Colombia, FARC rebels make peace progress with land deal

The Colombian government and FARC peace negotiators announced an agreement on land reform this weekend, just days before the rebel group's 49th anniversary. Land issues are at the root of the conflict.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Humberto de la Calle (r.) head of Colombia's government peace negotiation team, speaks to reporters during the peace talks with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, Sunday.

Six months after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government first sat down to try and negotiate an end to the country's half-century-long conflict, many citizens felt their hopes deflate. The talks were beginning to appear to be just another failed attempt at peace, and critics' voices were growing louder.

But on Sunday came a major breakthrough. The FARC and the government made a joint announcement stating that they had reached an agreement for "radical transformations" in the Colombian countryside. Land rights have been a flash point of the conflict, and the FARC claim they are the reason they rose up against the state 49 years ago today. Over half of the farmland in this South American nation is held by 1 percent of landowners. The new agreement “seeks to reverse the causes of the conflict,” according to a joint statement read in Havana, Cuba, where the negotiations are taking place.

Land is just one of five points on the negotiating agenda, and no single deal is final until the entire negotiation process draws to a close, according to negotiation rules. Few specifics on the land agreement have been released since the May 26 announcement, and the FARC’s chief negotiator said there are some land reform details that remain unresolved.

The fact that the two sides decided to announce the agreement nonetheless is an indication of the urgency negotiators felt to show the public they were making progress.

'Generate controversy'

Some Colombians gushed with enthusiasm and hyperbole at the news. "What just happened in Havana is the most important thing that has happened in the last 100 years in the country," said Senator Armando Benedetti, a member of the government coalition.  "The issue of land is 60 percent of a peace agreement."

But critics continued to question the peace process. "Terrorist Farc kills our soldiers and policemen and the Santos government rewards them with a land agreement," tweeted former president Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of President Juan Manuel Santos. In another tweet he wrote: "It's unacceptable that the Santos government negotiate the model of the Colombian countryside with narco-terrorists."

Lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said criticism was welcome. "We know that these negotiations generate controversy and that's fine," he said. "But we ask for the debate to be sensible."

Many victims of the FARC remain skeptical that a peace deal is possible. "I doubt it. This is the same as the last time there were negotiations" which ended in 2002, says Sandra SÁnchez, who was displaced by guerrillas in 2007 from her home in Vichada province after her son and daughter deserted from the rebel ranks. "They talk and talk and then the negotiations break off and we’re left with more war."

Doubts are understandable – The FARC marked their anniversary by torching two trucks on a highway in the southern Cauca province – and there are still many thorny issues to work out before a peace deal is a sure thing. But there may be reason for cautious hope, too: Never before has the FARC and government come so far on agreeing on anything, much less a very root cause of the conflict. 

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