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Apr 012010

In our December report on U.S.-funded counterinsurgency programs in Colombia, we discussed a major threat to these programs’ success: populations’ fear of a “land grab.”

Much hinges on land tenure in places like the Montes de María, a region near the Caribbean coast where USAID has been supporting a Colombian government “Fusion Center” for about a year. This small zone saw some of Colombia’s most intense violence in the early 2000s, when paramilitaries carried out a string of massacres whose names (El Salado, Chengue, Mampuján, Macayepo, and dozens more) remain notorious today.

The paramilitary offensive displaced most of many communities’ populations; nine or ten years later, only a minority have returned to their lands.

These lands are fertile, and with the near-total disappearance of leftist guerrillas from the zone since 2007, the Montes de María have become much less violent. As a result, land prices are skyrocketing, and speculators are looking to buy up the small parcels held by displaced, or recently returned, farmers. According to a March 6 article in Colombia’s Semana magazine:

Some years ago, large investors – the majority from Medellín – arrived in the Montes de María to buy parcels from campesinos who had been displaced and had become indebted to banks. In a town-hall meeting with President Álvaro Uribe in El Carmen de Bolívar, several farmworkers denounced that intermediaries are massively buying land at low prices. The campesinos said that the buyers or middlemen arrive shortly after visits from bill-collectors announcing to them that their lands could be foreclosed upon. Cornered, with no other choice, the campesinos were selling.

At the August 2008 town-hall meeting, President Uribe exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!” Meanwhile Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that loans to landholders who were displaced should be renegotiated or forgiven. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons, from the lack of necessary paperwork to farmers being unaware of their rights.

In response to this situation, the authorities in Montes de María have temporarily prohibited the sales of thousands of hectares of landholdings. Most of these are small parcels handed out in the 1970s-1990s by Colombia’s normally ineffective land-reform agency. Semana reports:

As an official of the Bolívar departmental government explained, the intention of these restrictions on land sales is to keep land from concentrating in few hands, thus affecting thousands of campesinos’ return after being expelled by paramilitary violence in the zone. And the philosophy of protecting those lands not only has to do with legal buyers; it also seeks to keep illegal groups from obligating campesinos to sell at low prices. Throughout the country about two million hectares are protected for the same purposes.

This “freeze” in land sales has modestly allayed farmers’ fears that the U.S.-funded “Integrated Action” program might pose a threat to their landholdings. Although the stated goal of the U.S.-supported “Fusion Center” is to assist the return of displaced communities, fears of a “land grab” are rife in the Montes de María. For many, the prospect of a stronger state presence in the zone implies the stronger presence of institutions not only tied to the elites who sponsored the paramilitaries 10 years ago, but also tied to the shadowy groups of investors who are buying up land right now. The freeze in sales offers some security from the threat of a “land grab.”

But that freeze may not be in place much longer. At the beginning of March, a judge in El Carmen de Bolívar, one of the biggest municipalities in the Montes de María, set a very troubling precedent. At the request of a group of displaced campesinos who wanted to sell their lands, the judge lifted the “freeze” for 40 landholdings, totaling about 1,000 hectares, so that they could be sold to two Medellín investors from a company called Agropecuaria Tacaloa.

Semana warns:

With the decision of the El Carmen de Bolívar judge comes the possibility of the massive sale of thousands of hectares that until now were protected by the Departmental Committee [for attention to the displaced], and the possibility of these lands ending up in the hands of large businesses or, even worse, warlords, while the idea of these campesinos’ return, or of their reparation as victims, is truncated.

The Montes de María are at risk of witnessing an all-out land grab, at the expense of victims who were forced to flee the region for their lives a decade ago. If that happens, the stated goals of the U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” program will be undermined. Displaced populations will not return, the region will undergo a “reverse land reform,” and the population will be even more distrustful of the state. Last month’s court ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

6 Responses to “A victory for “reverse land reform””

  1. Eric Girard Says:

    As a marxist and academic, this boils my blood. Great post though.

  2. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    I am merely the last of those, not being much of a fan of marxism beyond acknowledging it can provide some useful tools and categories for analysis, but that doesn’t exactly make me jump for joy either.

    It’s worth asking whether those peasants who wanted to sell their land are simply misguided souls looking for a quick buck at the expense of their potential future or merely unwilling proxies acting on behalf of someone else with darker motivations but, in either case, this is a troubling development that may well further consolidate the “reverse land reform” in question and may even promote the beginning of a new cycle of violence and displacement.

    On the other hand, if there is enough pressure against this latest move, perhaps other local or, perhaps more likely, national courts might not necessarily reach the same conclusion or may even reverse it in the best case scenario. Can the decision be appealed, for instance? I do have to wonder.

  3. Camilla Says:

    Maybe President Uribe was right after all:

  4. lfm Says:

    Yes. I guess President Uribe was right: he pulled out of the business while it was still peaking.

  5. Kyle Says:

    Haha, also it is not only the routes throw Mexico but – as Rocha’s work itself has showed – the amount of money coming into Colombia because of the cocaine trade has dropped, as traffickers have kept it out of the country with higher frequency. Also, is it really success if the drug trade drops in Colombia only to increase heavily in Mexico? To me it just seems like the problem is just elsewhere, but still a problem – and a big one at that.

  6. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Over half the population of Mexico lives beyond the poverty line. (Mexico is very much a part of Latin America despite the reluctance of some Mexicans to accept that.) Statistics are comparable, and often worse, for the Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Dealing with the issue of poverty and social exclusion, in part through strong governance programs at local levels (e.g., real political participation), is part of the solution. And U.S. assistance in dealing with governance/development is counterproductive since it effectively absolves national governments from addressing an issue that any truly democratic government is obliged to address.

    In a word, the issue of drug control, if there is a long-term solution on the so-called supply side, must be addressed by governments through policies aiming to address the needs of populations disenfranchised politically and economically. Furthermore, those policies must involve line development agencies of the countries with those populations. “Special projects,” like many of those undertaken in the name of “alternative development,” will not resolve the drugs problem on the supply side.

    On the demand side, I continue to believe that the only ultimate solution lies in instituting some combination of legalization and de decriminalization. These are not the same, by the way. You can drive down a U.S. highway at 150 km/hour and you’re committing an illegal act. But not a criminal act. There is a lot of latitude within the legal system of the U.S., and of other countries, for dealing with the drugs issue. Marijuana could be legalized, at least possession or sale of small quantities. And less-severe penalties for those trafficking in small quantities of cocaine than for those trafficking in large quantities. And severe punishments for drug capos and for those knowingly involved in money laundering. And so on and so on.

    And, of course, treating addicts as candidates for medical help rather than for jail. Indeed, criminalization is a huge problem on both sides of the supply-demand equation—e.g., criminalization of both impoverished small farmers growing drugs crops and of of end users.

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