Magazine article New Internationalist

Colombia - the Riven Land

Magazine article New Internationalist

Colombia - the Riven Land

Article excerpt

Sideshows aplenty have emerged during peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, from the intrigue surrounding the participation of FARC's Dutch national Tanja Nijmeijer, to the antiimperialist rants of the rebels' lead negotiator Iván Márquez and the familiar war of words over hostages.

Theatre aside, however, both sides know that the land - a central issue when FARC's peasant guerrillas first took the fight to the government in 1964 - looms as large now as it did half a century ago. Now, as ever, those caught in this territorial tug-of-war are living a nightmare.

As talks continue in Havana, Cuba, all sorts of ambitious targets have been set. Halting the armed conflict, drug trafficking, victims' rights and FARC political participation are all on the table; but land holds the key to lasting peace. It has led the agenda and can scupper it.

'The fight over the land is just like medieval times,' says Myles Frechette, former US ambassador to Colombia. 'The land is everything in Colombia.'

From Marxist beginnings, FARC morphed in the decades that followed into a brutal outfit, profiting by taxing and trafficking drugs, and by kidnapping thousands. Ideology took a backseat to more pressing concerns, such as funding the battle against Plan Colombia, the US-sponsored, $9-billion all-out-war on guerrillas and drugs initiated in 2000.

But despite long ago losing the moral high ground, in a grossly unequal country where, according to a UN report, just 1.15 per cent of the population owns 52 per cent of the countryside, FARC's call for root-andbranch agrarian reform still animates many in rural areas, where the historically barbaric Colombian army has earned enormous distrust.


Central to President Juan Manuel Santos's reconciliation efforts has been the Victims' and Land Restitution Law, aimed at compensating those robbed of millions of hectares of land during the conflict. It came into effect in January 2012 and promises reparations for victims of the violence since 1985, and land restitution to those dispossessed since 1991.

Frechette feels Santos's intentions are genuine, but he says the idea the government can implement land reform in the traditionally semi-lawless provinces is far-fetched.

'The government simply does not have the personnel who have any experience in dealing with these real-life problems,' he says. 'They are quite satisfied to sit in their cities, but ask them to go out in the woods? They're not used to that and, from my experience, they just can't pull it off.

'Santos is arguably the best-prepared president Colombia has had in modern times, but the problems he will have to overcome are tremendous. The big landowners are not about to lose any land, however they have acquired it.'

FARC - itself accused of stealing huge swathes of territory - has attacked the initiative, labelling it a 'trap'. The government proposes restitution, FARC says, but at the same time invites corporations to claim chunks of the country for mega-projects - something which will only lead to more dispossession.

A few hours through the mountains southeast of Bogotá sits the oil-rich Meta department. Here in the eastern plains, the medieval scramble to which the former ambassador refers has in recent years played out between FARC and socalled criminal bands or Bacrim.

Essentially rightwing neo-paramilitaries with vital support from within the political and military establishment, the Bacrim arrived after the Álvaro Uribe government's deeply flawed 2006 demobilization of the United Self- Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of death squads which emerged in the 1990s to take on the guerrillas and anyone suspected of supporting them.

One such 'new generation' group, which dominated drug trafficking and extortion across the plains after 2006, is the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC). …

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