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Colombia’s rural voices

There is no doubt that in 2013 one of the processes that will draw Latin America’s attention throughout the year shall be the negotiations between the Colombian Government and the guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Ejército del Pueblo—FARC-EP).  The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, has been clear about it: he is expecting an agreement to be reached by the end of 2013

The FARC-EP have also been clear: talks cannot be governed by the short term and time-limits set by the government. And grassroots movements and civil society have also been clear:  no peace process shall make any progress or be successful unless they participate and their voices are heard.

Indeed, in August 2012, when Santos announced the start of new negotiations between the guerrilla and the government, various grassroots sectors that have traditionally never held any power or been listened to (peasants, indigenous peoples, victims of the conflict, Afro-descendant persons, human rights defenders, grassroots church communities, etc.), as well as individuals who shape public opinion, reacted by energetically calling for their participation in the process.  In response, at the end of November, the Government and the FARC issued Joint Communiqué No. 5 requesting the United Nations and Colombia’s National University to convene civil society to a preliminary forum for participation on the first item on the agenda, dealing with the agrarian issue, to systematize discussions and proposals of the meeting and report to the Negotiating Table also known as the “Havana Dialogues.”

As a result, the Forum on Agrarian Development Policy with a Territorial Approach was established.  It is a long name for an “official” forum to discuss the first item on the “General Agreement to End the Conflict and Build Stable and Lasting Peace,” and it is aimed at drawing up a comprehensive agrarian development policy.

That is because land is both cause and effect of the conflict.  Its core cause is the very same reason that led peasants to organize armed insurgent groups in the 1960s (FARC in 1964 and ELN in 1965).  Aggressive land concentration by the large landowners (latifundistas) in the rural sector had taken place to the detriment of the peasants, who were left landless or with very little land or never had the chance of getting any land.  In the ensuing five decades, the conflict would become more complex because of overlapping factors that emerged, such as coca leaf, poppy, and marijuana production, paramilitary groups, U.S. intervention, among others that have already filled thousands of pages.  Furthermore, over time, it was no longer simply a struggle between the peasants and large landowners.  Capitalism appeared in Colombia’s rural sector and brought with it many more players, conflicts, and challenges.

As a result, the main stage on which the armed conflict took place was rural Colombia.  In the words of Absalón Machado, one of the most widely recognized academics on agrarian issues, “in Colombia, land continues to be a factor for political power, which is wielded by means of violence.”  Two figures highlight the violence prevailing in Colombia’s countryside:  5.5 million rural inhabitants have been displaced as a result of the war, and they have left behind them more than 8 million hectares of land which have been wasted because of abandonment or eviction.

Other figures will make it possible for us to have a better grasp of reality, the powers-to-be at play and inequality in the Colombian countryside: the Gini land ownerships concentration index (a well-known scale to measure inequality, where 0 means equality and 1 means inequality) is 0.891, that is, very close to 1, clearly and forcefully spelling out the fact that there is much land in the hands of the very few. Of the 114 million hectares of Colombia’s land surface, 38 million are for extensive cattle raising, which is not at all efficient (in many cases, there is only one head of cattle per hectare) and they are in the hands of associated cattlemen who as a result control one third of the entire country.

In addition, 74% of the rural population has unmet basic needs and almost 80% of all persons going hungry in the country live in the rural sector.  Of the 20 million hectares that can be farmed, only 5 millions have crops growing every year, and because of this Colombia is importing increasingly more staple foods.

In short, Colombia records one of the world’s highest rates of inequality in rural land ownership.  Highest in the world.  It is not without reason that Carlos Gutiérrez, of Le Monde Diplomatique Colombia, points out that the land ownership problem is “historical constant” that shall be the pivotal issue for settling the conflict or not.  Beyond the conflict, the country’s agrarian structure is in itself an obstacle for development according to the Human Development Report presented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2011, where the title “Rural Colombia: Reasons for Hope” appeared.

