Tag Archives: Mining

Colombian Presidential Elections Tomorrow – What is at stake?

Tomorrow, May 25th, are the first-round of Presidential elections. If the winner does not gain a majority, there will be a run-off in which the leading 2 candidates will face-off in June.

Although initially unpopular, the two main contenders seem to be the incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon with the National Unity party, and right-wing ‘Democratic Centre’, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga Escobar. Zuluaga’s political movement is comes from the opposition that former President and Senator-Elect Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002-2010) has presented to Santos.

Santos, Uribe’s Defence Minister, was elected in 2010 on a promise of continuity of Uribe, particularly with respect to security policy. However, the right-wing ex-President has felt ‘betrayed’ by his successor given Santos’ normalization of relations with Venezuela, and his opening of a peace process with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC. Uribe, who became popular because of his hard-line military stance towards the demonized guerrillas, sees the process as a ceding the nation to ‘terrorism’.

Santos in turn emphasizes, rightly so, that this is the most promising peace process with the FARC in Colombia’s history. Out of 5 points on the agenda, agreements have already been reached on controversial items such as agrarian reform, opening the political system, and an agreement on drug trafficking (with the FARC for the first time partially recognizing their involvement in the illicit business). In a sign of confidence, the FARC and the ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire during elections.

More Scandals than Peace

Over the lats few weeks, scandals have dominated the national imagination concerning the elections. In particular, there are accusations from Uribe that Santos’ campaign, through his Venezuelan campaign advisor JJ Rendon, received $12 million from narcotraffickers. Santos is starting legal proceedings against Uribe for these accusations, and Uribe has yet to provide evidence to authorities.

On the other hand, a video surfaced in which Oscar Ivan Zuluaga appears to be meeting with a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, that is spying on the peace negotiations in Havana. Zuluaga and Uribe have claimed that the video is a fabrication, whereas the Fiscalia/Attorney General has verified that the video is real.

An election over peace

The rift between Uribe and Santos has become one of the key substantive issues in the elections – the peace talks with the FARC. Uribe’s US-funded counterinsurgency largely successfully routed the FARC, and it seems that they are willing to sincerely negotiate with the government. However, many sectors of Colombian society, particularly the right-wing, still view the guerrillas with suspicion and prefer a military solution to the conflict. This sector is largely represented by Uribe and Zuluaga. Santos has made this a key narrative within his own Presidential campaign, saying that this election is about choosing between “war” (implicitly meaning Zuluaga and Uribe) and “peace” (him). Santos is selling his re-election as a promise of being able to finalize an agreement with the FARC, and build on the progress of the last two years.

Key questions for voters are whether they trust the Peace process in Havana (which many Colombians do, but many have memories of the failed process from 1998-2002/The Caguan negotiations). If they don’t, then Zuluaga is the obvious choice, but if they do, the next question is whether or not Santos is necessary for the peace process. Leftist Senator Piedad Cordoba Ruiz has announced that she will be “voting for peace” in the Presidential elections, an implicit nod to Santos.

For their part, the centre-left Green Alliance candidate and former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa Londoño has said that he will keep the current negotiating team, as would Left-wing Democratic Alternative Pole Candidate Clara Lopez Obregon. Conservative Party candidate Martha Lucia Ramirez Blanco, who also served as a Defence Minister to Uribe and partially designed his security policy, said that she would condition the talks on human rights concerns such as the FARC ending the recruitment of minors/child soldiers. Zuluaga, for his part, said he would give the FARC a week to suspend ‘all criminal activities’, or that he would end the peace talks.

Zuluaga’s position is rooted in Uribe’s stance towards negotiation during his Presidency. Uribe claimed to want a negotiated settlement with the FARC, but strictly under the condition that they cease hostilities. Given that a unilateral cessation of hostilities and ‘criminality’ was a non-starter for the FARC, critics of Uribe claimed that he was merely opting for a FARC military defeat. Zuluaga’s choice of language in the campaign seems more open to a negotiated settlement, but only as a reaction to the ‘peace and reconciliation vs. more war’ narrative promoted by Santos. After 50 years of war, no candidate will win points for projecting an image of war-mongering and intransigence.

And the rest of the issues….

According to recent polls, most Colombians seem to be skeptical about Presidential re-elections. Moreover, the peace talks with the FARC actually rank low on list of priorities for everyday Colombians (most of whom live in the city or in regions where the guerrillas have been routed, or where common criminals or paramilitary successor groups are the cuase of insecurity). As evidenced by recent mass protests, key issues that have taken a backseat to sensational headlines and the peace talks are education, health care, and Free Trade Agreements and mining. On mining, in the RCN Presidential debates, nearly all candidates agreed with vague platitudes about striking a ‘balance’ between the environment, the desires of affected communities, and the need to ‘develop’ natural resources.

In terms of Free Trade Agreements and the economic model, the only candidate that seems to be offering an alternative to trade liberalization is the Polo’s Clara Lopez.

A Historic Election?

Despite the clear problems with Santos’ economic policies (one of the sources of his declining popularity), Colombia does have a historic opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement with one of the most powerful and longest standing insurgencies in the contemporary world.  Zuluaga’s recent surge in some polls represent a threat to the talks, and the generalized distrust of the FARC may see Uribe come back to power through Zuluaga as his proxy. However, the hacker scandal has hurt Zuluaga. Shockingly, Uribe during the congressional elections made claims of fraud, and is saying that he may not accept the result of the Presidential elections. Santos is correct to a certain extent to say that this election is about peace over war, but it is unclear whether it will be his peace.

A few years ago middle and upper-class Colombians marched en masse (a rarity) against the FARC in a protest organized by social media-savy University students (One Million Voices Against the FARC). This protest could be interpreted as a validation of Uribe’s then-counterinsurgency strategy. However, as was evidenced last April 9, and the April 9 before that, Colombians are now marching in favour of peace and a negotiated settlement. This Sunday it will be seen if what Santos and Zuluaga are saying is what Colombians are hearing, if Colombians are ready for peace over war, and more importantly, if a deal with the FARC is worth all of the potential social and economic problems that a second Santos term might bring.

 

 

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Putting Profits over People: Extractivism and Human Rights in Colombia

Originally published on Friday, 15 November 2013 12:56 at Upside Down World, and written by Mariel Perez and Dana Brown.

colombia_mining_violence

César García, a husband, father, and outspoken leader was assassinated on November 2 by a gunshot wound to the head as he was heading home with his wife and nine-year-old daughter after a day of work in his small-farmer community. Garcia led farm workers in brave and staunch opposition to a large-scale mining project in the Tolima department of central Colombia. Little more than one month prior, a similarly tragic story unfolded. On September 30, 36-year-old Adelinda Gómez left a meeting of her community’s women group, part of her countless efforts as a leader and human rights defender in the small agricultural municipality of Almaguer, in the Cauca department of southwestern Colombia. As she was walking home, she was attacked by two unidentified individuals, who shot her to death and left her 16-year-old son in critical condition. Just one month before her death, Adelinda had received an anonymous telephone call in which she was ordered to stop speaking out against mining or she would get herself killed. Adelinda and César’s tragic assassinations are sobering examples of the increasingly violent context surrounding large-scale mining and other extractive industry projects in Colombia.

 

When President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010 and declared mining one of the principal locomotoras or engines of the Colombian economy, communities and individuals like Adelinda and César strengthened their mobilization efforts to peacefully protest mining projects because of the serious environmental and human rights issues associated with the largely unregulated industry. Colombian human rights organization CINEP notes an exponential rise since 2008 in the number of social movements protesting extractive industries such as carbon, gold, and petroleum, seemingly in response to the increased economic focus on mining. In a manifestation of civil society’s mobilization in response to the serious problems caused by mining, communities and rights groups, organized under the Network of Solidarity and Fraternity with Colombia (Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia), recently conducted a Juicio Ético or People’s Tribunal against transnational mining corporation AngloGold Ashanti, citing evidence of grave violations of human rights and International Humanitarian Law, including forced displacement, aggressions against community leaders, and lack of consultation of affected communities. This people’s tribunal concluded that transnational corporations as well as the Colombian government must be held politically and legally accountable to citizens, given the devastating human rights effects of the largely unregulated mining sector in Colombia. This rising trend in social unrest exposes how mining activities constitute an imminent threat to the livelihoods of local communities; human rights defenders and communities have had to organize in response to recent legal efforts to ease restrictions on mining and to combat the consequences of Free Trade Agreements (10 of which have been signed or negotiated since Santos began his presidential term), which ultimately prioritize transnational companies by imposing restrictions that make it more difficult for the Colombian government to protect its people.

 

The issues at stake are so pressing that the Colombian government’s own oversight institution, the Comptroller’s Office, dedicated a 200+ page report to the consequences of large-scale mining. In the document, the Comptroller warns of the serious human rights effects of unbridled and unregulated large-scale mining, using data to show how mining projects reward companies with accumulated wealth while leaving Colombia with only accumulated waste. The institution warns that current laws impose no limits on awarding mining titles for projects, they do not limit environmental licenses that permit mining activity, and they do not employ adequate enforcement mechanisms in terms of environmental impact studies related to mining projects.  Even more grave is the lack of appropriate consultation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in regards to proposed projects, despite the fact that Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of these communities is enshrined in the 1991 Constitution.

 

Although Colombians are exercising their constitutional rights in mobilizing against these devastating large-scale mining projects, the deaths of brave defenders like Adelinda and César show the high risks involved in confronting the powerful economic and political interests at stake in large-scale extractive projects, as well as the State’s failure to protect and defend the rights of its citizens.

 

Mega-projects and Human Rights

 

The Comptroller’s report underscores the strong links between extractive projects and violations of human rights, underlining concern around the increased militarization and the exacerbation of conflicts that mining causes. The statistics presented in the report seem to justify these worries. For example, 87% of forced displacement originates in areas with mining and energy projects. Other numbers further cement this correlation: 78% of crimes against trade unionists occur in these regions; 89% of violations against indigenous peoples; and 90% of those against Afro-Colombians. In total, 80% of human rights violations in Colombia occur in zones contemplating or already hosting large-scale mining and energy projects. Civil society presented one example of this correlation during its juicio ético against AngloGold Ashanti; human rights defender Alejandro Uribe Chacón was killed by members of the military, who were assigned to the Sur de Bolivar region to protect strategic zones for mining. While this execution took place in 2006, the human rights problems persist in this economically strategic region. Just a few weeks ago, human rights groups warned of a plan to assassinate leaders in Sur de Bolivar who are mobilizing against mining projects in the area. The huge risks to the lives and livelihoods of those opposing mega-projects reaches beyond the mining sector. In the municipality of Ituango in the department of Antioquia, the Movimiento Rios Vivos, a rights group peacefully protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam, denounces frequent threats and attacks against its leaders. Just last month, Rios Vivos leader Genaro Graciano was nearly killed after a small explosion was intentionally caused just in front of his home.  ASOQUIMBO, an organization protesting the construction of the El Quimbo dam in the southwestern Huila department of Colombia warns of a similar situation of violence, denouncing massive forced displacement of communities by the armed forces and violence against those peacefully protesting the dam project.

