Land remains key to negotiated peace in Colombia

Small farmers formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1964 to defend land. Now land is the first agenda item in peace talks in Havana between the FARC and Colombian government. Renewed struggle over land roiled the talks in late February as the government delivered a controversial tract of land to new owners and the FARC raised the issue of food sovereignty.

Expressing hope earlier in the month, Humberto de la Calle, leader of the government's negotiating team, envisioned "a true opportunity to end armed conflict in Colombia through dialogue." Optimism vanished, however, on Feb. 23 when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos threatened, "If talks don't advance, we'll leave the table."

Santos was reacting to FARC criticism of his visit three days earlier to San Vicente del Caguán where he transferred 247,000 acres of land in the area to 342 farm families. In an open letter, FARC Commander Timoleón Jiménez rejected Santos' contention that the land had belonged to FARC commander Jorge Briceño, killed by government forces in 2010. "Let's save the peace, Santos," he asserted.

With an average parcel size of 727 acres, far in excess of most small-farm operations, the land deal raised questions. In fact, reported human rights activist Horacio Duque, Santos was "delivering land titles to members of the Army... and to their paramilitary stand-ins, land taken away from thousands of peasants." Duque contends Santos sought to "lower pressure from the ultra-right military leaders, loyal to ex-President Uribe, who are demanding that the peace negotiations be suspended."

The land transfer event took place on the anniversary of the military takeover in Caguán in 2002 that marked the end of two years of peace negotiations there. Jiménez castigated Santos' commemoration of failed peace talks, his having "insulted the FARC in every possible way," and his silence on current peace talks. He warned that "official attitudes ... threaten to sink the process into a swamp."

Santo's plans for running for re-election in 2014 are unclear, and his opinion poll ratings are down. Predecessor Alvaro Uribe is spearheading efforts to return right-wing orthodoxy to the presidency and congress.

The FARC general staff on Feb. 26 expressed confidence peace talks would continue. The Colombian people were called upon "to mobilize against what caused and who was responsible for the plundering of 20 million acres over 20 years, [in order to] to facilitate delivery of a good part of the national territory to trans-nationals."

In an interview that day FARC delegation head Ivan Márquez broadened discussion of land to encompass larger societal needs. He referred to "war-making sectors quite interested in sabotaging this process of dialogue that know there are themes they don't want discussed like concentration of land." Land for small farmers would come "from cattle raisers, for example, who have 100 million acres in their hands and a herd of 22 million cows that live like princesses on large stretches of land we could put into cultivation, to produce food."

Márquez cited "studies calling for distribution of 50 million acres among small farmers and dedicating them to food sovereignty. We need to produce food for Colombians. Until just recently Colombia was more or less self sufficient, at 90 percent. [N]ow with neoliberal politics this changed and now we have to import more than 10 million tons of food products."

A week earlier the FARC delegation publicized ten food sovereignty proposals. First, access to food would become a fundamental right. The people would be empowered "to define their own strategies for sustainable production commercialization and consumption of food products."

Other proposals were: eradication of hunger; Production of food in "stable, health-promoting, and environmentally sustainable ways; consumers guaranteed access to food; "protection, stimulation, and financial support" for small farmers; co-existence of varying production models; protection against land diversion to "mega projects;" cooperation between farmers and city consumers to remove intermediaries; infrastructure improvements; and democratic decision-making.

Nevertheless, while negotiators were coping with the land question, a widespread coffee farmer's strike materialized on Feb. 25. Coffee farmers and cacao, cotton, sugar cane, and rice farmers are now victims of changing world market conditions and the impact of U.S., Canadian, and European free trade agreements. Food importers undersell Colombian producers. Coffee prices and production have dropped precipitously.

Police violence directed at the strikers reinforced media-inspired prejudice against agrarian agitators. Government spokespersons hinted strikers were taking orders from the FARC. Analyst José Antonio Gutiérrez points out that, "As is typical of the Colombian government, social protest has been turned into a military problem, and internal security problem."

Gutiérrez reports, however, that "small [coffee] farmers complain [government] help serves only to benefit big producers, and the mid-level and small ones don't see a peso." Says Gutiérrez, "Although the government wants to exclude discussion of the economic model from the peace negotiations, it's impossible to talk about agriculture without taking that model into consideration."

He adds: "Coffee and cacao farmers are showing that social mobilization in Colombian streets and countryside will make sure such discussion becomes the order of the day. Although Santos ... believes problems of class struggle can be confined to a negotiating table, the Colombian people are demonstrating that deep transformation of the country comes about through the daily construction of ...of new political horizons. These winds blowing in favor of the people can no longer be contained by means of violence. Something is happening in Colombia."

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