Politics of Poverty

On the road to peace in Colombia, it’s important to remember the underlying causes of conflict

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President Juan Manuel Santos at WIlson Center event, Colombia: Its Transformation and Future Challenges. Photo: Wilson Center

Inequality in access to land and rural development need to be addressed if Colombia is to achieve lasting peace.

Stephanie Burgos is Oxfam’s America’s Economic Justice Policy Manager.

The longest lasting and only remaining internal armed conflict in this hemisphere may be coming to a close soon.  After more than 50 years, Colombians are hopeful that peace is finally within reach.  But as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos explained to a packed audience in Washington last week, making peace is much more difficult than making war.

I don’t want to diminish the costs of the war.  And I’m not referring to the $10 billion in US aid for Plan Colombia over the past 15 years, which President Santos said only accounted for about six percent of economic costs, with the rest financed by the Colombian government.  The human costs have been enormous and must not be forgotten: 220,000 dead (80 percent of whom were civilians), tens of thousands disappeared, countless victims of sexual violence, and more than 6 million internally displaced.

But this is an important moment to look ahead in Colombia; toward a better future that is not just a period of ‘post-peace accords’ (and hopefully post-conflict), but is actually building peace.  Colombians emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the two.  Building lasting peace in Colombia requires addressing the underlying causes of the conflict – inequality and poverty primary among them – particularly in rural areas where farmers and communities lack secure access to land and resources to ensure their livelihoods.  Land distribution in Colombia is among the most unequal in the world (a Gini coefficient of 0.83), and nearly two-thirds of properties lack a formal title.

Indeed, it was very welcomed when the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerillas reached an agreement on a comprehensive agrarian development policy – the first point of their negotiating agenda – nearly three years ago.

The agreement for Comprehensive Rural Reform was described as the beginning of a structural transformation in rural areas, with equity and democracy, to build a stable and lasting peace. It recognizes the fundamental role of communities and the small farm economy in the development of the countryside in order to eradicate poverty and promote equality, and seeks to democratize access to land to de-concentrate and promote equitable distribution of land.

So it came as disturbing news when President Santos announced the enactment of the “ZIDRES” law just prior to his US visit.  What are ZIDRES?  Zones of Interest for Economic and Social Development in Rural Areas.  And why do they matter?  Many fear that the ZIDRES will serve to further land concentration in Colombia.

There have been many efforts over the decades in Colombia to address the problem of inequitable access to land, with little achieved in practice.  Land redistribution was considered politically unviable, leaving the distribution of state-owned land – referred to as baldíos – as the only means to enable more equitable access to land.  The country’s Constitution (article 64) directs the state to promote progressive access to the ownership of land for agricultural workers with limited resources, in order to improve the income and quality of life of the rural population.  Legislation guiding the distribution of baldíos has had only limited impact and has been both questioned and flouted.

Oxfam research provided evidence of this problem in the report Divide and Purchase, which documented how Cargill’s land acquisition in Colombia’s Altillanura region evaded legal restrictions on concentrating ownership of baldíos through a method of fragmented purchases, exceeding the maximum size of land permitted by law for a single owner by more than 30 times.  Several agribusiness companies engaged in similar practices in Colombia.  The ZIDRES law now provides a clear pathway for these and other companies to legally concentrate land for use in developing large-scale monoculture.  Its passage, after five attempts over two years, generated much controversy.

Speaking at a ceremony in Orocué, Casanare in the Altillanura region, President Santos celebrated the ZIDRES law as enabling Colombia to achieve its potential to produce much more food – soy, corn and rice – in order to increase the world’s food supply.  He was accompanied by Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General José Graziano da Silva, who noted Colombia’s huge food production potential, as only 5 million of the country’s 22 million hectares of arable farmland are currently under cultivation.  Investors are recognizing potential in the Altillanura as a region to expand the agricultural frontier without requiring deforestation, and they see the ZIDRES law providing them legal security regarding land ownership and use.

A few days later in Washington, President Santos told a US audience: “We have half of Colombia still to conquer, in a way, like you conquered the West here in the United States in the 18th century, we have to conquer half of Colombia. We are one of the few countries who can produce more food, a lot more food, in the world.”

The chief negotiator of the FARC said the ZIDRES impose a huge obstacle to signing a peace accord.  He called them zones of land concentration… a stab in the back to the Comprehensive Rural Reform agreement reached in the peace negotiations.

The ZIDRES law probably won’t be a deal breaker in terms of signing a final peace accord, as there is too much else at stake of direct interest to both parties at the negotiating table.  But a final agreement is only the beginning.  The real challenge in Colombia is building peace, which means ensuring an inclusive economic model and not a business-as-usual approach focused only on boosting exports and macro-economic growth.  There are lessons to be drawn from Central America, where 20 years after peace accords were signed in El Salvador and Guatemala, violence is rampant and inequality and poverty remain very high.

So while there is much hope that the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas will soon conclude a peace accord, it is important to remember that true peace requires more than just reaching an agreement to end the conflict.  Full implementation of all agreements must be ensured.  Above all, addressing inequality, particularly in access to land, and promoting inclusive rural development are key to building a just and lasting peace in Colombia.

There is much work to be done to make sure this lesson is not forgotten.

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