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Colombia: Conflict and Commerce

16th March 2010

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Many people think that the cocaine trade is the main cause of violence in Colombia. In fact, the long-running armed conflict that still ravages Colombia is rooted in the battle for valuable arable land.

More than 70,000 people have been killed over the past 20 years, as various factions struggle to control lucrative land rights.

This extreme violence has forced millions to flee their homes. With almost 10% of its entire population internally displaced, Colombia ranks second only to Sudan in the proportion of citizens seeking refuge from violence within their own country.

As many as 3.7 million or around 8.5% of the population of 44 million have been fled their land in the past 20 years. If the same proportion of the population of the UK were displaced, it would equate to around 5 million people.

That would mean emptying out the combined populations of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield and Liverpool.

Massacres and selective murder have been commonplace in many regions of Colombia for decades and are the primary cause of forced displacement. The hardest hit have been those living in remote areas. They are the victims of a civil war that started as out as a conflict between opposing ideologies, with left-wing guerrilla on one side and right-wing paramilitaries on the other.

The paramilitaries, who have set themselves up as the armed protectors of big business, have now become businessmen themselves. Supported by parts of the Colombian state apparatus, they are forcing families to leave the land and then taking it over for their own use. The conflict has become an excuse for a violent land grab on a huge scale.
In 2000, Francis Deng, the then Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced People, described displacement in Colombia as a 'tool for acquiring land for the benefit of large landowners, narco-traffickers as well as private enterprises planning large-scale projects for the exploitation of natural resources.'
Millions of pounds worth of coal and other valuable minerals and precious metals, such as gold, lie beneath the soil in many parts of Colombia.

There is also a lesser known commodity, palm oil, which the Colombian government is actively promoting as the key to the country's export growth. Palm oil is the main ingredient in many soap products sold in the UK. This oil comes from the African palm plant which is well suited to the large swathes of tropical rain forest running through Colombia.

President Alvaro Uribe has stated publicly that he would like to see the area under African palm cultivation in Colombia increase by a factor of 20, from 300,000 hectares (741,316 acres) to 6 million (14.8 million acres). The problem is, much of the land earmarked for this expansion already has peasant farmers living on it.

With the help of Christian Aid, some of those who have been forced off their land by violence have come up with a new and effective way of reclaiming their land.

For the first time, displaced people have employed the international legal framework to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. The initiative for their legal battle came from Christian Aid partners. Some ten years after the paramilitaries killed and mutilated their family members, forcing them to flee the area; four groups of farmers have gone back to Choc to reclaim a small portion of their land.

To protect themselves from the paramilitaries still operating in the area, the returning families set up Humanitarian Zones with the support of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. (The Washington-based body is the Americas equivalent of the European Court of Human Rights)
The court mandated that 'special protection' should be granted to these Humanitarian Zones. They are now guarded by the Colombian army and the people living there have not suffered any attacks within the zones. Peace Brigades International also sends in international volunteers to live with returned farmers for short periods. This improves their safety, as the political cost of threatening or harming an international observer, is much higher.

Since creating the Humanitarian Zones, an investigation by Colombia's rural development section of its Agriculture Ministry found in 2005 that the 93% of palm plantations in the area were located on land which they did not legally own.

Last year, this rural development section, known as INCODER, ruled that the lands must be returned to their rightful owners, ie. The communities had made the area their home, but who had been forced to flee from 1996 onwards. Most of the people that settled there were descendents of former slaves.

This ruling has led to an escalation in violence against community leaders in the area (although not in the humanitarian zones themselves). In October 2008, community leader, Walberto Hoyos was shot dead in the Curvarado region on the eve of giving evidence in a case against the paramilitary brigade, Elmer Cardenas, which was accused of killing another activist in 2005.

Mysteriously, his bodyguard was not present on the day he was shot and when his brother asked to local police to provide another bodyguard they said it was not necessary. Within minutes of his death, his brother Miguel received a phone call from the police to say that he'd been shot and that the following day he would see a closure of all local businesses in the area. This 'armed stoppage' mandated by paramilitaries was viewed by local people as a demonstration of their continued domination of the region.

Christian Aid and its colleagues in Colombia are very concerned about the apparent rise in human rights violations by forces of the state. These violations by the Colombian army and paramilitaries have been increasing over the past seven years or so, just as guerrilla violence has been decreasing.

Colombia has never been a safe place to speak out for human rights, and politicians, trades unionists, journalists, church personnel, community and social leaders, and ordinary people resisting violence and displacement continue to be threatened and murdered. In addition to the human tragedies this causes, this repression sends a clear message to ordinary people not to organise themselves in defence of their rights.

It is not just the farmers who lost family members and homes who are suffering, but the environment too. For instance, the land in Choc now under palm cultivation is located in one of the world's biodiversity hotspots identified by Conservation International. Hotspots enjoy the richest, but also the most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on earth.

Because the soil is so rich and fertile, the companies growing Africa Palm must use powerful herbicides, like Round-up, to kill off surrounding vegetation to allow the palm plants to thrive. This makes it even more difficult for returning farmers to grow their traditional crops of maize, bananas, cassava, etc.

The British government has two stated objectives in Colombia: to support efforts to reduce human rights abuses in Colombia, and to reduce the flow of cocaine coming into the UK.

Christian Aid believes that the two objectives are inextricably linked. While small farmers are being forced to flee their land they are much less likely to grow traditional food crops and more likely to become involved in either cultivating or trafficking cocaine.

The first priority of policy makers, both in Britain and Colombia must be the protection of the land rights of the rural poor so they can earn a decent living off the land without resorting to the drugs trade.

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