Territorial Peace and Land Grabbing in Colombia

Concepts of peace in dispute
30 September 2016
Article

The end of Colombia's armed conflict will not mean real peace if the neoliberal status quo persists. The peoples of Colombia have real solutions to the country's environmental and social problems.


Street Art Bogota, Colombia.
Photo credit Juan Cristobal Zulueta

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The attempt to end the armed conflict with the leftist guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has reached a final stage with the signing of an agreement with the right-wing government of Juan Manuel Santos on 26 September in the emblematic city of Cartagena de Indias. A plebiscite on 2 October will allow Colombians to choose whether to endorse the agreement or not.

It took four years of negotiations in the Cuban city of Havana for the parties to reach a final agreement. The 297-page accord may open up the possibility of constructing new horizons for the country. Democratic sectors and popular Colombian organisations are confident that the YES vote will win the plebiscite and the agreements will be approved. This would give rise to new conditions for engaging in politics in Colombia and building the country.

Contrary to what one might imagine, there is a sector of the population campaigning against the adoption of the agreements. Many of those who are promoting the NO vote remain under the "authoritarian spell"1. More than half a decade after getting over the so-called 'democratic security' programme (2002-2010), in which the number of victims of the war exceeded that of all previous governments, 2 this sector continues to follow and yearn for former president Álvaro Uribe and his rhetoric of promoting war to achieve peace. There is no doubt that Uribe, now senator of the republic, is fully aware that peace building will have consequences for him, as it sets the stage for following up on all of the lawsuits and accusations against him 3.

Yet, the combination of factors leading certain sectors to defend the continuation of the destructive war, which has made a small minority rich and devastated the lives of more than 8 million people, is just one part of the story. It is important to analyse the real implications that the end of this historical armed conflict could have in territorial terms and especially the different concepts of peace currently at play. The potential effects on the social fabric of power relations in Colombia must also be examined.

Concepts of peace in dispute

Pax Neoliberal: The Santos administration has manufactured and popularized the idea that peace is equivalent to the subjugation of insurgent groups. It has tried to define peace as the result of the negotiations with the FARC guerrilla. Obviously, these efforts are an attempt to establish a "pax neoliberal" 4 in which the solution to the armed conflict has nothing to do with resolving the social, economic and political fractures that gave origin to the armed conflict.

The legislation introduced by the Santos administration and its respective forms, strategies and mechanisms for displacement are clearly proof of this. For instance, the Zones of Interest for Economic and Social Development in Rural Areas (ZIDRES 5 for its acronym in Spanish) allow unlimited amounts of officially unoccupied land to be handed over to national or foreign legal persons who are granted control over the use of the territory - primarily in the Altillanura (high plains) or in the Magdalena Medio region 6 - for indeterminate amounts of time. The definition of this time period is the responsibility of the Agencia Nacional de Tierras 7 (National Land Agency). Through this mechanism and based on the discourse on development and public interest, the government is facilitating entry into areas of the country to which access had been limited by the armed conflict. With the implementation of the ZIDRES, large landowners (legal persons) will be given incentives for productive partnerships, technology packages, subsidies and support through a whole series of mechanisms from which Colombian peasants have never benefited in the country's entire history. 8

Faced with the drop in revenues from the oil model and, in general, the decline in the expected gains from mining-energy extractivism, it appears that the solution is to continue promoting the expansion of agro-industry as a way to generate additional revenue. The alternative being implemented is based on big capital that while respecting the "hacienda model" in place since colonial times, incorporates transnational capital into the game. It is assumed that the pacification of territories is a guarantee needed in order to attract foreign investment from the corporate apparatus. In this model, peasants may even be granted ownership of land 9, but the land's use, management and control are tied to the chain of production defined by transnational corporations10. In the end, this is what makes capital accumulation possible for transnational corporations and results in the loss of rights over territory because of the use of these new forms of and instruments for furthering dispossession. In this form of the territorialisation of capital, financialization of the rural areas model plays a key role, namely via the so-called agricultural markets and the recolonisation of rural areas through credit.

Peace based on social and environmental justice

Diametrically opposed to the government's idea of peace, organised peoples are building a narrative of peace as equivalent to social and environmental justice. In this narrative, the abandonment of arms by the agents of the conflict is but one step in the process to build a country with dignity, and not the end point nor an indication that the process has been consolidated. This view of peace aims for negotiations with other insurgent groups - with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN, or National Liberation Army) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL, or the Popular Liberation Army) - and points out that the chances of making progress will depend on the political negotiations held in dialogue with the other actors involved in the conflict. Social participation is at the heart of this view as the fundamental basis for peace building. This participation must be decisive and binding, and not merely consultative, in which the peoples present their proposals and historically accumulated experience to contribute to the generation of a new way of doing politics in the different areas of priority in the national context (mining and energy; the peasants, afro-descendent and indigenous peoples' own economy; the so-called illicit crops; environment and territory; etc.). This view of peace recognises the government's version as neoliberal and corporate, as daily life confirms the advance of the conglomerate of transnational capital's control over the territories11.