 

Colombian human rights organization CODHES also reports a relationship between occurences of forced displacement and regions or municipalities that are in the government’s Territorial Consolidation Plan, a plan that foments foreign investment in the extractive industries in rural regions. This correlation underscores the state’s support of transnational corporations over its own people. Further evidence of the state’s prioritization of transnational interests is the fact that the 2001 Mining Code, which is still in force, classifies mining projects as public utility works. This implies that national development projects will always take precedence over local interests. Given the current reality, this means that the government’s locomotora, or economic engine, legally trumps the human rights of its citizens.

 

The Comptroller’s office warns that human rights violations related to mining will become a bigger problem as the government grants more and more land titles to victims claiming their land rights through the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law. This is because almost all towns that are at the center of the government’s land restitution law are currently developing mining projects.

 

“Conflict Minerals”

 

In a sense, the increased link between the presence of extractive industries, megaprojects and violations of human rights seems to be reminiscent of the “conflict minerals” situation in certain African countries. Though in the Colombian case, it is important to note that mineral wealth not only lines the guerrillas’ pockets, but also those of state and para-state actors. While the FARC’s role in illegally mining tungsten ore is most visible at the international level, corporations, state agents, and paramilitary groups have also benefitted from a loosely regulated extractives industry. US coal mining company Drummond, for example, is known to have extensive links with paramilitary groups whom they paid to threaten and assassinate those contesting the company’s economic interests in Colombia. Furthermore, virtually the entire emerald trade in Colombia (which accounts for a whopping 80-90% of the world market) has long been controlled by paramilitary actors. The military’s 2006 assassination of human rights defender Uribe Chacón for the benefit of AngloGold Ashanti exemplifies the state’s direct role in fomenting conflict mining. A more recent example involves Colombia’s use of legal recourses to protect large-scale mining interests over the rights of Colombian citizens. In the municipality of Piedras in the department of Tolima, citizens held a popular referendum in which 2,791 individuals voted to reject mining projects in the region and only 24 voted in support of large-scale mining. While these mechanisms of participatory democracy are binding according to current law, the government directly undermined these rights in May of this year, enacting a decree that rules that citizens cannot halt the awarding of titles for mining projects, regardless of the degree of popular opposition. In effect, the state is legalizing conflict mining through its economic policies and through the use of legal recourse that benefits large-scale corporations, to the serious detriment of Colombian citizens.

 

While Santos agreed to put the land issue on the table of negotiation with the FARC, recognizing its role in the exacerbation of the Colombian conflict, victims of the armed conflict are not party to the negotiations and there are no discussions of mineral rights for communities, leaving dangerous room for loopholes that may allow corporations to continue to take lands from their rightful owners. Given Colombia’s increased economic aperture and the growing prominence of extractive industries and megaprojects, the government cannot expect to fully address the land issue without talking about natural resources.  A true political will for peace must go beyond demobilizing the guerrilla and address all of the factors and actors that exacerbate violence in the country.

 

A Lasting Peace in Colombia

 

This week we celebrated news of a new agreement at the negotiating table between the FARC and the Colombian government regarding political participation. This is an important step towards reaching a full agreement on the end of the armed conflict and a huge achievement for the negotiators. Nevertheless, Colombians know that much more than a signed agreement with the FARC is needed in order to bring lasting peace to Colombia.

 

In addition to the need to dismantle neoparamilitary organizations and negotiate with the other remaining guerrilla groups, a lasting peace in Colombia would require economic and social justice that includes equitable access to land and natural resources.

 

While the prospects for peace in Colombia seem grim given the increasingly violent conflict surrounding extractive industries and their so-called development projects, the tireless efforts of members of civil society cannot be overlooked. Recently, Afro-Colombian communities succeeded in legal action against the State, which had identified portions of their collectively-held land as strategic mining zones under a 2012 Resolution. The Court declared that the labeling of these areas as strategic mining zones violated Afro-Colombian groups’ rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, a success in upholding communities’ rights over the rights of transnational corporations. Nonetheless, the Court failed to make a statement on other fundamental rights, including the communities’ rights to land and cultural diversity, and a healthy environment. As the shortcomings of the decision show, much work remains in ensuring the rights of Colombian citizens. Adelinda and César’s recent deaths are a testament to this fact. They are the devastating manifestations of the dehumanizing effects of uncontrolled large-scale extractivism and neoliberal development in Colombia and of the high costs of putting national and transnational economic interests before the lives and livelihood of the Colombian people.

Dana Brown and Mariel Pérez are human rights activists at the US Office on Colombia (http://www.usofficeoncolombia.org/) where they work to support civil society voices for peace with justice, an end to impunity and respect for human rights in Colombia.”

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Colombia-FARC Land Reform; in whose interests?

The third and final part of a series I did critically analyzing the Agrarian Reform agreement that came out of the peace talks in Havana between the FARC-EP and the government of Colombia. This was originally published on Saturday, June 1st over at Colombia Politics. 

I also thought it was important to add on a bit about the Zonas de Reserva Campesina/the Autonomous Peasant Zones, to contrast the deal between the government and the rebels with a peasant perspective.