The Forum for an Agrarian Development Policy with a Territorial Approach was held on December 17-19 in Bogotá and was attended by more than 1,300 delegates from various regions of the country, including representatives from 522 peasant, indigenous, Afro-descendant, rural women’s, wage-earning rural workers, organizations of victims and displaced persons, NGOs, human rights defenders, and progressive sectors of the Church.  It was also attended by representatives of companies and associations, the most noteworthy of which was the Colombian Farm Association (Sociedad Agrícola de Colombia—SAC). The association that was conspicuously absent and which ultimately boycotted the Forum was the Colombian Cattle Ranchers Federation (Federación Colombiana de Ganaderos—FEDEGAN). The refusal of this powerful player in the conflict to participate was repeatedly criticized by various sectors of Colombian society, including President Santos himself.  It testifies to the power and antagonism of those disparaging this dialogue.  It is because the conflict continues to suit some…

But apart from these absences, who are the ones speaking for the rural sector and what are they saying to the country—and in passing to the world, the region and their neighbors?  These voices are as diverse as Colombia itself.  They represent various regions and historical processes, both of exclusion and combativeness.  They include women, men, young people and people who are no longer that young anymore.  They are victims.  They are fighters.  Their voices come from various social organizations and platforms and were heard in the plenary.  The Agrarian Unit Working Group presented the “agrarian mandate.”  Luis Fernando Arias, Senior Advisor to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia—ONIC), which is an NPA counterpart, stressed that peace in the country can only be achieved by enforcing respect for the territorial rights of the indigenous peoples.  The leader Olga Quintera of the National Association of Peasant Reserve Areas reminded those attending of the importance of social mobilization as an instrument of combat: “We have responded to dispossession with a fierce social struggle.” Nelly Velandia of the Rural Women of Colombia, which is yet another national coordination forum, submitted a highly elaborate proposal with a gender-based and rural approach.  Representatives from Patriotic March (Marcha Patriótica) and the Peoples’ Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos), two of the most important current manifestations of grassroots unity, were also there.

What are they telling Colombia? They have much to say: they are calling for justice, demanding redistribution, highlighting a huge variety of players and conflicts in the regions, and providing their own living evidence of the harsh realities of the rural sector.  With what they are saying, they make it possible for urban dwellers, academics and the media to listen directly to what grassroots Colombia has to say without any go-betweens depicting a saccharine version of reality.

These voices never tire of submitting policy proposals.  The most important ones have to do with bills of law for agrarian reform, calling upon the State to work in the countryside, the issuance of public agrarian policies for the benefit of the rural poor, guaranteeing access to land, ensuring impoverished rural women access to land and prime loans, imposing limitations on the size of landholdings, curbing single cash crops such as palm oil and biofuels, controlling the phenomenon known as “foreignization of the land” (the massive purchase of huge tracts of land by foreigners, similar to what is occurring in Chile and Argentina), requiring landowners to provide clear evidence that they are using the land they own for production, formalization of landholding in the hands of the traditional owners rather than the land invaders and other players benefiting from the conflict, conducting a national agrarian census, respect for the territories of indigenous peoples, subjecting large corporations to taxation that is fair to all, submittal of solutions for substituting coca farming, ensuring conditions for displaced persons to return to their land and guaranteeing they will not be expelled again, recognition and support of small-scale household farming and food sovereignty, and much more.  Large-scale mining was a subject that took up a large part of the discussions in the working groups and plenary, as it is currently one of the most powerful threats to Colombia’s rural sector.

Above all, Colombia’s rural voices spoke indeed of resistance, but also of dreams for peace with social justice.  All sectors concluded their interventions with the same request to the FARC and the government: do not get up from the talks without first hammering out an agreement.  Voices from the rural sector are calling for an agreement, but not just any kind of agreement; they want one that is long lasting, and that is why they also proposed keeping “an open public forum for peace.”

One of the social leaders mostly deeply committed to the peaceful rural development of Colombia, the Jesuit Francisco de Roux, more commonly known as Father “Pacho,” was entrusted with pronouncing the final remarks at the Forum: using simple terms, he quietly but firmly stated that this forum was a testimony to something that was vital for the country:  “We do not have to kill ourselves to discuss a development model.” These remarks transmit a simple, but powerful and necessary message.

It is hoped that this sentence shall underpin the rest of the negotiations in Havana.

18.02.2013 | By Cristina Santacruz, NPA