Undoubtedly, these two views are in conflict, as their assumptions, their concept of justice and the vision of the country they aim to build are antagonistic. While they converge around the need to end the more than 50 years of armed conflict, they diverge in their ideas of what needs to be done: while the government believes it is only necessary to address the consequences of the conflict, the peoples argue it is necessary to resolve the causes that gave origin to it. That is where the revision and transformation of the current development model becomes a priority, as it perpetuates the causes of the war.

From the process so far, one positive aspect is that the negotiations have opened up the possibility of explaining, to a misinformed public, that the insurgent movement is not the only one responsible for the violence. A good share of this responsibility goes to the State and the phenomena it has tolerated, such as paramilitarism, and to the United States with its civil-military actions and counter insurgency strategies involving low intensity conflict. Another positive element is that it opens the door to the possibility of bringing corporations (national and foreign) to court by presenting proof of their illegal actions. And, most importantly, the biggest gain from this process is the emergence of new versions of the truth – by bringing to the surface constructions that have been left out of the historical totalisation of this imposed version of the truth, which is favourable to those who have promoted the war and have benefited from it.

Peace, the environment and false solutions

Environmental issues are at the centre of the concepts involved in the dispute to define peace. This is one area where the tendency to treat natural resources as simple objects to be exploited must be overcome. This view has prevailed in the Colombian establishment and even in sectors of the so-called left wing and is part of the discourse that allows them to legitimise their grabbing and destruction.

For some members of the Colombian social movement, at this historic moment, it is important to discuss the relation between the armed conflict and the imposition of megaprojects, which are also presented as drivers of development. Such are the cases of Hidroituango 12, the construction of the Urra I dam 13, among other hydroelectric dam projects, or the various mining ventures that have sparked armed conflict around them in different regions 14. All of the mega-projects have generated major environmental impacts and, in many cases, even devastation. In the majority of cases, armed agents have intervened 15.

Now, when referring to environmental impacts, one must also take into account the exploitation of the bodies of men and women and the rupture of their relationship with the territory of which they are a constitutive and constituent part. Coalitions such as the Movimiento Colombiano por la Defensa del Territorio y Afectados por Represas -Ríos Vivos have demanded to be recognised as victims of development, as the forced displacement they were subject to is a direct consequence of the construction of large dams, the destruction of traditional and ancestral social ties and the loss of natural livelihoods 16.

Environmental issues must be conceived, then, in terms of the interrelation between human beings and their natural surroundings in which they have constituted the territories they live (or lived) in. Taking them into consideration in the peace building scenario will foster the search for the truth about the structural causes that generate socio-environmental conflicts; ensure the full reparation of human victims, the restoration of all dimensions of nature, and the adoption of guarantees of non-recurrence.

However, in the post-agreement period, the official discourse - which uses the policies promoted by multilateral institutions as an excuse and reproduces them - chooses to convert nature into (natural) capital and integrate it into the corporate governance system of the green economy model and in discourses such as low-carbon development. It defends a proposal of territorial peace that implements the commodification and financialisation of nature through the funding schemes of the institutions that regulate environmental management (Autonomous Regional Corporations and the National Environmental System). These funds are collected through payment for environmental services (PES) and reducing emissions from deforestation or degradation (REDD) schemes, which constitute mechanisms of transnational control. It also proposes a reformulation of land planning in which biodiversity, as natural capital, is at the service of large financial centres. Local development with sustainable development is associated to corporate governance, with no participation by peasants, or merely incorporates them according to the needs of export markets, plunging them once again into a situation of dependency with no regard for food sovereignty and autonomy. Extractive activities that prioritise sustainable mining are also promoted - despite the contradiction in terms - so that local populations impoverished precisely by that model and ex-combatants participate in these activities.

There is no doubt that this is an attempt to consolidate a scenario of peace in which the environment is at the service of corporations and in which the underlying causes that gave origin to the armed conflict will be reproduced, this time under the green economy narrative.

Peace and territory

The possibilities of building peace in the territories - from the people's perspective and not that of the trinity of the Santos government, multilateral organisations and their corporate allies - are dependent on the advances of some proposals currently on the agenda of the social debate 17. One of the alternatives being elaborated is the creation of a Commission on Environmental Truth as a necessary condition for achieving social and environmental justice. This proposal is being promoted by several organisations, including CENSAT Agua Viva / Friends of the Earth Colombia and the Movimiento Ríos Vivos. It is based on the recognition of nature as the victim of the armed conflict, since it was both the stage for and the booty of the war. It points out that full compensation for human victims is not possible if the territories affected by the conflict are not restored. It also proposes a thorough process to record the conflict from an environmental and ecological perspective of the memory by reconstructing symbolic cases that reveal the truth about the crimes against nature and, moreover, stipulate guarantees of non-recurrence.

In the context of the neoliberal policies of recent years, which have been strengthened by free trade and investment agreements 18 and have deeply harmed popular sectors, the emergence and strengthening of spaces of convergence, organisation and mobilisation have been fundamental in the defence of the territory and the construction of proposals for economic, environmental and social justice that allow the conditions that gave rise to the resolution of the armed conflict.

