Colombia's Chance for Peace

As Colombia’s civil war approaches its 50th anniversary next week, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are engaged in peace talks in Cuba.

The problems that drove rural Colombians to join the guerrillas a half-century ago — vast inequality and a weak government — still exist today. And the drug trade has only made things worse.

But people in remote parts of the country want to see an end to the conflict, and if the government can strike a deal that tackles both the political and economic dimensions of the war by undertaking comprehensive land reform and engaging local community groups in policy decisions, there could be peace.

For people like Daniel Sierra, from Córdoba Province, who joined the FARC as a teenager in the 1980s, the group’s claim of fighting for the rural poor rang true. “I believed it,” he told me. “I knew what it was like to go hungry while watching the ranchers’ cattle grow fat.”

Today, 1 percent of landowners possess more than half of the country’s agricultural land — a distribution ranking among the world’s most unequal, according to a study by the United Nations Development Program. The lopsided levels of land ownership are partly fueled by the way drug money gets laundered and invested in rural property. Drug money is also a key source of funding for the FARC.

Left with few options, displaced peasant communities have moved deeper into the jungle and grow the only profitable crop in those areas: coca, the raw material for cocaine. The FARC, in turn, gains a degree of popular support by protecting coca-growing communities from the government.

If the negotiators want to break these cycles of violence, then they must address land inequality and the drug trade as interconnected problems.

Although Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, passed a law in 2011 aimed at returning lands stolen by armed groups back to the victims of the conflict, the law does not address the pre-existing levels of inequality that sparked the civil war in the first place. A proposed agreement to create a land bank, made up of idle and state-owned lands, for distribution to peasant families — one of the few things made public about the talks — is a step in the right direction.

The pace of the land restitution program has been slow. And many displaced peasants have been unable to return to their farms because guerrillas and private militias still call the shots in most areas where restitution efforts are underway; they either occupy the land or won’t let people return to it.

The government was supposed to take control of these areas when Colombia’s largest paramilitary group began to demobilize in 2003. Instead, new paramilitary groups and the rebels swooped in and filled the void.

The negotiators must ensure that a peace agreement does not similarly become open season for other armed groups to take over former FARC territories, which include key smuggling corridors and drug-production zones.

Moreover, local communities need to have a say in what happens. The FARC-dominated areas actually have vibrant peasant unions and community development organizations. In the past, the government has dismissed these groups as puppet groups controlled by the rebels.

Rather than stigmatizing these groups, the government should be working closely with them to design social and economic programs that will help fill the vacuum the FARC will leave behind. Many of these communities feel victimized by the military’s antidrug and counterinsurgency campaigns, so winning their trust will not be easy but the payoff could be game-changing.

Remote communities that have lived in the crossfire of the armed groups for the last 50 years have long clamored for a government presence that goes beyond military operations. For years they have demanded roads, schools, hospitals and agricultural assistance.

In the past, the only local authorities willing to help fulfill the basic needs of peasant communities have been the armed groups flush with drug dollars. Being caught up in the fog of war means civilians often end up being forced into dependent relationships — not necessarily out of complicity but for survival.

The largest obstacle to implementing such reforms would be the people who have the most to lose: rural elites. Agribusiness groups are already complaining that the government’s moves toward reform have scared investors away from the countryside.

Another threat to any post-conflict settlement might come from the FARC itself, particularly its middle ranks. Today, the leaders of Colombia’s largest drug-trafficking organization are former midranking commanders of a rebel group that disbanded in the 1990s. Dissatisfied with their post-conflict purgatory, they returned to the conflict and ultimately created their own drug cartel, called the “Urabeños.”

The Urabeños, who oppose anything that increases government authority on their turf, have become one of the most violent opponents of the land restitution effort; as many as 50 land-rights activists have been gunned down since the program began.

Negotiators must make sure the FARC’s midlevel commanders do not similarly fall through the cracks. Introducing more forms of local political participation could give former commanders a better stake in the political system.

Finally, there is an election on Sunday. If President Santos is re-elected, he will have the political capital he needs to continue the talks. But the other leading contender, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has promised to suspend negotiations if he’s elected, making the election a de facto referendum on the peace process.

The negotiators in Cuba must move quickly to confront the longstanding links between land conflict and drug trafficking. Colombia’s hopes for a more peaceful future depend on it.

Teo Ballvé is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Berkeley.

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