Selling out Colombia's 'tierra querida'

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Colombia Reports | Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Sebastian Castaneda

Colombian indigenous took their protest to Colombia's capital Bogotá this weekend. Their struggle is about controlling the land in which they have lived and taken care of for hundreds of years. In some cases, however, they have just recently being inhabiting these small plots of land given the history of forced displacement.

The latest culprits being irregular armed groups controlled by the traditional landowners and foreign companies (Chiquita Brands being the best example). It is estimated that between five and ten million hectares have been seized by these armed groups.

The indigenous only desire autonomy on how it is cultivated, always in a sustainable manner. The indigenous march objectives are very simple and straightforward, that is until the interests of the government, which naturally are opposed to the interests of the majority of Colombians, step in.

The government opposes equitable land distribution which can be considered a sacrilege by the messiah(s). The main argument is the degree of unproductiveness of the land. The meaning of “productive” has to be considered carefully as well as the kind of production that is considered worthy of developing. For the government the big landowners and agribusiness, who are merely after profits, are the only productive parties. At least, for the pockets of politicians and their political parties.

The kind of production that the government finds worthy is the exploitation of natural resources and cultivation of palm oil, sugar cane and even corn for biofuels. The former’s profits have never benefited the country and the latter’s clean energy label and sustainability has been recently called into question.

The government policy towards land distribution is exemplified in the case of the Carimagua farm in the center of the country. Initially, the 17,000 hectares plot of land was promised to displace families. The agriculture minister, Andres Felipe Arias, then sought to sell the land to agribusiness with ties to government officials. After much public outcry and a motion of censure in congress the minister decided to modify the plans and now has offered the land to the displaced and Ecopetrol provided they unitedly and effectively produce biofuels.

Land is precious, more than ever. Multinational companies have been promised this land. Shell’s Vice President recently hailed Colombia as a very attractive country for investment; a euphemism for being able to do with the land and the people as they please. Therefore, the government would not want to upset and turn away Foreign Direct Investment even if it has been demonstrated that poverty and inequality have barely changed amid this FDI.

Of course agriculture is also a possibility for these lands. Colombia has after all, corn, yucca, plantains, potatoes, beans, rice, and wheat, among other export crops such as fresh-cut flowers, coffee, cotton, and tobacco. However, there has been a recent trend in the world where Developed Countries and other wealthy nations that lack arable land are hijacking the food production in Less Developed Countries. Without mentioning multinational companies involved in the biofuel business that would soon become a USD 100 billion from a USD 38 billion less than four years ago.

This trend should not come as a surprise since land has been put forward as a major reason for future wars, along with water; as if there weren’t enough reasons already for going to war. As Bob Marley sang, a hungry mob is an angry mob. A hungry population can and will overthrow governments. This, can be argued, is one of the reasons why the WTO Doha round of trade negotiations has reached a deadlock. Europe and USA do not want to scrap their massive subsidies, so their farmers can stop cultivating, while demanding poor nations to open up their agriculture markets to these heavily subsidized products. Protecting national agriculture is as matter of national security, for rich nations at least.

Among the main governments purchasing or leasing land are South Korea, China (feeding 1.3 billion is not an easy feat), Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Japan. The purchases have been made mainly in South-East Asian and Africa. In South America this trend has been slow but Japan already owns 100,000 hectares in Brazil with South Korea owning 21,000 hectares in Argentina. With the free-trade agreement between China and Peru this tendency will continue to rise.

What are the implications for Colombia?

The Colombian government has recently signed a free-trade agreement with Canada and a bilateral investment treaty with China, which grants a most favored status to each others companies. Colombia is also launching negotiations for a bilateral investment plan with Japan. Naturally, sooner rather than later Colombia will become other countries’ farm. This may be beneficial since hard currency is accumulated and jobs would be created.

However, it’s not difficult to foresee problems arising due to the special interests companies and Developed Countries have. This new trend of foreign land ownership has been called a new form of “neo-colonialism” by the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Let’s see why. Food production instead of feeding the local community is being diverted to other population. Crops would not suit the local culinary culture. The Government would have another incentive to accumulate land and/or keep the status quo in the current land ownership situation. Inequality, poverty and hunger would increase. Even unrest among the local population may threaten the stability of the country.

It is imperative that we listen to the indigenous’ voices and feel their needs. These are the voices and needs of more than 50 per cent of Colombians that have never owned anything and due to an unjust system will never own anything. It is important to comprehend how this issue is resolved because it may potentially dictate the manner in which Colombia’s farm land is stripped off by new actors; other countries and companies.

Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian and lives in Hong Kong where he studies psychology and political economy at Hong Kong University

Original source: Colombia Reports
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