We have before us the opportunity to build these proposals in a context where armed conflict is not part of daily life and spaces are being created for dissent and the recognition of differences in political participation. Therefore, it is urgent to advance towards the consolidation of a coalition that involves the different sectors of the popular movement with the goal of discussing and developing a new narrative that uses creativity to develop new subjects and the political subjectivity necessary for the construction of the country on a new basis.

The publication of this article was possible thanks to the contributions of the various individuals and social organisations that participated in the Day of Dialogue on Territorial Peace organised in Bogotá by the Transnational Institute (TNI) from the Netherlands and CENSAT Agua Viva / Friends of the Earth Colombia on 22 August 2016. We would like to give special thanks to Danila Rueda from Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, Ana Jimena of the Legislative Technical Unit of Senator Iván Cepeda, Daniel Libreros from the Movimiento Ecosocialista de Colombia and Juan Pablo Soler from the Movimiento en Defensa del Territorio y Afectados por Represas Ríos Vivos for their valuable contributions during the event. 

1 The government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez is referred to as the "authoritarian spell", as can be seen in a series of books with this title published by the Plataforma Colombiana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo, with contributions from various social organisations and intellectuals: http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-no2004004631/
2 According to the Red Nacional de Información de la Unidad para las Víctimas, the year with the highest number of victims is 2002: 831,339. Between 2002 and 2010, 4,223,748 victims were reported, from a total of 8,769,002 victims recorded between 1985 and 2016. Even though this data may exclude people who were not registered as victims, it does provide a general overview of the situation described here. Source: http://rni.unidadvictimas.gov.co/RUV
3 http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/alvaro-uribe-el-candidato-con-mas-investigaciones/367105-3
4 http://justiciaypazcolombia.com/Paz-express-pax-romana
5 Regulated by Law no. 1776 passed on 29 January 2016
6 These two zones are strategic in geographical and political terms. In the Altillanura (high plains) located in the eastern part of the country, one finds oil wells with large reserves and rice, soy and oil palm plantations have been developed there in recent years. The Magdalena Medio region includes the valley around Colombia's main river, Río Magdalena, in the middle and the northern part of the country. One of the main oil refineries is located there and it is the centre of mining, cattle raising and agro-industrial projects. Historically, these two zones have been the stage for peasant resistance struggles and paramilitary action that (primarily in the 1980s and 1990s) attempted to consolidate the plundering of the territories.
7 http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/economia/hara-nueva-autoridad-de-tierras-articulo-604511
8 See: Machado, Absalón. La política de Reforma Agraria y Tierras en Colombia. Esbozo de una memoria institucional. Informe del Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2013; and Mondragón, Hector. La triste historia de la agricultura colombiana y la renta desalmada. In: Revista Semillas No. 50: http://semillas.org.co/es/revista/la-triste-historia-de-la-agricultura-colombiana-y-la-renta-desalmada
9 Through land restitution schemes, for example.
10 According to Franco et al., from an economic policy perspective, this constitutes land grabbing in the current context: "It refers to the capturing of power to control land and other associated resources like water, minerals or forests, in order to control the benefits of its use". Franco et al. The Global Land Grab. A primer. Transnational Institute, 2013.
11 www.cumbreagraria.org
12 This is a project to build a megadam in the Department of Antioquia, a region located in north-western Colombia along the border with Panama.. http://www.hidroituango.com.co/ ver: http://debatehidroituango.blogspot.com.co/
13 http://urra.com.co/ ver: http://censat.org/es/noticias/el-pueblo-embera-katio-del-alto-sinu-denuncia-la-falta-de-voluntad-politica-del-estado-colombiano
14 See: http://censat.org/es/analisis/mineria-en-colombia-2015-de-las-ventajas-corporativas-a-las-zonas-de-sacrificio-minero, https://issuu.com/cinepppp/docs/documento_ocasional_78_1_6_merged, http://www.contraloriagen.gov.co/documents/10136/182119332/MineriaEnColombia-Vol2.pdf/6cc33e0c-29e9-4a65-8561-1215fa8d07a0, http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/medio-ambiente/colombia-no-esta-preparada-locomotora-minera-articulo-420422
15 http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/la-fiebre-minera-apodero-colombia/246055-3
16 https://defensaterritorios.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/politica-energetica-colombiana-y-propuestas-del-movimiento-rios-vivos-para-su-transformacion/
17 These proposals can be found in the document entitled Política energética colombiana y propuestas para su transformación, elaborated by the Movimiento Ríos Vivos for the debate at Mesa Nacional Minero Energética y Ambiental (National Mining, Energy and Environmental Roundtable): https://defensaterritorios.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/doc_rios-vivos_propuesta-mea_2016_rf2.pdf
18 For an up-to-date and detailed analysis of the agreement with the EU, see: https://www.tni.org/es/publicacion/repercusiones-en-colombia-del-acuerdo-comercial-con-la-union-europea-tras-tres-anos-devéase: