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  • Hundreds of Indigenous people accompany the coffin of Daniel Coicue, a member of the indigenous Nasa tribe killed by FARC rebels in the armed conflict.

    Hundreds of Indigenous people accompany the coffin of Daniel Coicue, a member of the indigenous Nasa tribe killed by FARC rebels in the armed conflict. | Photo: AFP

Published 12 October 2016

The struggle for land rights, undermined through Washington's Plan Colombia, is one of the key issues facing Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

Marginalized Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Colombia have been among the most battered by more than five decades of internal armed conflict between the military, paramilitaries and armed left-wing rebel groups. They are also the communities that overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to the groundbreaking peace deal recently defeated at the polls and have much at stake in what comes next on the road to a post-conflict Colombia.

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With peace on the horizon and some US$4.5 billion set to flow into Colombia over the next 10 years through “Plan Colombia 2.0,” the path to a post-conflict era is marked by many hurdles. Many of the challenges are new ones, including the quest for ensuring truth and reconciliation for abuses during the 52-year war as part of building stable and lasting peace. Others — such as ethnic communities’ fights for legal land title and respect for Indigenous rights to free, prior and informed consent for development projects in their ancestral territories — are longstanding.

Despite landmark agreements on victims’ rights and rural reform, among others, covered in the historic deal between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, Black and Indigenous communities have warned that the peace accords could also spur a new elite-backed scramble for land and resources in Colombia’s countryside — particularly in areas where rebel disarmament creates a power vacuum for the first time in decades.

“As the peace accords are implemented, I think it is going to generate many more problems that have to do with the economic model promoted in the territories,” Carlos Rosero, a leader of the network of Afro-Colombian groups known as the Process of Black Communities, recently told teleSUR by phone from Bogota. “Because it is an extractivist model with an enormous cost that ends up affecting the economic, social and cultural ways of the communities.”

Rosero and other community leaders fear that the “comprehensive rural reform” promoted in the peace deal — though aimed at decreasing the vast inequalities between rural and urban areas — will open the door for national and multinational mining, agribusiness and other corporations to bulldoze their human rights and chip away at their already fragile traditional land claims.

According to official 2015 statistics, the Colombian government is sitting on at least 1,000 pending requests for legal recognition of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian title to their collective lands. Communities are already organizing for a new post-conflict struggle after years of stagnation on land rights demands in government agencies, as well as decades of systematic territorial theft and mass displacement that has uprooted nearly 7 million people in the country. Another 220,000 victims have been killed.

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And while peace may pave the way for the expansion of neoliberalism and extractivism, the model is far from new in Colombia, one of the most loyal corners of Washington’s “backyard” in Latin America. As a traditionally agricultural economy also rich in natural resources, Colombia’s more than quarter century-old free market policies, like elsewhere in the region, have undermined the viability of local farming by flooding the market with cheap imports and streamlined foreign resource exploitation. As a result, neoliberalism in Colombia has deepened inequality and fueled the expansion of illicit coca crops, used in making cocaine, as many small producers feel they have no other profitable choice.

The United States has played an pivotal role in the process, both through propping up the Colombian government's counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategy with US$10 billion over 15 years of Plan Colombia and the controversial 2006 U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. Signed by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Andres Pastrana and in 2000, Plan Colombia dramatically ramped up militarization — while failing to address paramilitary violence — with dire human rights consequences for social movements and marginalized rural communities.

“Plan Colombia is one of the major reasons that ethnic groups are disproportionately victimized by the conflict,” Teo Ballve, professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, told teleSUR. “U.S. military aid helped push the conflict into the heart of their territories.”

Though billed as a counternarcotics program, Plan Colombia was unsuccessful in curbing drug trafficking and has become widely condemned as a failure that ballooned human rights abuses, enabled right-wing death squads, sparked land grabs, and ultimately prolonged the conflict. Critics argue that Plan Colombia was designed to fight left-wing rebel groups, namely the FARC, but also targeted rural and ethnic populations in its effort to protect elite interests and foreign investment opportunities in the face of local community opposition and demands for reforms. Plan Colombia’s military budget was also accompanied by an economic element aimed at further liberalizing the Colombian market and limiting public spending in favor of privatization.

Earlier this year, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Barack Obama extended the controversial military aid package with a “Plan Colombia 2.0,” dubbed Paz Colombia. The plan looks to strengthen security and continue the “war on drugs” with US$450 million annually over the next 10 years in post-conflict Colombia.

“In many ways, (Plan Colombia) 2.0 is trying to attend to the human fallout created by the first version of Plan Colombia,” Ballve explained. “It's yet another example of the U.S. undoing with one hand what it's doing with the other.”

According to Ballve, one of the ways Plan Colombia’s strategy directly contradicted itself is revealed in the fact that funding earmarked for “alternative development” initiatives, particularly for agriculture, often ended up in the hands of drug traffickers — precisely the powers the aid package claimed to be fighting against. “Agriculture and land deals are some of drug traffickers’ favorite ways of laundering their narco-dollars,” he explained.

One of the agricultural endeavors promoted by Plan Colombia’s “alternative development” measures has been palm oil production, an industry notorious for displacing campesinos and ethnic communities and wreaking environmental havoc with large-scale, chemical intensive, monocultural plantations. In Colombia — the largest palm producer in Latin America and fourth largest in the world — palm expansion has gone hand in hand with violence. In recent years the Colombian government, in concert with paramilitaries and big agribusiness, has “violently removed” Afro-Colombians, Indigenous people, and campesinos to make way for palm monocultures, according to the food and development policy institute Food First.

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“If the U.S. does not put into place strict guidelines and due diligence,” Ballve continued regarding Plan Colombia 2.0, “much of the aid could end up actually fueling, rather than abating, Colombia's cycles of violence.”

A new iteration of this kind of institutionalized land grab is what vulnerable communities fear as peace unfolds and Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups continue to struggle for legal recognition of their collective land rights.

“The rural development in the peace accords, focused on the extractive model, will promote the entrance of new economic interests that don’t favor the needs and rights of the people and their lands,” Clemencia Herrera, a representative of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, recently told teleSUR. “It could create more competition for the resources on our lands.”

According to Omaira Bolaños, Latin America program coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, along with bloodshed, displacement of Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and campesino communities has been one of the most destructive outcomes of the conflict, accompanied by economic, social and cultural consequences.

“For a lasting peace to take root,” Bolaños wrote in a recent article published in the Washington Post, “the legal recognition of collective property rights for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities would be an important step in addressing the war’s damages and in continuing a process of comprehensive land reform.”

After years of civil society being hammered with militarization and destructive economic policies — supported and enshrined in 15 years of Plan Colombia and the 2006 U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement — the signing of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC is mostly symbolic. And the narrow win by the “No” camp in the Oct. 2 plebiscite on the accords makes the future even more uncertain.

Time will tell the true legacy of the peace deal, and concrete policies — pushed by grassroots organizing to ensure political follow through — and a real reduction of poverty, misery, and human rights abuses will be the measuring stick.

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