Tag Archives: Rural Colombia

Zuluaga/Uribe win first round of Presidential Elections – What next?

Last Sunday, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the candidate of Alvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Centre”, won the first-round of the 2014 Presidential elections with 29% of the vote.

The President-candidate for the ‘National Unity’ party, Juan Manuel Santos, came in second place with 25% of the vote.

Over 60% of Colombian electors abstained from voting.

Martha Lucia Ramirez, the candidate for the Conservative Party and Uribe’s former Defense Minister got a little over 15% of the vote, as did Clara Lopez Obregon for the Leftist Alternative Democratic Pole. Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of the Green Party came in last place with around 8%.

The option of ‘voting in blank’, or opting to vote for none of the candidates in protest came last, although for sometime it was Santos’ main rival.

Since no candidate received a majority/plurality of votes, the two main contenders (Zuluaga and Santos) will square off in a second round/run-off on June 15th.

A re-election about peace?

The wedge issue between both candidates is the current peace talks with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, in Havana. Zuluaga, representing Uribe’s hard-line military approach to ending the conflict, vehemently opposes the negotiations and if elected will probably call them off.

Santos in his concession speech on Sunday night again re-iterated that this is a ‘historic’ election about choosing between more war or peace (meaning to continue the seemingly promising negotiations through his re-election).

The FARC for their part have yet to comment on Sunday’s result. 

The issue at hand now is whether Santos will be able to convince the Colombian people of both the need for the current peace process, and if he will be able to attract the support of the other parties.

The significance of Zuluaga’s victory is that Uribe is still one of the most powerful forces in Colombian electoral politics. Uribe was able to take a candidate with little national prominence six months ago to first place on Sunday. The nearly 3.7 million votes for Zuluaga are no doubt a testament to Uribe’s popularity, but are also relatively small compared to Uribe’s results in 2002, 2006 and other elections.   Zuluaga, who is not particularly charismatic, is understood to be “Uribe’s candidate”; during his victory speech the crowd began chanting “Uribe! Uribe!”.

On the other hand, it is surprising that Santos lost. Incumbents are typically favoured in elections. Perhaps Sunday’s results show that many of the votes Santos won in 2010 (when he was framed as Uribe’s natural successor) were actually for Uribe. Moreover, one of the major deficiencies in Colombian democracy is the rampant clientelism.  Santos still lost despite having the entire State apparatus at his disposal with some saying that traditional political ‘machineries’/establishments will decide the second round/ the run-off.

The name of the game for Zuluaga and Santos now is to try and lure the votes from the other parties. However, discipline in Colombia’s political parties is not great, nevertheless these endorsements matter. Zuluaga recently received the endorsement of the Conservative candidate who urged him to be more “flexible” with the peace talks which she conditionally supported. However, the Conservative congressional caucus seems to be rooting for Santos, and the Party as a whole is still open to both candidates.

The Greens are telling their followers that they are ‘free’ to choose either Zuluaga, Santos, or to vote ‘blank’/for none.

Santos, with his flagship initiative being a call to peace, was hoping to attract liberal and progressive voters to his re-election campaign. However, the Alternative Democratic Pole or ‘el Polo’, the main Leftist party in Colombia, has said that it cannot endorse Santos. Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Pole, and one of the most popular Senators in Colombia, for example, says that he supports the process but that the peace talks cannot overshadow Santos’ acceptance of Free Trade Agreements, and what is seen as a harmful economic and social policy.

At the same time, other opinion leaders in the Centre and on the Left like former Senator Piedad Cordoba, Senator-elect Ivan Cepeda, and former mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus are saying that they will ‘vote for peace’, a clear nod to Santos. Cepeda has additionally said that he is not a “santista”/Santos supporter, but that he wants his party to understand the high stakes in the election – that breaking the peace process may mean thousands of more dead and a Zuluaga victory a return of Uribe and ‘paramilitarization’ to Colombia.

The issue on the Left seems to be that, if people accept the credibility of the peace process (which is still an issue in contention), whether or not they are willing to accept a continuing economic liberalization/Santos’ neoliberal economic program in exchange for a potentially historic change (peace with the strongest insurgent group).

The different Colombias vote differently…..

Colombia, like most societies, is deeply stratified along lines of class privilege, region/geography, and race. The regions where the FARC are still a force to be reckoned with are rural areas outside the limits of not only Urban Colombia but also the success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency. Many of these areas are considered ‘peripheral’ by urbanites and elites  and in places like Cauca have large Afro-descendent/Black and indigenous populations.

It is important to note that these ‘peripheral’ regions where the active combat with the FARC is still ongoing,  Santos and the candidates most in favour of the peace process won by large margins, and little popularity for Zuluaga.

