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.
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.
Under an ambitious land restitution law, the government is working to return much of that land to the peasants, even if, like Pulido, they never held formal title to it. Last month, 14 families from Mampujan – where 12 years after the mass displacement tangles of weeds have overtaken the scores of roofless, lifeless homes – were the first to benefit from a court sentence under the law, which grants them formal titles to land they abandoned. Another 26,650 Colombians have filed claims for stolen land.
While trying to repair past damages is a daunting task – so far, at least 45 leaders of land reform claimants have been killed and dozens more have been threatened – deciding how to move forward is the focus in Havana this week. The two sides have agreed to discuss access to land, formalization of land titles, rural infrastructure, technical assistance and subsidies, and food security.
There will be little disagreement on many of the issues, says Machado from UNDP. “Who’s going to be opposed to improved infrastructure?” he says, as an example.
The development model will be where the battle lines are drawn: There are plenty of points of contention on the agenda. The government will come to the table with a rural development bill that it drafted even before announcing its intention to begin peace talks with the FARC.
The government bill – which has yet to be formally introduced to congress – emphasizes export-oriented agribusiness, while handing out land to peasants without shaking up the current land tenure structure.
The FARC have yet to make public their proposed plan, but traditionally their demands have included a thorough redistribution of land by expropriation from large landholders, and the immediate expropriation of all land owned by foreign interests. Their model tends to emphasize a peasant-based model focused on food security.
'Debated in Colombia'
In Maria la Baja, plots of corn surrounded by towering oil palm plantations symbolize the opposing visions of what rural Colombia should look like.
Farmer Alberto Herrera says he’s benefited from the agroindustrial model pushed by the government. In 2002, he turned his five hectares of rice crops in Maria la Baja into a palm oil plantation and, as part of an association of famers, sells all his production to a processing plant located in the region. He and hundreds of other producers own a small share in the plant, while 51 percent of the plant belongs to former agriculture minister Carlos Murgas who promoted the palm crops.
Depending on the prevailing price of the palm fruit, Mr. Herrera can make up to 3 million pesos a month (about $1,650), far more than he ever did with his rice.
“And I have an assured buyer,” Herrera says.
But Pulido sees the palm plantations as an invasion that threatens food security. “I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist, but the area for palm should be limited and there should be [a] focus on food production,” says Pulido. He would like to see a special peasant reserve zone – where the size of plots are limited to safeguard small farmers so they can't be pushed out by large operations – established across the entire Montes de Maria region.
While a zone is being created in the western part of the Montes de Maria, it does not include the town of Maria la Baja.
One thing both small farmers and representatives of large agribusiness can agree on is that they're worried that their future will be negotiated at a table far away, without any of their input.
“The FARC does not represent us and neither does the government,” says Julio Armando Fuentes who leads a group of 20 peasant organizations from around the country. The organization has drafted a counter proposal to the government’s rural development bill, which Mr. Fuentes wants negotiators to take into account.
Luis Fernando Forero, of the Colombia Agriculture Society (SAC), says there is “great uncertainty” in the agribusiness and cattle ranching sectors about what the government will agree to during the negotiations. The SAC is also drafting proposals to share with negotiators.
“With a peace process or without a peace process these issues need to be debated in Colombia,” says Machado. “What’s crucial is that whatever is decided at the table does not generate a new conflict.”