Interview with lawyer Sergio Coronado

“The resolution of agrarian conflicts doesn’t depend on the signing of peace deals”

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The first item on the agenda for the roundtable talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which have been taking place in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012, is the agrarian issue. That’s because the problem of access to land is the primary reason behind Colombia’s armed conflict, according to attorney Sergio Coronado, who heads a team working on land rights and territorial issues at the nongovernmental organization Center for Research and Popular Education, or CINEP, in Bogotá. Orsetta Bellani a collaborator with Latinamerica Press spoke with Coronado about the agrarian policy in Colombia.
Why is access to land thought to be the root of Colombia’s armed conflict?
Colombia never had a successful agrarian reform process. Each try throughout the country’s history — which overlapped with periods in which many Latin American countries were designing programs to distribute land — failed. The main reason is because elite landowners never wanted to give up the property rights they had accumulated since the civil wars of the 19th century. After the assassination of Liberal Party candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 came an era known as “la violencia” (“the Violence”), when campesinos not only sought recuperation of the lands, but also the real political participation they had never had. Access to the land is a central point, but looking at the complexity of the agrarian world there are many more answers to why there is a war in Colombia: the underrepresentation of campesinos in the country’s political life explains the origin of guerrillas in the 1960s.
With regards to agrarian policy, has there been a change between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, and that of former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010)?
Yes, there’s a different attitude. The officials who today are running the public agencies have different profiles and political origins from those during the Uribe administration, at least at the national level. For example, Miriam Villegas, director of INCODER [the government’s Colombian Institute of Rural Development], worked as a defender of campesinos during landmark land recovery cases in the [central] region of Magdalena Medio. Nonetheless, the change in the national plan has not arrived to regional institutions, where local elites who often are tied to paramilitary groups rule. Moreover, with Santos, there is a change in attitude and style, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a change in policies.
In June 2011, President Santos approved Law 1448, or the Victims and Land Restitution Law. What is that about?
In general terms, Law 1448 seeks to redress and compensate the victims of the conflict, creating the conditions for ensuring the return of displaced campesinos to their lands and starting a [land] titling process. It includes lands that currently are in varying legal conditions; we look forward to what might happen. Last December, it was revealed that effectively, the first land deeds are being given to displaced campesinos in Montes de María [on the Caribbean coast]. In this case, it was lands that weren’t stolen, just abandoned, that is to say that no one claimed the deed and used the land abandoned by the displaced campesinos. It remains to be seen if the state is capable of removing the property rights for stolen territory to formally and physically return them to the campesinos, while guaranteeing security for those who will return to their land.
Critics of Law 1448 argue that it does not suppress the privileges of agribusiness and large enterprises. Why?
The Victims and Land Restitution Law operates in the framework of the state’s general agrarian policy; the two would need to be articulated. There needs to be an analysis of what rural development model is emerging along with Law 1448. Is it a model that beyond recognizing the deeds of displaced campesinos, respects and creates a viable rural economy? Or is it a model that prioritizes large investments, agribusiness and industrialized farming? The answer is that the model implemented by the government doesn’t look like it will support the campesino economy: it formalizes the land to the extent that farmers are linked with a particular model of agro-industrial production. A displaced campesino may have the deeds to the land but he cannot choose his own agricultural enterprise, rather he must participate in one that has been established for the region; the state is moving towards a particular development model. Moreover, to impede the concentration of property, Law 1448 contains a provision that is very weak and fragile in the contextual conditions, that the campesino whose land was restored cannot sell it for two years.
At the end of 2012, the Forum entitled Comprehensive Agricultural Development Policy was held, organized by the National University of Colombia  and the United Nations, so that Colombian civil society could present its proposals for rural development to the roundtable between the Colombian government and the FARC. Do you think the negotiators will keep the proposals from that forum in mind?
We can’t expect that in Havana, they will sign onto the end of latifundium or that the country will be structurally reformed. But the accord can generate the foundations on which a rural development model could be based much more in line with the needs of the campesinos; this would be easier without an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the resolution of the agrarian conflicts in the country doesn’t depend on the signing of peace deals, [and] the absence of armed conflict doesn’t imply the absence of social conflict.
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