Zuluaga, by contrast won all over the country but also had extremely strong support in urban areas, and among the middle and upper classes.

This means that if indeed Zuluaga’s win on Sunday was evidence that people still love Uribe (and his hardline against the FARC), this perhaps maybe a sentiment coming from those who are probably not currently living with the war. The hard-line/war sentiment is therefore something that may be imposed on those who will actually bear the brutal consequences of rejecting a negotiated settlement to the war.

 

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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?

farm

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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War is Development by Other Means: What the latest displacement numbers aren’t telling you

“If the war is a continuation of economics by other means…[then] in Colombia, arms, independent of who wields them, serve the promotion of a social logic of development…” –  Carlos Rosero

This week Colombia was back in the headlines, as a fact that was known nationally for a while now finally made it into the Anglophone mainstream. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre gave the South American nation the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, at 5.5 million in its annual report in displacement. Another notable is clearly Syria, who has the fastest growing population of uprooted people, 3 million of the nations 22 million people, and the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which also displaced 2.4 million after an increase in violence last year that continues today.

The 5.5 million number comes from one of Colombia’s most respected national NGOs, The Consultory for Human Rights and Displacement known by its Spanish acronym CODHES. For decades, the government has claimed that the displaced population in Colombia figures between 3.5-4.9 million, and CODHES has claimed that this number is a gross underestimate, often citing the IDP population at 5.4 million since 2011. Nevertheless, the UNHCR and the Colombian government have slowly started to recognize the value of CODHES methodology, and in so doing their estimates of the IDP population have consequently increased.

These numbers speak volumes to the fact that forced displacement in Colombia, as one of the main forms of violence used by armed actors (and, to a certain extent, one of the few survival strategies of communities) is central to the Colombian conflict and cannot be seen as a consequence/collateral damage of a political issue (the war) but a political, social, and humanitarian issue in and of itself. The numbers also evidence the centrality of controlling territory to the strategies of armed actors (more on that below).

In their annual report, which has been picked up by some media, ‘Columbia’ receives a scant 6 pages despite having the largest population. However, IDMC does recognize challenges with the Victim’s Law (which is trying to provide land restitution to IDPs), and that 230,000 people were displaced last year/although far  from its peak of millions a decade ago, displacement continues to be a very real and present issue.

There is quite a lot that the numbers and supposedly expert analysis from the IDMC and the Norwegian Refugee Council aren’t telling you though.

Firstly, the numbers are somewhat meaningless in an international sense. There is no point in having a sensational “Displacement Olympics” in which Colombia is the gold medal winner and Syria is a rising contender. Although the country’s international image which in terms of security is largely constructed around drug trafficking and kidnapping makes displacement an invisible crisis, comparisons are a bit dangerous. For many years, Colombia was cited as having “the world’s 3rd largest” IDP population after Sudan and Iraq, and then the second only after Sudan, and now Colombia is the undisputed champion. In the early 2000s, when violence was at its height, being the nth country on the list in comparison to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan would have been cold comfort to the millions of people who were violently being uprooted every year from their homes.

Any displacement is too much displacement and we have to think about the way we talk about nations in the Global South. If ‘just’ 50,000 were displaced by war next year in Canada, that would give a lot of people pause. Why are millions of displaced in countries/regions associated with war seen as somehow natural or different?

Secondly, the oft-cited 3.5, 3.9, 4.5, 5.4, and now 5.5 million figures when it comes to displacement in Colombia actually only begin counting from 1985 to the present day. This manifestation of war began in 1964. Therefore, there are literally 20 years of war whose effects on displacement we really don’t know about.

Thirdly, Colombia’s large (and sensationally constructed) displaced population often obscures the fact that between 500,00-1 million Colombians left the country as refugees mostly to Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, the US, and Canada. If you count these, the number of people who have left their homes due to violence in Colombia is closer to 6.5 million.

Fourth, there is a much larger point about how we conceptualize and consequently prioritize certain kinds of violence. Countless not only Colombians, but Latin Americans, Africans, and many others are currently being displaced by the development of large extractive/mining projects and mega-infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the large amount of violence currently occurring in Mexico and Central America which has displaced thousands is considered criminal, and not political/not related to war. The neo-paramilitary groups, known by the Colombian government as “BACRIM”/criminal bands, are (in my view incorrectly) being framed as criminal actors, and not stakeholders in the political and social armed conflict, and therefore their victims are not entitled to the same reparations which people dispalced by the FARC-EP, ELN, or the Army are.  For example, all actors in Colombia’s conflict are involved, in different ways and proportions, to drug trafficking and mining.

