White smoke is rising in Havana, Cuba where the negotiators of the Juan Manuel Santos and the insurgents of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been negotiating since early last year. The two sides have almost agreed on the most important issue on the agenda: the agrarian question. I said almost because of the FARC’s insistence on the expansion of Peasant Zones.
So far, the FARC has clearly demonstrated its commitment to a peaceful compromise provided that the state commits to find a solution of the enduring institutional legacies of Spanish colonialism: the encomienda, which was succeeded by the hacienda system, which in turn gave grounds to the emergence of latifundios (large land ownership)—all of which were sustained by the mita (tribute) system in which the indigenous population were forced to sell their labor of 15 or more days per year to the latifundistas and to the mine owners. The mita system was supplanted by sharecropping which remained an important form of labor exploitation well into the 20th century.
In Colombia, the outcome of these institutions was one of the most skewed land distributions in Latin America, alongside Brazil and Guatemala, where large landowners retained significant political power. The Colombian recalcitrant large landowning elite hindered two previous attempts (1936 and 1968) of land reforms that would have allowed the creation of economies of scale fomenting capitalist development based on large-scale agribusiness and industry. The process was derailed and the peasantry paid the heavy price on top of centuries of exploitation, dispossession, and brutal oppression.
The last attempt at land reform coincided with the emergence of the narcotraffickers in the 1970s through the marijuana “Golden of Santa Marta,” which created the first bonanza of narco-dollars, most of which being invested in land and real estate. This was followed by the second and more significant influx of billions of dollars in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, which was invested in land put to use through cattle ranching. This boosted the landed elite ranks, furthering the concentration of land ownership from 0.80 to 0.85 (where zero is perfect equality and the value 1 indicates that all properties are owned by one person). According to the Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi (Igag), this translates into a mere 1.62% of landowners owning 43% of the lands.
More important, the emergence of the narcobourgeoisie faction gave a boost to the landowning elite, allowing them to reassert their political and economic power. The narcobourgeoisie invested heavily in land due to the relative ease in using property as a money-laundering scheme, which conflicted with the interests of the peasants and the rebels. This in turn created a class affinity between the narco-bourgeoisie and the traditional landed oligarchy.
The inequitable distribution of land and power cemented class interests and allowed the narcobourgeoisie the economic capacity to build private armies capable of safeguarding the class interests of the entire landed elite. This may explain their success in exercising influence and political power in an economy where the agrarian sector contributes to only (a diminishing) 7% of the GDP, while the service sector contributes 55% and manufacturing 38%.
This is the paradox that Colombia presents to insurgents, academia, and policy makers. It is an interesting case in which pre-capitalist modes of production, as the ones mentioned above, were embedded in new modes and relations of production only to become entangled with a contingency such as narcotrafficking. To this paradox add that Colombia is today the fourth largest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina.
The FARC, for example, acknowledging the contradictions and mutations of the country’s economic history— colonial and post-colonial—that produced it as a rebel movement, is bringing into the forefront the expansion of “Peasant Zones” to safeguard the peasant economy. The idea is not new. The creation of Peasant Zones was promulgated in Law 160 of 1994, but was never seriously pursued or implemented by the state. Since the introduction of this Law, only 830,000 hectares were redistributed and benefited only 75,000 people. This was while millions of subsistence peasants were exposed to violence, increasing dispossession, and aggressive encroachments of large landowners, narcobourgeoisie, speculators, bio-fuels industries, multinational mining corporations, and oil companies.
The FARC is calling for the expansion of the protection of “Peasant Zones” to include 9,5 million hectares and provide these peasant communities autonomy similar to the ones that the 1991 constitution granted the Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups. This sparked the ire of the reactionary faction of the landed elite, led by the cattle ranchers and political conservatives such as the Minister of Agriculture a descendant of the Antioquia dominant class and coffee elite. Statistics are showing that the peasant economy is more efficient and productive than the so-called capitalist large-scale farming.
Currently the small-scale peasant economy produces more than 60% of the country’s food needs which are cultivated in only 4.9 million hectares. If the peasant zones were to expand on the magnitude suggested by FARC, Colombia will not only secure its food supply, but it will generate enough surpluses improving the standards of livelihood of almost 35% of its population and create a multiplying effect on the overall economy. This may lay down solid foundations for a durable peace and a sustainable development. This is a proposal that merits serious attention.
