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Top issue as Colombia-FARC negotiators meet? Land (+video)

Lack of access to land by rural populations has been a cause and a consequence of Colombia's five-decade-old conflict – and will be a focus of today's FARC-Colombia peace talks in Cuba.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / November 19, 2012

Humberto de la Calle, head of Colombia's peace negotiation team, speaks to journalists before embarking to Havana for a round of peace talks with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, at the military airport in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday.

William Fernando Martinez/AP

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Maria la Baja, Colombia

The earth in this part of northern Colombia is dark, rich, and fertile. Spit out a seed of any type of fruit or vegetable, the peasants here say, and a plant will sprout wherever it lands.

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BOGOTÁ (Colombia/-) (AFP) – After preliminary talks held in Oslo in October, the Colombian government will sit down with FARC guerrillas in Havana on November 15th - for peace talks aiming to end the nearly four-decade long conflict. Duration: 02:24

Gabriel Pulido and his family have worked this land for generations, though they have never owned any of it. Mr. Pulido remembers when Maria la Baja, a municipality that lies on the edge of the Montes de Maria mountains, used to be considered the breadbasket of the region, providing corn, rice, plantains, yucca, and a tuber known as ñame to the cities.            

But after decades of guerrilla and paramilitary violence, forced displacement, and land grabs, today thousands of peasants are landless, and much of the food production has been replaced with oil palm plantations. Often now it is cheaper to buy staple foods from distributors who bring them from elsewhere in the country.

The lack of access to land by the rural population has been both a cause and consequence of Colombia's five-decade-old conflict. And it will be the first point of discussion when negotiators from the government and leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sit down today in Havana, Cuba, to try to reach a deal to put an end to the war.

By tackling one of the country’s thorniest issues first, the FARC want to show they still have a political agenda after years of being labeled little more than narcoterrorists because of their involvement in the drug trade. The government, meanwhile, wants to show it is serious about finding lasting solutions to the conflict, analysts say.

“Peace in Colombia cannot be achieved without resolving the issue of land,” says Absalón Machado, an expert on land issues and lead author of an extensive United Nations Development Program study on the state of rural Colombia. The report found that 52 percent of rural property is in the hands of just 1.15 percent of the population.

"By putting this issue first, it is recognition that this is a tough problem that the society has to resolve if it wants to advance toward peace,” Mr. Machado says.

Driven off the land

The FARC started off in the early 1960s as a band of angry peasants, and one of their main demands was better distribution of land.

“The FARC was born … as a peasant response to the aggression of large landowners that flooded the Colombian countryside with blood, usurping land from peasants,” said the lead rebel negotiator known as Ivan Marquez, when the peace talks were formally launched in Oslo last month.  Many members of the FARC’s rank and file are recruited – often forcefully – among peasant communities where the rebels are the de facto authority.

But peasant leaders say the FARC represent only their own interests. “I don’t think they have the moral authority to talk about rural development,” says Pulido, who serves as a community leader in Maria la Baja.

Like nearly 4 million other Colombians, Pulido was driven off the land he grew up on by the violence between FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, which some trace back to private security for wealthy landowners and drug traffickers. In 2000, paramilitaries laid siege to Pulido’s village of Mampujan, accusing villagers of collaborating with rebels who maintained a presence in the area. Twelve people were killed in the area and the entire village was displaced.

According to government estimates, some 6.5 million hectares – about twice the size of Massachusetts – have been stolen, abandoned, or otherwise usurped by armed groups between 1985 and 2008 as a result of the conflict, reversing the modest gains of minimal land reform efforts in the 1970s. The FARC itself is accused of having seized some 807,000 hectares of land (nearly 2,000 acres, or the size of Puerto Rico) either by forcing landowners to sell, or simply driving them off through threats of violence. 

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