So we have to ask ourselves, why are we being so narrow as to focus on “displacement caused by war”, as if we can define when political violence ends, and criminal and economic violence begins, and as if one is more pressing than another. Therefore, the numbers presented by IDMC represent only a very particular type, and fraction, of the general problem of powerful actors creating insecurity and fear leading to forced migration. Although they nod to the displacement created by these neo-paramilitary groups with an ambiguous political status, the media has framed these as displacements due to traditional understandings of what constitutes war or political violence.

IDMC’s analysis also features the gendered, racialized, classist, and anti-peasant dimensions of forced displacement. Displacement in Colombia disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians and  indigenous peoples (who live in rural areas, typically rich in resources and coveted by armed groups), people who are lower-class (94% of IDPs are poor, although many are impoverished due to displacement), people who are peasants or live in rural areas (although intra-urban displacement is becoming a growing phenomenon). Displaced people are disproportionately single women with children.

However, the report does not mention how many indigenous people are displaced to other indigenous communities, or in areas so remote, that their experiences are often not captured by official records. Moreover, the report, although recognizing that forced migration effects indigenous and Afro-Colombians in particularly, it does not mention the unique relationships of these groups’ respective identity to the territory in the rural context and how displacement from the rural land to the city is often also a process of cultural and social alienation, exacerbating the sense of loss in terms of identity, territory, autonomy, and culture. Furthermore, many Afro-Colombian intellectuals and activists have considered displacement not as a part of war, but as another manifestation of the violence of colonialism which displaced them from Africa, enslaved them in the Americas, and is now again displacing them for their territory in Colombia.

The number also isn’t telling you about how individuals who we have dehumanized under the decontextualizing, technical, and sanitized label of “internally displaced person” or “IDP” (desplazado in Colombia) are subjects with agencies and individual stories. Many Colombians have never been displaced. Many more have been displaced multiple times in their lives. For many, the word “IDP” or “displaced” leads to a stigma of being not only a victim, but associated with the war. In Colombia there is the very ugly prejudice that if someone was displaced, “it must have not been for no reason”. Many communities and people who are displaced, like all of us, have strong ties to their neighbours, friends, territory and social world in which they inhabited, all which are violently unmade by  displacement. Forced migration has to be understood as a very human process of displacement in which one’s social relationship  to geographic space and others is traumatically broken.

But the label is also dehumanizing in that it only sees the displaced person as an object to be effected by armed groups, an obstacle in the crossfire. Nevertheless, people in Colombia (and elsewhere) are subjects and many of them after being displaced actively advocate for their rights and demand justice. However, the demand for restitution of land by survivor’s groups coupled with the Colombian state’s denial of the continuation of paramilitarism has resulted in leaders and representatives of displaced communities being among the primary targets for selected assassination and threats by armed groups. Again, displacement is therefore an issue central, and not collateral, to violence. The IDMC report does mention that in 2004, the Constitutional Court considered the murder of these advocates to be ‘crimes against humanity’.

The final, and in my view, most important thing that forced displacement is about how the Colombian conflict is intimately tied to, some would even say caused, by a need to control land and the political and economic opportunity which it represents.

The report cites “internal armed conflict” and “criminal violence” as causing displacement, as if these do not intertwine and as if these exist in a vacuum isolated from the social world of politics, economic development, the interests of the plutocracy, social movements, and other factors.

Although forced displacement due to armed conflict becomes hypervisible to us in the West and Global North given its humanitarian (and sensational) nature, the root causes of much of this violence becomes invisible because it enables our economic development. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) invests in mining companies who are allied with neo-paramilitary groups who displace. Therefore, displacement is not a side-effect of a war which we seldom understand and only see glimpses of through our television screen in Canada, but it is actually necessary for our way of life.

As Colombian-American Anthropologist Arturo Escobar says, displacement is constitutive of capitalist economic development. More land is perpetually needed to fuel growth, and the people living on that land are an obstacle to that development if they are not aligned with it. It bears mentioning here that one of the “economic engines” of President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan is mining, which has been very much tied to paramilitary displacement. Multinational corporations in the form of mining and agribusiness, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers, all have a vested stake in having the Colombian land without the people on it.

Many rural displacements, which occur in ‘The Other Colombia’ where a lack of state presence led to the incursion of the insurgency, and then the counterinsurgency, are in areas where the state has only recently appeared, and now sees the riches which the land offer for ‘development’. Livelihoods and ways of being which are counter to the nation-building economic project, which perhaps benefits more Urban Colombia than Rural Colombia, such as fishing, subsistence agriculture, artisanal mining, are displaced to make way for large-scale mega-projects that fit within the logic and supposed rationality of extractive capitalism. Displacement needs to occur to let the nation-state develop since Colombia for a long time was an unconsolidated state; displacement is the violent resolution of the tension created by the different social philosophies of Urban Colombia and Rural Colombia.

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