Friday March 22, two thousand peasants are gathered for their third national meeting in San Vicente del Caguan to push forward the initiative to expand the Peasant Zones. This meeting represents the historical affinity and organic links between the peasantry and the FARC.
Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced yesterday that he will initiate “an agenda of transformation” in the 16 months he has left in office.
This announcement comes as Santos continues peace negotiations with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Congress announced last week that a resolution will be made with the armed revolutionary group by August.
“Our vision is of a just, modern, and safe Colombia,” Santos said, according to El Tiempo.
He added that disarming FARC is not enough and that the system must change in order to avoid similar situations in the future.
“Some people continue to be stuck in the past, selling us a vision of a Colombia condemned to another 50 years of violence, paralysed by fear and without the capacity to imagine anything more than what it has always been,” he said. “However we, the large majority, believe in our future.”
Officials and Santos finalised this new “comprehensive government strategy” in a meeting Monday.
Beginning today, union directors and business owners will begin meeting to design and begin this project that Santos called “an emergency plan for growth and productivity.”
Beyond lowering rates of violence in the country, the president announced goals of a more “modern Colombia,” including plans to build 317 kilometres of highways this year.
Santos added that he is “committed… to making it so that Colombia can say ‘we have peace’ before leaving the government.”
Colombian rebel militants FARC seek dialogue and peace with the country’s government, FARC negotiator Tanja Nijmeijer told RT in an exclusive interview. But despite renewed peace talks, government forces killed at least 20 rebels in a recent attack.
Dutch militant Tanja Nijmeijer – who left the Netherlands 10 years ago to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and fight for what she calls social justice – spoke with RT, saying that the rebel organization wants to end the country’s 50-year conflict.
“We as an armed organization have always wanted a dialogue, we’ve always wanted peace, we have always asked for peace,” she said.
“We have not taken the arms because we wanted so. We have taken the arms because the Colombian State and the United States imperialism have obliged us to do so,” Nijmeijer said.
Talks between the Colombian government and FARC over fragile peace negotiations are set to resume in Havana, Cuba, on December 7.
At least 20 left-wing rebels were killed in Colombia on Sunday after airstrikes against their camp near the Ecuadorian border, the army said. The attack came after FARC announced a ceasefire until January 1, 2013, for the negotiations.
“People who are in Colombia want to fight for ideas different from neoliberal are killed,” Nijmeijer told RT. “So how is it possible to participate in politics if people who have other ideas are killed. And that’s the reason of arm struggle in Colombia. That’s the reason why we are still fighting.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has set a deadline of November 2013 for an agreement to be reached in the peace talks with FARC. “This has to be a process of months, rather than years. In other words, this should not last any longer than November next year at the latest,” Santos said.
The president’s statement followed an acknowledgement by FARC that it was holding “prisoners of war” – reportedly soldiers or police captured during combat. FARC stated that the prisoners would be freed in exchange for the release of rebels held by the government.
The Colombian government currently detains around 700 rebel prisoners, according to Sandra Ramirez, one of FARC’s representatives.
The US has been criticized for its role in helping the Colombian government kill members of FARC; Washington’s military assistance to Columbia has been directed primarily towards killing FARC militants.
In nearly a half-century of conflict in Columbia, an estimated 600,000 people have died and another 15,000 gone missing. Some 4 million people have also been internally displaced.
Find out more about FARC and the peace process from RT’s full exclusive interview with Tanja Nijmeijer, airing Wednesday at 18:45 GMT.
BOGOTA – Colombia’s government will soon begin talks that could lead to formal negotiations for peace with the country’s biggest guerrilla group, known as the FARC, according to a Colombian intelligence source.
As part of the deal to hold talks, the government has agreed that leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia would not be extradited to another country to stand trial, he said.
One aide at President Juan Manuel Santos’ office has flatly denied that any talks are taking place, but a second aide said only that any official word on peace dealings would come from Santos himself.
Details of the accord are still being worked out, but the negotiations could take place in Cuba and in Norway, the source said.