Colombia FARC land reform; in whose interests?

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Colombia´s government and the rebel guerrilla group the FARC last week signed an historic agreement on land reform as part of the peace processs currently underway in Havana, Cuba. Over the last few days I have looked at the detail of this agreement and analysed the historical context of previous violent and failed attempts at land reform in Colombia. This third article looks at the possible interests at work behind this reform.

So whose interests does this reform serve?

Supporters are correct, this reform would never be able to pass in Colombia’s extremely conservative, oligarchic, co-opted, and paramilitarized democracy.

For some, this negotiation represents an opportunity for a social transformation that is as necessary as it is impossible in Colombia’s political system.

Of course the ultimate goal of the talks in Havana is a demobilization of the guerrilla force, but the FARC did not appear out of thin air, and they are the (some would say misguided/arrogant) product of centuries of marginalization of the peasantry.

So will the Agrarian Reform not only reform land, but the power relationships which keep the Colombian peasantry in a state of displacement and exploitation?

Economic Interests

Firstly, the deal says that land will not be taken from those who have acquired their land “legitimately”. But…

Much of the violently expropriated land has the paperwork to prove its legality; the former AUC paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño´s African Palm Oil cultivations, for example.

And the logic of this reform is contradictory. It assumes the “legal” concentration of land (which even before paramilitarism, and even La Violencia, was soaked in violence) is some how ethical or tolerable.

The government will not go after land owners who have gained their wealth “honestly”, but this surely goes against the philosophy of the President’s landmark Victim’s Law which has a reverse onus of proof (the land owner has to prove that the land was acquired through legal means).

Agrarian Reform for me will also have very little impact when we consider the rise of Free Trade Agreements, which appear to be the new economic threat to the Colombian peasantry.  Colombian exports to the US have already decreased, but Colombian imports from the US have increased.

How is the Colombian peasant supposed to compete against heavily subsidized Canadian, American, and European agricultural goods?

How is the Colombian peasant supposed to protect their land from Canadian, American, and British mining corporations?

The answer is that he is “encouraged” to become a part of agribusiness.

The Agrarian Reform promotes a more “productive” countryside and  food security” but it says nothing of food sovereignty which the Colombian peasant movement has been struggling for.

For whom is the countryside supposed to be more “productive”? Who will gain – rural Colombians, the majority of whom live in poverty, or European, American, and Canadian consumers of coffee, roses, bananas, and palm oil?

One of Colombia´s leading political publications La Silla Vacia argues:

“Agribusiness will win because – if one day these accords are implemented – there will finally be a real land market in Colombia, something vital for global competitiveness”.

A reform for the few not the many, but why?

So if the reform instead of being transformative is in fact for the benefit of the business class why was this?

I believe it is a question of democracy, representation and power.

First – the only people who get heard are those at the table.

The FARC leadership is represented by Ivan Marquez, Pablo Catatumbo, and Andres Paris, among others, while the government has brought together the Bogota elite, with former Vice-President, Supreme Court Magistrate, and architect of the 1991 constitution Humberto De La Calle; Sergio Jaramillo, who was Santos’ right-hand man as Defence Minister and is seen as one of the chief planners behind Uribe’s “Democratic Security” counter-terrorism strategy; Oscar Naranjo and Jorge Mora, representing the Police and the Army, respectively; and of course, Luis Carlos Villegas, President of the National Association of Entrepreneurs, who’s daughter had once been kidnapped by the FARC.

So, who is not at the table?

Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, displaced people, people representing victims´ groups, the peasantry, working people, women, refugees, youth/former forced combatants, and most importantly  people representing the communities which still live under the occupation of the FARC guerrillas. In short anyone that either doesn’t represent the Colombian political and economic establishment, the State institutions of violence, or armed rebels.

Santos and the FARC really don’t have any broad support.

Meanwhile the true holders of power when it comes to the land issue is the landed elite represented by the association of cattle-ranchers, FEDEGAN, and their President Jose Felix LaFaurie, and, of course Alvaro Uribe. But Uribe, LaFaurie, and the uribista land-owning class have vehemently opposed the talks, let alone influence the decisions made at the table.

So at the peace table, no one really has any legitimate mandate to say anything on behalf of “Colombians”.

Sure, civil society has been “consulted” within the peace process, having the opportunity to send in proposals to the negotiators online, through forums in the capital, or regional initiatives for peace, but is this anything more than just tokenism?

There is talk of the FARC wanting to create a Popular Assembly to ratify any Peace Agreement, while the government says it is committed to holding a referendum, but even this does not give the Colombian people a proper voice. The choice will be a false one. Either support an imposed peace or we´re going back to war.

Colombian peasants however, understand the deep contradictions within the process and are actively struggling to change it.

The agreement seeks to “invigorate” the Zonas de Reserva Campesina, “Peasant Reserve Zones”, areas which peasant lands were to be protected from activities detrimental to the small-scale land economy such as mono-cultives, mining, and the concentration of land. So far there are only 6 in the country, and the Minister of Agriculture Luis Camilo Restrepo has criticized them as “little independent republics”. Under Uribe, they were stigmatized as “zones of subversion”.

