Reserved for whom? Land in Colombia

Peasant farmers and the peace talks

Apr 6th 2013 | BOGOTÁ |From the print edition

FOR much of the past century, land has been disputed in Colombia, often violently. In the 1990s the government tried to help smaller-scale farmers by declaring six conflict-prone areas as reserves for them, where they would be protected from land grabs, benefit from rural-development efforts and be encouraged not to plant coca or support the FARC guerrillas. In practice, lack of government follow-up led to the FARC and other armed groups co-opting farmers. And now these peasant reserve zones (ZRCs from their initials in Spanish) have themselves become a matter of dispute in peace talks between the government and the guerrillas.

Last month the FARC proposed to add another 54 such zones, covering 9.5m hectares (23.5m acres), an area 11 times their current size. Even more controversial was the guerrilla demand that the zones enjoy “political, administrative, economic, social, environmental, cultural and judicial autonomy”. To many Colombians, this sounded too much like the FARC wanting to create independent enclaves that could be stuffed with demobilised fighters and run as private “mini-republics”, as Juan Camilo Restrepo, the agriculture minister, puts it. The idea reminded many of the large haven centred on the town of San Vicente de Caguán granted to the guerrillas during failed peace talks between 1998 and 2002. “Those demands are unacceptable,” Mr Restrepo says.

Peasant-farmer groups retort that the FARC has grabbed their own proposals, though not all of them want political and judicial autonomy. Some 3,800 farmers from ZRCs (or who want new ones) gathered last month in San Vicente to draw up their own plan to present to the peace negotiators. César Jerez, one of their leaders, regrets the “politicised debate” over the zones and complains of their stigmatisation. “The defence minister thinks that everything that has to do with peasants is related to the FARC”, he says. Certainly, the guerrillas’ support will do no favours to the peasant farmers.

The government has already contemplated expanding the ZRCs as part of a rural-development bill, which is now awaiting the outcome of the peace talks. The reserve zones are a “useful instrument” to organise rural development, according to Mr Restrepo. But far from being autonomous enclaves, he sees them as a way to guarantee the state’s presence in areas where at the moment it is slight.

The FARC now seems to be trying to calm fears that it is seeking control of territory. In a video message addressed to the farmers’ convention, Ivan Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator, did not reiterate the demand for autonomy.

Government and guerrilla negotiators have been meeting in Havana since November. Agreement on the land issue, the first of five items on the agenda, had seemed imminent. Instead on March 30th the two sides declared an unscheduled recess until the third week of April.

Many Colombians have remained sceptical as to whether the FARC, which retains some 8,000 fighters and income from drugs and illegal gold mining, really wants to make peace. In organising the talks, President Juan Manuel Santos reckoned, correctly, that military means alone cannot end the conflict. With a presidential election due next year, Mr Santos has said a deal must be done by November. Only his political opponents will rejoice if no agreement on the land issue is reached in the next few weeks.

From the print edition: The Americas



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