However from Caracas the editor in chief of Telesur, the Venezuelan television news channel, Jorge Botero said that secret talks date back to May in Havana with the attendance of unofficial delegates from Colombia, plus representatives from Venezuela, Cuba and Norway.
“Formal dialogue is anticipated for next October in Oslo”, said Botero. He added that from Norway representatives from the Colombian government and FARC will then travel to Havana where “they will sit to negotiate and won’t leave the table until a peace deal is reached”.
A year ago the head of FARC Alfonso Cano announced that the guerrilla was ready for talks to end the half a century Colombian internal war.
News of the peace talks is likely to anger Santos’ predecessor Alvaro Uribe who has criticised any idea of talks with the rebels and has slammed Santos for wanting “peace at any cost.”
The originally Marxist oriented FARC but now financed by drugs and which calls itself “the people’s army” defending peasant rights, has battled about a dozen administrations since surfacing in 1964, when its founder Manuel Marulanda and 48 rebels took to jungle hide-outs triggering an internal conflict involving Colombian forces and thousands of recruited guerrillas.
The group has faced its toughest defeats in recent years as US-trained special forces use sophisticated technology and spy networks to track the leaders.
The FARC string of defeats began in 2008 with a cross-border military raid into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes its second in command. Marulanda died of a heart attack weeks later and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, who was later killed too.
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Colombia’s highly restricted democracy got a good slap in the face two weeks ago when 100,000 protesters entered the capital city and filled to overflowing the giant plaza that spreads out before the Congress and the Palace of Justice. In fact, just looking at the hurried reactions of president Juan Manuel Santos – new cabinet appointments, launching a populist housing project, and buying more arms from the US – one would know something serious is afoot.
But what, precisely, is it? The protesters call themselves the Patriotic March and were born with a more or less spontaneous celebration of the Colombian bicentennial two years ago. At that moment, in 2010, there was an earlier and likewise massive march to Bogotá plus the formation of cabildos (open councils) to treat questions of urgency in Colombian politics and life (such as human rights).
Today the marchers’ two principal slogans are innocuous enough: one the one hand, the effort to bring about a second and definitive independence and on the other hand peace; that is, a political and negotiated solution to the country’s 50-year conflict, a peace with of social justice. So what is all the fuss?
In fact, only in Colombia are the search for peace and sovereignty themes to which the state generally responds with massive repression, even approaching genocide. Some twenty-five years ago Colombia’s longest lasting guerrilla, the FARC-EP, opted for a peaceful rather than armed expression of its non-conformity. This led to the systematic assassination of something like 4,000 of the unfortunate cadres of the Patriotic Union who thought there might be a space for a strictly political opposition in Colombia’s much touted democracy, which seems to have durability rather than authenticity as its principal characteristic.
Though strictly speaking it may not be a world that has lived 100 years of solitude, Colombia’s politics has its very specific and even archaic qualities. For example, one of the principal struggles still seems to be that which takes place between city and country. Superficially at least, most of the patriotic marchers are people of rural origin: small or displaced farmers. Likewise there is an obvious racial or color element; the marchers tend toward brown and black while Power in Colombia tends to be white – except of course for the sepoy police and armed forces.
The marchers are clearly that group or class which Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called “the nobodies… who don’t speak language but dialects… who don’t have culture but folklore” (and “cost less than the bullet that kills them”). But that doesn’t keep them from being very clear about what they want and need. “We’re being displaced by transnationals and the national government,” said one small-scale miner from the Bolivar department, “and participating in the march is the only way we will be heard”. Almost to a man, they are clear that their government is a puppet, militarist regimen in which the White House, if it doesn’t call all the shots, is at least consulted on most of them.
The march, patriotic and gutsy given the conditions in which it must operate, is one of those events that show that class struggle cannot be eliminated from any context, even by the most aggressive and totalitarian state tactics. There comes a point in which – as Martin Luther King said – one cannot not go on. The marchers have reached that point. They cannot be willed or dispelled away by even the most powerful mediatic wands (the mass media seems to insist contradictorily both that they don’t really exist and that they are very dangerous).
One of their repeated claims – that passes from the mouth of the inimitable ex-senator Piedad Córdoba to almost every spokesperson – is that the March, come what may, will go forward. That means that it will and has taken the form of a political movement and that it will try to take state power, as every responsible political movement tries to do. That claim, when it comes from the mouth of someone with Córdoba’s mettle, and when backed up by such conscious and committed social bases, is enough to make even the most ruthless politician of the establishment tremble. And some of us, one must say, tremble with delight.
Chris Gilbert, professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, formed part of the international delegation that accompanied the Patriotic March, between April 21 and 23, in the formation of the National Patriotic Council.
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When the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) arrived in San Onofre in northern Colombia in the late 1990s, they came after dark, dragging people from their homes and disappearing into the night.
Soon, they did not need the cover of darkness. People were executed in public plazas in broad daylight. Women and young girls were openly raped and abused.
Since the demobilisation of the local AUC bloc in 2005, 42 mass graves have been discovered in the municipality. Locals say about 3000 people disappeared and tens of thousands fled their homes and abandoned their land to escape what one survivor called a region of “concentration camps”.
Seven years on from the AUC demobilisation, San Onofre is now the site of thousands of hectares of teak trees belonging to one of Colombia’s five biggest companies, Argos S.A.
In February last year, Argos’ commercial monocrop plantation was approved for the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon trading scheme. This means it can sell carbon credits to industrialised countries trying to meet Kyoto Protocol emission reduction targets.
The company says the plantation will capture 37,000 tones of CO2 a year for 25 years – worth about $12.5 million in the current carbon market. It also plans to use another teak plantation in the nearby municipalities of El Carmen and Ovejas for the CDM.
Argos claims the teak plantation is helping fight climate change and contributing to the sustainable development of a conflict scarred region, but the project has proved controversial.
Survivors from the paramilitary era and land restitution campaigners claim the plantation and its CDM status is not only an attempt to cash in on the lucrative carbon credits market, but also legitimise a mass land grab that followed paramilitary violence, and prevent land restitution to a displaced population.
The municipalities of San Onofre, El Carmen and Ovejas are in the Caribbean region Montes de Maria. A heavy guerilla presence in the area led to the creation of AUC bloc, the “Heroes of Montes de Maria” in 1997. The paramilitaries soon gained complete social and economic control of the region by murdering, torturing and displacing local farmers with the support of local state security forces.
Between 1995 and 2005, 54 massacres were reported in the three municipalities of San Onofre, Ovejas and El Carmen and, says government agency Accion Social, 117,097 people have been displaced there since the paramilitaries first arrived.
The AUC era ended with demobilisation in 2005. However, in 2008 El Espectacor reported a new invasion, of “strange personalities” in bulletproof Hummers.
A land grab ensued, in which desperate, indebted or frightened people were pressured into selling property. Abandoned land was snapped up by speculators.
Next came big business. What had previously been an area of smallholder and subsistence farming rapidly became dominated by large-scale agro-industrial enterprises ― dairy, timber, African palm and teak.
As the land became more concentrated in fewer hands, the landscape of Montes de Maria began to change. Most of Montes de Maria is now owned by just a handful of large businesses, among them Argos, which owns an estimated 12,500 hectares.
Argos claims it bought its land in San Onofre directly from the owners in 2005, after the paramilitaries had left. However, the CDM validation report indicates it first bought land in 2003 and continued to do so until 2008.
Camilo Abello, the vice-president of corporate affairs at Argos, claims the company entered “a completely peaceful zone. The Argos representative who made the purchases was able to go into the zone because there were no paramilitaries, there was no violence.”
“Juan Carlos”, a San Onofre local whose family sold their land to Argos, disagrees.
Juan Carlos’ family owned land close to the El Palmar ranch, headquarters of the infamous local AUC leader known as “Cadena” and site of a mass grave containing 72 tortured and mutilated bodies.
“We had to sell the land because we were in an unbearable situation,” he said, “Our lives were in danger.”
Juan Carlos said his family had to ask Cadena permission to sell to Argos. He said that although he knew of no formal contact between the AUC and Argos, paramilitaries visited the farm while the Argos representative was measuring the land.
