Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Colombian Homestead Act

Resettlement of internally displaced people on the Eastern Plains of Colombia

Thomas Jefferson firmly believed in the importance of small farms and independent farmers. He knew that the survival of political democracy would be strengthened by the sense of belonging and the economic growth favored by a landscape of careful, hardworking people who are as concerned with their land as they are with their country. And conversely, Jefferson denounced the folly of poverty in the cities so long as land was available and idle, waiting for people to farm.

A landscape of productive small farms spread evenly across a territory is a landscape of prosperity, peace, and democracy. Most countries that are wealthy today are so in large part because at some point in their history they realized the importance of supporting small farmers. To this end, many of these now-wealthy countries enacted some type of land reform, to ensure that every rural family would have enough land to prosper, and that no one family would have so much land as to be unproductive, or so as to have a dominant influence in local politics or economies.

In Colombia today, much of the agricultural land is unevenly distributed, with some people controlling a disproportionate share, and other people relegated to parcels too small to support a family, or without any land at all.

Land reform usually implies taking land from some owners (ideally with compensation) and giving it to others. This is never easy, because it implies making hard decisions that impact people's private property. In Colombia, the situation of drastic land inequality, and attempts to address this problem by government, citizens, and illegal armed groups, have led to much conflict, most recently the civil war that has plagued the country for over 40 years. This war and prior conflicts have left millions of displaced people (IDPs, or internally displaced persons) in their wake. These people are both victims of the conflict, and a risk for future conflict, because many illegal armed groups recruit soldiers from these displaced populations, and much urban poverty and crime is concentrated in these groups.

The ideal solution for the problems of conflict and IDPs in Colombia would be a return of displaced people to their home regions, accompanied by a land reform to give them land and support so they can become independent, prosperous farm owners. Such return and support efforts are currently being carried out, and they should continue to be the central point of any program intending to address the root causes of the conflict and its victims.

However, given the tenacity of the Colombian conflict and the contentious nature of agrarian reform, return of IDPs to their homelands and land redistribution is not feasible in all cases.

Another trend underway in Colombia today is the colonization of the Eastern Plains that drain into the Orinoco river. What were open plains inhabited if at all by a low density of cowboys and indigenous groups, are now being opened up to new enterprises. Often these activities generate relatively low profit per person and per hectare. Examples are palm oil plantations and cattle ranches. Sometimes unscrupulous businesspeople even take hold of the land with hired guns, which ends up creating even more displaced people!

This is truly shameful, because the settling of the Eastern Plains is a golden opportunity to give displaced people from other regions the means to become independent, prosperous farmers. Just as the Homestead Act in the USA allowed poor people from other regions and even other countries to create a new life in the newly-opened West, Colombia's Plains could be a place where victims of the internal conflict rebuild their lives and strengthen the country as a whole, both politically and economically. A program to settle virgin lands on the Eastern Plains would make land and resources available to displaced people while avoiding the conflict and tension intrinsic to the redistribution of land in already-settled areas. That said, it must be stressed again that such a program should be a complement to, and not a replacement for, the return of IDPs to their home regions and an attendant redistribution of land there, wherever this is feasible. To solely promote resettlement of displaced people is to ignore the primary moral obligation of every country to protect its people and allow them to live in their own homes. Resettlement should be an option mainly for displaced people who have decided it would be better to start a new life away from their region of origin.

A program for colonization of the Eastern Plains, like any type of land reform, must be done in a holistic, sincere fashion. There exist too many examples in the world of land reform or colonization programs that have failed because they were poorly thought-out or cynically sabotaged. As an example we can point to some of Brazil's programs to give poor people land in different areas of the Amazon rainforest. On the poor soils of the Amazon, if granting land to the poor is not accompanied by a genuine technical and logistical support network (teaching of appropriate farming methods, building of roads, establishment of cooperative marketing channels, etc.), people that settle the land will soon exhaust the soil's resources. They then must move on to new patches of virgin forest, and the parcels that they leave are often bought up by the very large ranchers and farmers whose monopoly on land the State was trying to counterbalance with the land colonization program! The effect of such a situation is an advancing front of environmental destruction by poor farmers, followed by a wave of land consolidation by larger farmers.

Another important point to keep in mind for a program to colonize the Eastern Plains is that it must be centered on the displaced people who will be its primary beneficiaries. This means that they should as much as possible also be the planners and implementers of the program, as it is they who will have to live with its results. This not only makes practical sense, but also psychological sense. The defining characteristic of displacement is a lack of control. Displaced people have no control over the conflict that victimizes them, the myriad social programs that attempt to serve them, or the new economies that they must try to survive in in their new urban refuges. The program of colonization must favor the rebuilding of autonomy and confidence for displaced people.

What follows are the technical details of a proposed agrarian reform to settle displaced people on the Eastern Plains of Colombia.

An area of 10 km by 10 km would be chosen for resettlement of IDPs. This would be split into one-square-kilometer sections with roads running between each section (hence leaving a checkerboard of roads at one kilometer intervals). Each section would be further split into nine square plots of ten hectares each. Eight families would be settled on the section, one on each ten hectare plot. The ten hectares in the center would be split into eight pasture plots of 1.25 ha each, and each family given one of these to use for animal grazing.

For each square kilometer plot, the beneficiary families, a social worker, an architect, and engineers would work together to design and build houses and install infrastructure. Green building practices would be valued throughout, such as house-level renewable energy sources, hand wells, composting toilets, construction with local materials, and wood-burning stoves where natural wood resources allow for sustainable harvesting. As the houses and farms are being assembled, the group would live in a group house with a garden, in the center of the square kilometer plot. They would learn about harmonious living and agriculture. Once families are settled on their individual plots, this group house would become a community meeting-place in the middle of the pasture area.

