Movimiento por la Paz
February 21st, 2011
Peasant organizations from the Montes de Maria region of Colombia, representing the zones of Maria la Baja, San Juan Nepomuceno, Carmen de Bolívar, San Jacinto, and Ovejas, have spent the last months sharing opinions, ideas, and proposals regarding the draft Victims Law and the draft Land Restitution Law, as well as the government's announcement that it will declare a model Peasant Reserve Zone in the Montes de Maria region.
These topics are part of our discussions because during recent years we have been working on reconstructing the trust and social fabric affected by the violence of the armed conflict. We also work to strengthen the process of peasant organization, and to increase citizen participation.
The new political juncture[proposals for laws to redress victims of the armed conflict] has generated much expectation among grassroots organizations, which receive the national government's announcements with some apprehension and especially with questions and concerns.
We must keep in mind that in Montes de Maria there are favorable conditions in terms of human and natural resources: fertile soil, water, biodiversity. It is a strategic territory for the commercialization of products, knowledge, and capacity of the peasant community, in order to advance proposals for a dignified habitation of the territory. This is precisely what the peasant community hopes for.
Nevertheless, faced with the good will expressed by the government in recent months, there arise questions framed in the reality we are living in Montes de Maria. With regards to the draft Law for Land Restitution: How will rights be guaranteed for families that, though they had no land title, had longstanding usage rights?
In the entire Caribbean region a historical constant has been informal land tenancy. Prior to the years of violence it wasn't important for families to possess official title, yet they nevertheless enjoyed access to land. Only now is land title relevant, but thousands of families have no title to their land, and violent displacement has destroyed traditional forms of land rights.
In the same sense, a large percentage of this land, even that granted to families by the State in the agrarian reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, has now been acquired under a facade of legality by people from outside the region. Currently such lands are the site of extensive ranching, oil palm plantations, and forestry projects, among others.
The question being asked by peasant organizations is what will happen to land that was bought at an outrageously low price in a context of threatened violence and displacement [for those who refused to sell]? What land can be returned to people if large businessmen have acquired the land that the peasants worked?
On the other hand, the declaration of Montes de Maria as a Peasant Reserve Zone is another announcement that has generated much uncertainty. This legal designation, created by Law 160 of 1993 as a response to the peasant movement, has among other goals the strengthening of peasant economies, a halt to the advance of latifundia and of the agricultural frontier [into virgin land], and the protection of forest preserves.
In principle, this legal figure gathers together the majority of the demands of the region's peasant community. However, the following concerns arise given the regional reality. Which specific zones of the territory would be declared Peasant Reserve Zones? Isn't it contradictory to speak of Peasant Reserve Zones in areas of ranching and agroindustrial megaprojects? What is the meaning of a model Peasant Reserve Zone as the government posits, given the government's oft-announced goal of turning peasants into small entrepreneurs? How are the Law of Land Restitution, the Law of Victims, and the Peasant Reserve Zones related?
For the organizations of Montes de Maria, access and restitution of land is not enough. More important is the issue of land use. In this sense it is worrying to see the stimulus and promotion given by the State and by national and international private sectors to the establishment of slow-growing monocultures [such as oil palm] as a response to international markets. For the peasant organizations it is clear that land should be used for food production [and not for export-driven agroindustry].
Lastly, we must consider the issue of security and guarantees. In the region there still exist armed groups that exert social and political control over territory, and it only takes small actions of intimidation (which continue to occur) to recreate a wide-ranging environment of terror that immobilizes, polarizes, and fractures the social fabric of our communities.
In this context, what guarantees can community leaders count on to advance a program of land access and restitution? What guarantees do peasants have that the painful crimes of the past will not repeat themselves? Our organizations want to have a protagonist role in this moment, in order to contribute to proposals that can guarantee the rights of the peasant community. However, will local organizations have adequate conditions to actively participate and push for a new model of development in the Montes de Maria region?