Government statistics show that nearly 2000 people were forcibly displaced in San Onofre in 2005, more than in the previous two years. More than 1000 people were also displaced in 2006 and again in 2007.
Murder and displacement rates have dropped sharply since, but government risk reports on San Onofre show a renewed and growing paramilitary presence in the area.
In El Carmen de Bolivar and Ovejas, Argos bought land from the speculators who flooded the region in the wake of the paramilitaries.
One of the main sources was a group of powerful businesspeople and ranchers called the Amigos de Montes de Maria. Locals say they pressured campesinos into selling their land and evicted families from land bought for agro-industrial projects.
Testimonies collected for two NGO reports said that in at least one case Argos bought land acquired by Amigos de Montes de Maria from demobilised AUC members who had displaced its owners.
Residents also report how one alleged demobilised AUC member, Silvio Flores, went to work for the company after it bought the land he managed on behalf of a member of the group. Locals claim Flores then began pressuring other campesinos to sell; abusing and threatening them, killing their animals and burning down houses.
In the report, residents of Ovejas also describe being threatened by heavily armed camouflaged men who claimed to be the company’s security.
Argos denies any involvement in pressuring people to sell or buying from displaced people. “What we did was buy from people who wanted to sell,” said Camilo Abello, “without any coercion or pressure”.
Abello also denied any links to paramilitary groups and claimed the company does not use any type of security at the plantations. According to Abello, the company is helping the region by creating jobs.
“We don’t think that we are taking advantage, on the contrary we are supporting the reconstruction of the fabric of society, we are investing in a post-conflict zone,” he said.
The issue of land ownership in Montes de Maria has been complicated further by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ new flagship policy ― the Victims and Land Restitution Law.
The law is designed to address the desperate plight of the estimated 3-5 million Colombians forced from their lands into city slums and squatter camps by conflict and violence. Its main focus is the restitution of lands to the displaced.
Critics of Argos claim the company is using the teak plantations and their CDM status to ward off the danger of losing their lands because of the Victims Law. If Argos faces claims on its Montes de Maria land, it can retain the plantations by exploiting a loophole in the restitution process.
The Victims Law says land will not be taken from companies that are using it for agro-industrial enterprises if the company can prove it bought the land in good faith. Instead, the authorities will try to negotiate a financial agreement between company and claimant.
Colombian Congressperson Ivan Cepeda campaigns on land rights and has raised the issue of Montes de Maria land grabs to Congress.
“The operation [Argos] has done in Montes de Maria is a clear example of how the government’s proposed restitution with the Victims Laws is going to work,” he said. “All of this is a big, sophisticated operation to legalise the lands they have robbed from the campesinos.”
Cepeda is scathing of Argos’ claims to have acted in good faith when it bought the lands.
“[Paramilitary violence] did not happen in isolation,” he said. “It is a fact of public knowledge and frankly it is illogical and incomprehensible that these businesses did not know which land they were dealing with and who had lived on that land.”
He added: “[Argos' project is] a business that it is presenting as clean when in reality it is a business drenched in blood ― the blood of campesinos that were the victims of massacres.”
The company itself says it welcomes the Victims Law and would cooperate fully with any claims on land owned by the company.
In October, Cepeda wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urging him to expel Argos from the CDM program and enforce the UN Global Compact, which commits associated companies to human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption principles.
Ban did not publicly respond, but the CDM board chair Martin Hession said responsibility for the matter lay with the Colombian government.
“Primarily, it is for (them) to resolve issues like this as they certified the sustainable development of the project,” he said in an interview with Point Carbon News.
A spokesperson for the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development said, “Only the CDM Executive Board can take this decision [to remove Argos’ approval].”
Compared with the horrors of the turn of the century, life for the campesinos of Montes de Maria is quiet. But with growing tensions over landownership and the resurgence of paramilitarism, violence and conflict still lurk beneath the surface.
“We believe that it is not going to stay calm,” said “Andres”, a campesino from Ovejas.
“It is going to continue, we are going to see deaths here, we are going to see pressure, we are going to see evictions and displacement because they are going to try to reclaim the land like a debt and we are not going to let them.”
[The names of the campesinos interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identities.]
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