The Association representing the zones and 50 peasant organizations across the country, ANZORC, held a national conference with thousands of peasants in San Vicente del Caguan (site of the failed 1998-2002 negotiatons with the FARC), in which they elaborated their visions for their own future concerning mining and energy policy, coca eradication and crop substitution, the financing of their economic plans, and their relationship to international development organizations. They invited government representatives to their policy conference, and tried to connect with Havana through the internet, hoping to be heard at the negotiating table. The FARC were present as unfortunately, these zones are in areas that have traditionally been under guerrilla control. They are also asking for political and cultural recognition of their communities, autonomy so they can manage them, and for a consideration of alternative forms of economic development. ANZORC has also emphasized that they do not want hand-outs/”assistencialism”, but instead they want the power to make decisions over their own development.

An historic agreement after all?

The Agrarian Reform agreement may indeed be historic. It is a positive sign that this time around the FARC are serious about a negotiated settlement.

The true root causes of the conflict – the relationship between the different classes of Colombia to land, and of that tension to armed violence – however, has only been partially addressed.

The voices of those most affected haven’t really been heard at the table.

The government and an echo chamber of journalists, pundits, politicians, and others are claiming that this will be a sustainable solution to the issue at the root of social and political conflict in Colombia.Yet it seems that this agreement is far from transformative – it does not subvert how power works in Colombia, but instead reinforces it.

The government, through the negotiations in Havana, represents those Colombians who apparently are the only ones who have ever mattered in its eyes – those with land or guns.

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FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

This is part two of three looking at last week’s so-called “historic” Agrarian Reform agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian  government as part of Peace talks in Havana. Here, I take a look at Colombia’s history of failed agrarian reforms. This was originally published on May 30, 2013 over at Colombia Politics.  If you want to know more, I strongly recommend that you check out this an analysis of land concentration in Colombia by Ana Maria Ibanez and Juan Carlos Munoz from the University of the Andes.

FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

Soldados de la Fuerza Tarea Omega patrullan y revisan hoy 6 de agosto del 2009 en las selvas de Vista Hermosa  Meta , uno de los campamentos del frente 27 de las FARC, en medio de la ofensiva del Ejercito Nacional por la captura del Mono Jojoy, miembro del secretariado de las FARC. FOTO MAURICIO MORENO EL TIEMPO

Colombia´s government has signed an agreement with FARC guerrillas for agrarian or rural reform as part of the peace process currently underway in Havana.

On Tuesday I looked at the detail behind this accord, today I turn to history for the lessons we can learn from failed attempts at land reform in Colombia.

Colombia´s land; in the hands of the few, not the many

Like in many other Latin American countries, or post-colonial oligarchies/plutocracies, the wealth that comes from the land has been violently concentrated through different processes (genocide of indigenous peoples, colonialism, the encomienda system, agrarian reforms gone awry, free trade agreements/neoliberalism, and of course armed counter-agrarian reform/socio-political violence) for the last 500 years or so.

For historical reasons and due to the armed violence, however, Colombian rural inequality is particularly stark. 

An astounding 52% of the land is owned by 1.15% of the population. The rural GINI coefficient (the standard measure for inequality among economists) is 0.85 (where a 1 means complete inequality/where one person owns everything). Only a fifth of the potentially productive land is actually being put to use.

Colombia is by no means a naturally unequal place. So, how did we get to to this point?

I don’t want to give a history lesson, but I think Sunday’s agreement between the FARC and the Santos Government is not just a deal within it itself, but represents a significant shift in a process of popular (often armed) mobilization for agrarian reform, and counter-mobilization and concentration by the elite.

This process refers not only to Colombia´s current violence (the 49 year long war and humanitarian disaster) but also a defining aspect of the entire way the nation has been organized since the encomienda.

The history of land concentration

Initially, land was organized around the idea of owning the land that one worked (or had workers on). Later, Spanish colonial government allowed private buyers to purchase government estates, and in 1821, the government allowed the direct transfer of public land into private hands.

Under the colonial regime, land belonging to the Church or to indigenous communities was nominally protected from colonization. However, these rights were abolished for indigenous reserves in 1810, and for the Church later on.

The legalization/formalization of uncultivated public land (baldios) was handled by a government who was (much like today’s Colombia) run exclusively by the elite, leading to the creation of even more large estates for the wealthy.

Land, as a way of avoiding taxes, fighting inflation, and building credit, made it an asset which was more valuable than just what it was able to produce, making it (like in most places) one of the most coveted assets by the elites, leaving little for the landless/popular classes.

The colonization of the Colombian territory saw small-scale peasant farmers pushed off their land, forced to move into more marginal areas which they would then make productive. The landed elites would then (often forcibly) push them off of this land, and in the process expanding their territory and further consolidating its ownership.

The peasants, now landless, would move deeper into the jungle/territory/mountains looking for land. This process to a certain extent still occurs today.

A peasants´ revolt?

By the 1920s, peasants organized themselves and went on the offensive. The elites in turn responded with more displacement. This social conflict resulted in the Agrarian Reform of 1936, which because of faulty implementation (and Colombia being a Plutocracy), resulted in the formalization of property again benefiting the elites.

The Landed Oligarchy, sick of having to deal with subversive peasants, also looked for ways of making the land productive by having more capital than labour, leading to the rise of cattle-ranching.

The class warfare was only exacerbated by La Violencia  the civil war between the two political factions representing different sectors of the elite (the Liberals and the Conservatives). Forced displacement became an extremely common practice, and the standard method for resolving disputes over land given the general absence of the state in many rural or peripheral areas of the national territory.

In response to this crisis, in 1961 President Carlos Lleras Restrepo attempted a land reform through Law 135. Nevertheless, again, formalization and the granting of public land led to more concentration.

