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Will There Finally be Peace With Justice in Colombia?

We have now reached the final days for the disarming of the FARC guerrillas, as established by the Peace Accord provisions agreed upon by the Santos Administration and the FARC leadership. What, we may reasonably ask, are the prospects for achieving a lasting peace? There are a number of considerations to take into account in assessing whether the FARC’s demobilization will bring peace with justice.

First, there is a serious question whether the Colombian government will be able (and willing!) to dismantle paramilitary forces which are active in many parts of the country. In some areas, such as in the municipality of Apartado in northern Antioquia, the presence of paramilitary forces has been a constant dating back to the time when General Rito Alejo del Rio told a Colombia Support Network (CSN) delegation to Apartado that he as commander of the Seventeenth Brigade of the Colombia Army could vouch for the safety for investors in the region based upon what we later learned was active collaboration of the Brigade with paramilitary forces. I met a few days ago with representatives of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, and they informed me that the paramilitary presence and threats to the Community continue and that Seventeenth Brigade troops on occasion accompany paramilitaries and convey threats to the community, which is our Wisconsin sister community. Without demobilization of these paramilitary forces, there is a real prospect that former FARC personnel will run a serious risk of a repetition of the genocide of the Union Patriotica party members in the 1980’s and 1990’s. 

Second, the failure of the Colombia government to provide basic public necessities to many rural communities, such as farm-to-market roads, subsidies for campesino crops, agricultural credit and extension services, and municipal water and sewerage services, leaves rural residents in many parts of Colombia without adequate resources. This in turn leads many campesinos to look to coca cultivation as the only practical means of earning the money which their family needs in order to survive. In the past the Colombian government has tried to introduce alternative economic pursuits, such as raising chickens or other farm animals, but as long as the basic rural infrastructure does not exist, these efforts will not succeed. Indeed, a CSN delegation to Puerto Asis and Santa Ana in Putumayo Department several years ago observed the failure of the Colombian government’s alternative economic program for nearby rural communities, precisely because the basic infrastructure was lacking. 

Third, and of fundamental importance, the Santos Administration and the Colombian Congress have adopted a model for rural development, the ZIDRES, or Zones of Interest for Rural Economic and Social Development, which is antithetical to the type of campesino agriculture practiced in most rural areas in Colombia. The ZIDRES model, similar to models in Honduras and other Latin American countries, allows for “baldios”, lands that have never been titled but are often used by campesinos, to be incorporated into large-scale agricultural units run by foreign businesses, which will result in many campesinos being converted from independent producers to day laborers on the extensive lands developed by multinational businesses. The operation of Minnesota-based Cargill, the richest agricultural company in the world, on lands it acquired in irregular fashion in the eastern plains area of Colombia, is instructive of what is likely to happen as the ZIDRES model is applied. The FARC suggested a different model, one which has been used in different areas of Colombia for several years, the Campesino Reserve Zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina, or ZRC), in which areas would be set aside as agricultural lands to be worked by campesinos organized for that purpose. Rather than advance this model, the Colombian government has held up applications for permits for new ZRC’s, including for one supported by CSN in southern Cauca Department in the vicinity of the Carol Chomsky memorial lands.

Fourth, the reliance on mining, which President Santos stated at the beginning of his first term should be the “locomotive” of growth in the economy, is misplaced. The open-pit or mountaintop removal model for taking gold, silver, coal and other minerals from the earth is very damaging to the environment, which is especially serious for Colombia, one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. And development of infrastructure to support mining and other industrial operations, such as the construction of major roads through environmentally sensitive areas in the Amazon foothills, such as the highway construction in Putumayo Department from San Francisco in the Sibundoy Valley to Mocoa, should be avoided. 

Fifth, the Colombian government has not developed an adequate response to the extensive drug trade and illegal mining operations that have brought violence to many areas in Colombia. The use of coca crop spraying with glyphosate, as dictated by the U.S. Government, has not materially reduced coca production, nor has the manual eradication campaign conducted by the Colombian government succeeded in reducing coca production in the country. As Johann Hari has shown in his recent book, “Chasing the Scream”, the premise behind the so-called “War on Drugs” is erroneous. Treatment of addicts matched with legalization of drug use and management by the government is an effective way of taking the profit out of the drug trade and thereby reducing the terrible costs it inflicts upon society. As far as the illegal “wildcat” mining activities are concerned, the Colombian government needs to attack the corruption which leads to these activities and makes them profitable. 

Sixth, the Colombia Congress and the Santos Administration need to pay serious attention to popular mobilizations, and negotiate with representatives of these mobilizing organizations, rather that increasing the military budget and funding the anti-riot police (the “ESMAD”) to squelch legitimate protest by citizen groups. Failure to respond to the reasonable demands of these popular organizations will result in insufficient support for government measures and failure properly to implement changes necessary to achieve justice and peace.

Seventh, the Colombian government needs to keep its word in preparing communities for demobilized forces and in obtaining Congressional approval for agreed-upon measures to set up a functional system of Jurisprudence for Peace. As United Nations High Commissioner for Peace Todd Howland observed to a CSN delegation several months ago, the expense to the Colombian Government effectively to implement the Peace Accords will be very substantial and the Government has not requested all of the funds it might have from the United Nations Security Council. With the uncertainty of what contribution the Trump Administration will agree to make to help with implementation of the Peace Agreement, obtaining sufficient funds to carry out all of the agreed-upon actions may be a tremendous challenge. 

Still, even given the difficulties outlined above, Colombia has a chance to proceed to a more just society and one at peace. We must hope that the efforts of so many people in this direction will succeed, even against serious impediments in the road to peace.

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