There would be a prior agrarian diagnostic in the area to determine viable crops, water management needs, soil amendments, etc. Each family of displaced people would make a production plan with neighbors and agronomists, designed to earn the family 2M pesos yearly agricultural profit/ha. Other, non-agricultural activities are welcome but would not count towards the family's per-hectare profit. This is in order to promote agricultural productivity and avoid idle land. A credit union created for the resettlement program would extend the family credit (in the name of the female head of the family) based on the agricultural production plan, which would include a repayment schedule.

A close following by experts and the community itself would prevent fraud and maximize land productivity. There would be agricultural experts to assess and follow the project ideas, plus social experts to ease the transition, encourage group cohesion, solve psychosocial problems, and organize cooperative action and collective marketing. In the farming plans, emphasis would be placed on ecologically-friendly and labor-intensive practices, high value products, and animal traction. Communities would also get input and collaboration from other farmer groups, especially those working to recuperate and market traditional, high-value crops. Possible allies would be the Las Gaviotas community in Colombia, the MST of Brazil, and Amish farmers from the US. Such outside farmers could even be ceded plots to live among the resettled populace, teaching and learning from them.

Each family's production plan would be monitored by agricultural experts and neighbors to ensure economic and ecological viability. Those families that fall below a yearly profit of 1 M pesos/ha would receive extra extension help to bring their productivity back up, and if productivity is below 500k/ha for 5 straight years, the family forfeits the land (with compensation given them for capital improvements). If the family achieves 5 years above 1M/ha, the land is theirs, though if a family plants a certain density of trees on its land, each forested hectare only needs to achieve 500k/ha to count toward the five years to ownership. For the following five years there is a conditionality that if they fall below 500k/ha for three years, they must sell back to the State. Likewise, during these first five years after achieving ownership, landowners desiring to sell may only sell to the State at a pre-determined price, and the State would then repurpose the land for new beneficiaries. Also, during the probationary period as well as after families become outright owners, there would be regular ecological assessments by neighbors and experts to assure that soil organic matter is increasing, there is no agricultural runoff, not more than 1 hectare is planted in a given crop any year, etc.

A 10 km x 10 km settlement area would be surrounded by a 1 km wide border of grazing land, and 1.5 km of nature area, hence each settlement area would actually comprise 15 km x 15 km. The grazing land could be managed communally among the families of the resettlement area, or divided into 20 hectare parcels for families to settle and raise livestock (families with 20 ha plots in the grazing fringe need only net 500000 pesos/ha on their land for five years to attain ownership). These buffer areas would preserve the traditional cattle ranching vocation of the Plains, as well as minimizing wildlife incursion into human settlements, and absorbing runoff and pollution from human activities. There would ideally be fences at the interface of the grazing and farming lands, and the grazing and wilderness lands, and these fences could be studded with windmill electric generators to supplement the local electricity supply.

There would be a town at the center of the resettlement area. This urban site would have land for a grain silo, supply and equipment depots, fire and police departments, garbage disposal, school, communal vehicles to serve as ambulance, fire truck, and bulk freight and transport, a radio station, a town square and town hall, internet access, sports fields, clinic, with other enterprises created as needed (cocoa-dryer, milk pasteurizer, etc.). Most of these services would be cooperatively run by local volunteers. There would also be some lots in the central town allocated to private businesses, owned and run also by displaced families and assessed yearly based on economic and social viability (in a manner similar to the farm plots). Any professional positions (doctors, etc.) that the community can't provide on a volunteer basis would be hired with local money, and from the ranks of local people whenever possible. The funds for this would be collected through an agreed-upon local tax on agricultural production. The school could follow the Escuela Nueva or EFA models, which are appropriate for high-quality education in resource-poor agrarian communities.

Resources for the resettlement program would come from a mix of local, departmental, national, and even international sources. Interested municipalities would give the land to be settled (any existing landowners would be allowed to maintain ten hectares in the area, with compensation for the remaining land paid at a standard assessed rate, in municipal, departmental, or national government bonds). The departmental and national governments would build roads, provide phone and radio towers, electric supply, and some services like the police department. Money to fund the credit union making farm loans would come from international donors. For the plan to work, we would need a hands-off agreement from all armed groups. Oil or mineral rights for the subsoil would be conceded only conditionally to outside firms, with strict environmental clauses.

Operative plan to implement this project:

  • Start with NGO or municipality with 1 x 1km plot as a demonstration, and expand if successful.

  • The resettlement areas could eventually be planned either in 10km x 10km areas, or in larger 50km x 50km areas (in both cases with the aforementioned strips dedicated to grazing and wilderness areas). With ten hectares per family, and a goal of serving 1M displaced and landless families in Colombia, we would need 10M hectares, or 100000 km2, which is to say a thousand 10km x 10km areas, or forth 50km x 50km areas.

  • The resettlement project would not only serve displaced people, but the rural and urban poor and landless. Someday immigrants from other countries could be encouraged to take part in the settlement of the Eastern Plains.

  • Most of the details described here apply to resettlement in the Plains, but the project could be implemented as well in sparsely-populated mountainous areas (such as southern Bolivar), seasonally-flooded areas such as the Sinu region, and forest areas on the Pacific coast and Amazonia. In the case of swamp areas, the plan would involve a recuperation of the ancient agricultural raised mounds in the landscape. In rainforest areas, families would be given 50 ha plots (half a square kilometer) adjacent to indigenous reserves. Resettled families would learn from indigenous neighbors how to manage forest land sustainably, and would be allowed to clear only one hectare a year for logging and farming. Annual crops and selective lumber extraction would be supplemented by fruit trees, harvesting of natural forest products, and hunting according to accepted native practice.

No comments:

Post a Comment