Only 1 per cent of the land was expropriated from the elite, and most of what was expropriated was poor or low-quality land. Ironically, as the government was promoting land reform, it was simultaneously giving large land owners the benefit of subsidies and tax incentives to increase production, increasing the value of their land, and making expropriation more difficult.

Rise of the narco-bourgeousie

From the 1970s to 1984, the rise of the “narco-bourgeousie” and their desire for land led to the decomposition of large estates, and the consolidation of medium-sized ones.

But while the armed counter-agrarian reform of the expansion of paramilitarism, as well as the booming cocaine industry which laundered much of its wealth in large estates reversed this trend, it also introduced drug trafficking into the historical trend of violent conflict between peasants and landed oligarchs.

In 1994, President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo tried another land reform with Law 160. Instead of focusing on formalization or expropriating land from the elite and redistributing it to the peasantry, however, it worked on the transfer of property through market mechanisms, where by the government would supposedly subsidize 70% of land bought by peasants from land owners.

However, as is evidenced by the case of the women of the Enchanted Valley, a group of displaced women who tried to purchase some land through this scheme and are now not only menaced by armed groups but also by debt collectors, the deal was only real in the halls of power in Bogota.

Paramilitarism resulted in the violent expropriation of 1.8 million hectares of land, or 2.5 times more land that had been re-distributed through the latest agrarian reform.

How different will the FARC, Santos Government reform be? 

The Agrarian Reform thrashed out in Havana runs the risk of not being very different from previous failures. This is particularly true of  how the process of “formalizing” land title (as the current agreement with the FARC seeks to do) usually is used by rural elites for their favour, and not for landless peasants.

But this reform forms part of a larger peace deal which is suppose to be transformative for Colombian society, and so the stakes are higher.

Have Paramilitaries entered where the state hasn´t bothered to go? 

Sure the “New Colombian Countryside” deal sounds promising, but will it run the same risk as the 2011 Victim’s Law (Law 1488)?

Countless courageous community leaders in places like El Choco and Cordoba have been threatened or murdered by neo-paramilitary groups simply for advocating for their land rights.

In Cordoba, there is even a neo-paramilitary group that has deemed itself the “Anti-Restitution Army“.

This resurgence of armed agrarian counter-reform (or perhaps, a consolidation that already took place during the height of the AUC paramilitaries), shows that when it comes to land in “The Other Colombia”, not much has changed in 100 or even 200 years.

The government´s apparently noble policy of trying to help the most disenfranchised in Colombian society is fine, but both the fact that the State is co-opted by the elite, and that the state has no little to no legitimate presence beyond the military in “The Other Colombia”, means it has neither the mandate, authority, or capacity to carry out these reforms.

The State can’t re-distribute land in places it has never bothered to show up for.

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Towards Peace and A New Colombian Countryside – But by whom and for whom?

The first in a three part series I wrote about the latest agreement on Agrarian Reform in Havana between the FARC and the Colombian government as part of the Peace talks. This was originally published as a contribution to Colombia Politics.

delacalle Chief government negotiator Humberto De La Calle.

Sunday was another historic day in Colombia’s 49-year war, as it marked the first substantive policy agreement reached by the oldest and strongest guerrilla force in the Western hemisphere, the agrarian and Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-The People’s Army (The FARC-EP or FARC) and the national Government.

The agreement, on land reform, was the first point out of five on the agenda of peace talks currently taking place in Havana. The government and the FARC press release said that this reform is leading towards a “new Colombian countryside”. Over the course of three articles I will look in detail at what this means, what we can learn from history and whose interests are at work.

“What we have achieved with this agreement will begin radical, equitable, and democratic changes in the rural and agrarian reality of Colombia.  It´s centred around the people, the small producer, access and distribution of land, the fight against poverty, the stimulation of agricultural production and the rejuvenation of the countryside’s economy” – FARC and Government negotiators.

So what actually was agreed?  The text isn’t public, and nothing is final until all of the points/the entire process has been agreed upon. However, according to the President’s press office, the agreement is centred around four main pillars:

1. Increase use of, and access to land by the creation of a Land Fund which will give land to peasants who either have none or “too little”. Land for the fund will come from land that has been “acquired illegally”, and that the vast majority of people in the countryside “should not fear” their land being touched if it was acquired legitimately.

Santos said that he hopes to create judicial guarantees to defend the land rights of the smallest and most “defenseless” peasants.

In a press conference, the FARC added two additional points here that they would like to see:

1) That land for the fund should not only come from properties which were the site of displacement and violence, but also land that is related to drug money, state properties, and large unproductive estates, with “priority” being given to peasants and women.

2) That social and environmental limits be placed on the production of hydrocarbons, agribusiness products, open-pit mining, biofuels and the creation of hydro energy projects.

2. Create specialized development programs in the regions where they are most needed.

3. Promote social programs and infrastructure in all of “rural” Colombia. By this, the Colombian head of state meant for national plans that would “radically reduce poverty and extreme poverty” such as irrigation, health, education, roads, potable water, housing, and social protections.

4. Increase food security. The government said that this will focus “on the most poor” and making the countryside “more productive”.

The President noted that a comprehensive land reform is necessary in order to prevent further conflicts. In a point that may generate much controversy among the landed elites is that the agreement will seek to “limit the agricultural frontier” (delimitar la frontera agricola).

