryside, that there are parcels and big properties that are unproductive and where the people are having problems with the land, and that’s because there are farmers who have forgotten how to use the land, where their father was a farmer and when he died, his children didn’t have the vocation to work the land, and that means that there are a lot of people who want to sell their land.

How is the government verifying that these properties that are for sale were not stolen or unproductive land owned by the government and invaded by big landowners or cattle ranchers?

In the procedures established by the National Land Agency and together with the whole sector, we are creating a system of articulation with the Land Restitution Unit to be able to make first hand verification that these are not properties that are involved in reclamation by victims of the armed conflict. We are working together with the team from the National Land Agency and the Land Restitution Unit. They keep us informed of all of the property purchases and sales. That is one of the structural beacons needed to make the acquisitions viable.

Have you found that some of the parcels offered for sale have characteristics of land theft or come from unproductive land owned by the government?

There can be a number of reasons why land purchases are not viable. The main one is the useability and productive capacity of the land, and also for their size, because we are looking for extensive properties. That’s because agrarian reform just has to have that. Large and extensive unproductive properties can be redistributed and can generate productive development. There also have to be exclusions for environmental reasons that would impede the generation of productive agricultural development, which is what we want to see in these properties.  There can also be a lack of drainage capability, and I imagine there are also cases with restitution issues; I can’t say for sure if, among those sales from Fedegán or other associations. how many have been excluded for that reason.

For those that already have land, but it’s not formally titled, what process will the government use? Is that part of the agrarian reform law that was passed this week?

The campesinos that have land but don’t have formal titles are the campesinos that can use the procedure for titling unproductive land, government property, and procedures for titling the property. The National Land Agency has all of the authority to resolve these, and in cases where there is controversy or conflict, that’s why it’s urgent to approve the agrarian jurisdiction.

When will the agrarian judges and the branches of the agrarian tribunals start working to provide a legal resolution for all of the issues that are creating conflict and awaiting decisions in the countryside?

Right now the land suits are being handled by civil judges, because we don’t yet have the agrarian jurisdiction, and that makes the cases go slowly, there is delay, and the judges don’t have the training to handle them in the most effective manner. The constitutional reform creating the agrarian jurisdiction provided that we would have implementation in six months. We have agreed to create a technical group including the Justice Ministry, the Superior Juridical Council, the Council of State, and our agency that will allow us, now in the legislative recess, to draft a bill that would regulate implementation of this jurisdiction so that we can finish it by July 20 and comply with the dates that were set in the constitutional reform. We need the jurisdiction to be more humane and to be present out in the countryside. We have to create alternative methods of conflict resolution in legal settings where people can come to an agreement, so that agrarian justice can also be a justice of reconciliation and coexistence.

Will this jurisdiction help to overcome the conflicts between campesinos and the big landowners?

That’s something we’re excited about. At first the city-dwellers think that the news about agrarian laws is unimportant, but anyone who has any connection with the countryside knows what this means, and that having legal systems for resolving differences and being able to go to an effective decision-maker to settle disputes involving water, titling of property, and guaranteeing the rights of campesinos and farmers, that means total peace. That’s why we’re so excited to be able to set in motion this jurisdiction that will help us resolve the conflicts that are inherent to humanity. We will always have conflicts, but we will be able to resolve them in a legal setting with due process and guarantees for all of the campesinos, not by the path of action, of violence; we must end forever the reproduction of armed conflict in Colombia.

What priority will this administration give to the focus on gender in the agrarian sector?

For us the focus on gender translates to some policies for rural officials who are women; that’s something that flows through all of the policies for the sector, not just land, but also encouraging investment, development, science and technology. We are creating systems for protection and greater productivity for the caregiving economy that women exercise. We also have to recognize the great contribution they make in taking care of small-scale production that feeds us and nurtures our planet. So that is central for us; we in the Ministry of Agriculture have a rural policy and fund for rural women that we achieved in participation settings for the first time. Now we are preparing the proposal and the program to review and update rural policies that allow joint construction with other necessary instruments to respond to those needs appropriately.

How can women get access to the benefits that the Ministry is planning?

Every agency has implemented different systems. For example, in the area of credit, we have special lines of credit for rural women and the popular economy. They are designed for women who need microcredit for enterprises and economic alternatives; we also have special lines of credit for Afro-Colombians, young people; these provide credit with very low interest, the lowest interest in the market, with a rate of subsidy and insurance that we do from the Ministry of Agriculture, and we take them on so that instead of the financial sector seeking interest from them, the financial sector will take an interest in the people’s problems. But we lack good communication with women. It’s a challenge because campesino women still have the idea that nobody will lend to them because they have no credit record, that if they have no collateral, no one will lend to them. We have to break down all of that, especially with the Agrarian Bank, which is the largest public bank in the country, and also with the popular economy, which is the economy we are setting our hopes on. We are knocking on all the doors of the Sena (National Apprenticeship Service) so that rural and campesino women will know that we really are providing them with credit. We have the possibility of raising more than 5 million pesos (roughly USD $1,300 at today’s exchange rates) right now to give them confidence and furnish economic support to all of those transformative initiatives.

What priorities did the government gather from the National Campesino Convention in 2022?

There’s a book full of them. I’m saying that we have to learn this path because it was the first time there was a setting for them to participate to this extent. It’s an opportunity to continue growing and learning. The campesinos, besides being marginalized, excluded, and unrecognized, were also the principal victims of the violence in Colombia, and that led to campesino organizations being massacred and excluded. That means that the campesino movement now has to be rebuilt, and it’s so diverse in its types of organization, in the things it produces, and its territorial representation. I hope that the constitutional reform can be a comfort that will permit resolution of those differences and allow us to go forward. The book is a diagnosis nobody has ever looked at before; it’s a diagnosis made by the people. It’s a very valuable piece of analysis, and not just for the administration of President Petro, but rather a look by the country at what the campesinos say they need.

What aspirations does the Gustavo Petro administration have for the accomplishment of all these commitments to the campesinos of Colombia? How much of this can be accomplished in four years?

The administration is betting everything on the answer to that. We understand that this is the first time in the history of Colombia that an administration chosen by the popular campesino base understands and is ready to confront the needs and the vicissitudes of life in the country, and therefore is determined to carry out everything that’s necessary to provide the answers. Now, not everything can be fixed, all of the history of discrimination, of extreme poverty, and structural poverty can’t all be remedied in three years. That’s why the occasions for campesino participation and mobilization have to be created to accompany the construction of policies, and they have to be made priorities. We want to govern in the countryside and be a government of the people. The President has asked us to create more settings for social mobilization to support the reforms, that we don’t work just with the Congress, and that we work together. Now comes the implementation.

What’s hardest, implementing the agrarian jurisdiction, or uniting the Congress to pass the bill?

The implementation, because there are a million things to do. We are aware that we aren’t going to accomplish everything, but what we do want to accomplish is to do what the communities and the organizations are asking for. That requires an active and developing process. We are going to work with the people who produce our food, and we must help them to produce more, also help the people that have bet on Colombia  becoming a food-producing power. We expect to have the lines open to work directly with the communities.

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