The agreement also nodded at other points on the agenda, particularly the rights of victims to effective reparation, as it “seeks to reverse the effects of the conflict and to restitute the victims of forced removal and displacement.” For a more substantive breakdown of the sub-points, policies, and mechanisms of the agreement, please check out Dr. Virigina Bouvier’s recent thoughts.

It also bears mentioning that the agreement seeks a mass formalization/legalization of rural property in Colombia, given the immense amount of informal ownership among the peasantry, reaching 49% generally.

Reasons for optimism?

From a purely humanitarian perspective, the  fact that the FARC and the government seem to have agreed on what has historically been one of the most contentious issues between Leftist/armed popular movements in Colombia and the Establishment makes me confident to say that this time around, if everything stays the course, the FARC will probably demobilize.

Concessions from the FARC?

Even though the FARC´s rhetoric is to ask for more than they will get, the insurgents have clearly moderated their demands, a first in decades.

In their 1982 Congress, the increasingly strong FARC-EP passed their “Law 01″ in which they explicitly ask for the abolishment and expropriation (by them) of all large land estates, land used for mining, bananas, wood, by multinationals etc. Until Sunday, a socialist/anti-capitalist agrarian reform has been their main policy position in previous negotiations.

Is peace near?

We should not confuse the government discourse about “peace” with the demobilization of the FARC.  Even without these marxist rebels there are still the neo-paramilitaries, drug cartels, the ELN, to say nothing of the absurdly high levels of violence related to “common” crime.

However, disarming Latin America’s oldest and strongest insurgency would put a significant break on the violence. No matter what one thinks of the talks, the prospect of a Colombia without the FARC is something that would be worth many concessions (and the government seems to agree).

There has been much celebration in the Colombia and abroad, both in the media and among politicians and civil society. Semana, one of the country’s most influential news magazines, called the reform “an agreement which could settle the State’s debt to the countryside” and American Vice-President Joe Biden also lauded Colombia for the seemingly historic agreement.

It must be noted where this protracted negotiation leaves the peace process, as the clock is ticking. The first point on the agenda was was the most substantive, probably the most divisive only after the question of amnesty, and really the heart of not just Colombia’s armed conflict, but of inequality more generally.

This was no accident as the rationale was to get the most difficult point out of the way, and then sail through the other four (political participation, disarmament/’the end of the conflict’, drug trafficking, and reparations for victims),   which were set out in the pre-agreement/terms of negotiations last summer.

Although peace is not built in a day, the talks are already six months old, and the government has repeatedly said that it will get up from the table in November of this year. Many see this as putting the pressure on the insurgents to show some true commitment and adding dynamism to the process, in contrast to the four-year long fiasco of the Caguan negotiations.

Others argue that the deadline is related to the electoral calendar as Presidential elections will occur in 2014, and if they succeed in a timely manner, would allow Santos to use peace with the FARC for his re-election. It bears mentioning that for their part, the FARC have recognized the slow pace of the talks and have requested for more time.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the agreement from a historical perspective.

Simon is the owner of the website The Banana Plutocracy

Photo, El Tiempo

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“It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” Viral Campaign – Positivity as propaganda?

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I recently noticed that a viral campaign called “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia”, started by a digital social media firm Zemoga and its Vice-President Carlos Pardo,  has taken the Colombian community on Facebook and Twitter by storm.  The campaign received a nod over at the Huffington Post, recognition by CNN,  has been endorsed by ultra-famous Colombian investigative Journalist Guillermo Prieto better known as “Pirry”, and has already come out with it’s own line of T-shirts.

It’s a positive development not only that our non-Colombian friends will be aware of the spelling mistake which irks all Colombians everywhere, but that young, dynamic, and social media savvy Colombians are trying to reject the negative and ignorant stereotypes that have far too-long defined the country internationally.

Much of what the campaign is espousing is true – both in terms of security and poverty reduction, Colombia has made huge gains in the last 20 or so years. The heart of the campaign has an extremely noble intention – showing the “good” side of Colombia, so that we can be known for our wonderful singers, artists, writers, and people trying to build peace instead of our drug traffickers and warlords. And (painfully) slowly, Colombia is indeed overcoming it’s negative legacy. The Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s had over half of its people in poverty (or at least how the government measures it), that number has gone down to a third today. In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) considered Colombia the world’s most violent country and it was spoke of in diplomatic circles as a “failed state” in the same breath as Somalia and the DRC are today. 2012, by contrast, saw one of the lowest murder rates in almost 30 years.  Also worth nothing, as Pardo himself mentions, Medellín, the 2nd largest city, went from being the murder capital of the world in 1993  to last year being voted one of the most “innovative” cities in the world.

The campaign is humble, and sensitive to the fact that far too many of us, and our family members, have very fresh wounds from the peaks of violence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pardo says that he does not want to “deny Colombia’s reality or its past but we do want to concentrate on the good things.”

Problemas – Who gets to represent Colombia? Who is responsible for the “recovery”?

However, Colombia, although a beautiful country with a resilient people and many, indeed “positive” things worth highlighting, is still a racist, violent, and extremely unequal society. Therefore, the need to be critical is manifest: What are the “positive” things that are being mentioned? What images and whose bodies are excluded? Not surprisingly,a long scroll through the campaign will only show the usual images of a “modernized” and “advanced” Colombia of mostly White and light-skinned Mestizo bodies, who are seemingly a part of the global and cosmopolitan urban middle-class, smart phones and all.

Colombia’s actual population, in contrast to what many within the country would like to project, is a bit more diverse. According to some estimates by the UNDP, Colombia is up to a 1/3 rural, and according to Afro-Colombian organizations such as El Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), up to 20% Afro-descendant. Colombia also has a small yet not insignificant indigenous population, which is 3-5% of the population, and a population of Arab descent in the Caribbean coast, to say nothing of other ethnic and social groups that are not a part of dominant national myths; the 35% of Colombians who live in poverty, the estimated 4.6 million who live in extreme poverty (under $2/day). Where is the place of that Colombia, Colombia in its whole, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in that campaign? Is a Colombia where we show only “positive” things also a Colombia without ethnic minorities, rural people, people living in poverty?

Furthermore, this campaign is nothing new. Pardo recognizes the history of previous social media campaigns trying to restore the republic’s damaged reputation, such as One Million Voices Against The FARC (Un millón de voces contra las FARC) (OMVAF).

A bit of history on the movement:  In 2008, Barranquillero Engineering student Oscar Morales started the OMVAF campaign – a Facebook movement that organized protests against the Marxist insurgency who has been at war with the government since 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – The People’s Army (FARC-EP), asking or an ending to kidnappings. Morales’ campaign was insanely successful with literally millions of Colombians of all walks of life out in the streets (protests in Colombia, aside from victim’s movements, are largely frowned upon by the upper and middle-classes). Morales, as documented by David Kirkpatrick’s must-read about Facebook, “The Facebook Effect”, became a key part of Mark Zuckerburg’s narrative of how Facebook’s openness can bring peace and social change to the world. What Pardo and Zuckerburg neglect, however, is that a campaign against one warlord is not a campaign for peace. OMVAF fight quite nicely into the ‘War on/of Terror’ dissident demonization discourse of former President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s American-supported counterinsurgency campaign, in which any possible negotiation with the guerrillas was shut down in favour of a military solution to the conflict. OMVAF was also extremely useful for the state as it was silent on the crimes of the Colombian Army and the right-wing paramilitaries who have been often associated with the state’s pursuit of the guerrillas.

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In a similar vein, “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” could be interpreted as basically free publicity for the Colombian government’s agenda. Within Colombia, it’s common knowledge that the government has hired a professional PR firm to create a Colombia “brand” in order to market the country as a viable option for tourism and investment, and trying to move out of the shadow of the FARC and Pablo Escobar.

The exchange below from the Huffington Post interview I think is telling

There are some people who’d say that Colombia may not be the paradise that the campaign paints it out to be. For example, despite the current peace talks, violence still exists by the FARC and ELN rebel groups and Colombia remains the largest supplier of cocaine in the world. So what exactly are the changes that you want the world to see in Colombia?
We want people to understand that Colombia is much more than what they see in the media. We want to balance out the message and tell the positive side. Today Colombia has a solid economy and investors are looking towards Latin America, especially Colombia because during the current global financial crisis Colombia has shown sustainable growth rates. I think Zemoga is an example of these changes, people think Colombia is a coffee exporter and it is but it also exports digital services to clients like Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Sea World.”

Again, Pardo is not necessarily wrong – Colombia can confidently claim to have one of the strongest economies in Latin America, if not the world, in this current Great Recession. What Pardo fails to mention is that, in line with the current President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan for Colombia, natural resource extraction, not the knowledge and digital economy,  will be the engine of economic growth. With economic liberalization through Free Trade Agreements, and the (largely violent) ‘re-establishment’ of the state in formerly ‘marginal’ and guerilla-controlled,yet resource-rich, rural areas  thanks to the counterinsurgency, Colombia is for the last decade has become “open for business”. Indeed, during former President Uribe’s two terms, foreign direct investment in Colombia tripled.

My other wonderful country, Canada, has already begun investing heavily in Colombia’s mining sector, and a Canadian bank has now taken control over one of Colombia’s most important financial institutions. Allegations of connections between the mining industry, and large agro-business and neo-paramilitary groups are countless. I also have to mention how Drummond, an American multinational, has recently been responsible for a huge fossil fuel spill off of the Caribbean coast, and the workers of Cerrejon mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world which is located in one of Colombia’s ‘most indigenous’ and 2nd poorest state, La Guajira, have gone on strike asking for better pay. On the other hand, poverty has been reduced by 15% in a decade, although the GINI coefficient, measuring inequality for Colombia, has barely budged from a high of o.57 to a current level of 0.55, making Colombia the most unequal country in Latin America after Haiti and Bolivia, and one of the most unequal in the world.

To say the least, the foreign direct investment which this seemingly urban-produced branding campaign invites, is not without controversy. Arguably, it is taking the most, and giving the least, to those who are invisible and have been historically invisibilized in Colombian society – Indigenous people, poor people, Afro-Colombians, displaced people, and people living in the countryside or in “peripheral” regions.

In conclusion, as peace with the FARC approaches, Colombians must indeed re-conceptualize what “Colombia” is (and how its want to be perceived) so that we can move past (but never forget) the nation’s hyper-violent legacy. Will we create a new social deal, recognize the crimes of the powerful, and try and move towards a new, more diverse, and inclusive Colombia which does not reproduce the systems of inequality that fed the violence in the first place? Or will we continue to sustain the same narratives and power structures in which some are heard, many are silenced, and the country’s riches are sold off to the highest bidder with little consent from the communities who live on them, but where we criticize foreigners when they dare point out our shortcomings, and even worse, misspell “Colombia”?

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