Even though Colombia possesses natural resources such as oil, coal, precious metals and minerals, it is land that has led to many of the problems associated with the natural resource curse such as civil conflicts, human rights violations and corruption.
“natural resource curse” is the name given to the chronic underdevelopment that most countries with abundant natural resources are characterized for. For instance, Nigeria, Angola, Indonesia and Iraq. The term is mainly directed to countries with non-renewable natural resources such as oil and minerals. Nevertheless, the term can encompass other important resources such as land, which can potentially generate riches for all the population if properly managed.
Latin America has been one of the most affected regions by land ownership inequality. This occurred shortly after the continent was stripped off its most precious natural and cultural resources in the 15th century by European colonial powers. The so-called independence period that most countries achieved in the 19th century only transferred the ownership of land to locally-bred elites that have since controlled the political future of the countries.
Colombia is one of the best examples of such legacy that has never allowed the country to advance politically, socially and economically. According to a World Bank report Colombia’s land inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is the eighth worst in the world at 0.8 (1 being most unequal) — since the data is from 2001, it’s clear the the number is much higher now. It is not surprising, therefore, that quasi-attempts for land-reform have consistently failed in Colombia.
Even though Colombia possesses other natural resources such as oil, coal, precious metals and minerals, it is land that has led to many of the problems associated with the natural resource curse such as civil conflicts, human rights violations and corruption.
The Colombian civil conflict is fueled by land-ownership inequality and the corresponding injustice. The FARC’s Marxist-Leninist ideology has agrarian reform at the epicenter of their aims. Regardless of the methods utilized by this terrorist organization, it is undeniable that those problems leading to their formation have only intensified. Moreover, the paramilitary forces or private armies created by land-owners and businessmen in the 1980’s did not stop at protecting their sponsors’ land. They also displaced millions with the intention of accumulating more land. There are currently 5.5 million hectares of land stolen by armed groups from about 3.5 million rightful owners. These people are now a statistic labeled “internally displaced”.
Human rights violations are committed by the three sides involved in the conflict, namely the guerrilla, the paramilitaries or emergent bands, and the army. In many cases the reasons for killing and torturing Colombians may not be directly related to land. But it is directly linked to the idiosyncrasies of the internal conflict that is moderated by land. For instance, the demobilized paramilitaries have so far admitted 24,000 murders. The guerrilla have killed and tortured thousands more. And the army, for their part have, are not only accomplices of the paramilitaries’ atrocities but have also killed more than 1,200 innocent civilians in extrajudicial killings in order to obtain personal benefits.
Government corruption, with land as protagonist, is an everyday occurrence. Examples are limitless as is the government’s insolence in their response to recurrent scandals such as Carimagua, free trade zones for the president’s sons and Agro Ingreso Seguro (Secure Agricultural Income). The latter was a fund with an annual budget of US$ 200 million created in 2006 under former Agricultural minister and current presidential candidate Andres Felipa Arias (affectionately known as “little Uribe”) to promote productivity, competition and to reduce inequality. Therefore, protecting small farmers from the effects of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S.
There is not FTA yet, but since 2007 most of the US$ 117 million in non-repayable subsidies allocated to the “irrigation and drainage” component of the Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS) program benefited traditional landowners, wealthy ex-beauty queens (Valerie Dominguez) and even two druglords (Ismael Augusto Pantoja, requested in extradition by the U.S. in 2005, and Jensy Miranda Davila), rather than poor peasants. Moreover, 45 sponsors who contributed US$ 275,000 to Uribe’s two presidential campaigns received US$ 16.7 million under AIS. And 10 sponsors who donated US$ 64,000 for Uribe’s recollection of signatures for the re-election referendum received US$ 8,3 million under AIS. Furthermore, 5 percent of those who benefited by AIS received 71 percent of the subsidies. This outcome had been predicted since 2006 because poor farmers did not have the means to prepare quality proposals that would compete for the subsidies. Therefore, the real intention of the government with Agro Ingreso Seguro was to compensate its financial backers using the FTA as pretext.
The land curse has always existed in Colombia but, as the latest act of corruption indicates, its negative effects have been exacerbated by the government’s policies. Uribe’s widely glorified “investor confidence” policy, one of the government’s three pillars, is not only directed at foreign investors but also national ones. The subsidies and tax breaks (or any other name given to redistributing public money to already rich individuals, families and businesses) have been responsible for enforcing the counter-agrarian reform. Land, after all, would receive a “Secured Agricultural Income”.
Some cynics would argue that there is nothing wrong with the government’s model since the rich and powerful are the ones who actually pay the taxes in Colombia, therefore such distribution is well directed. But the result of this pseudo-economic theory – also known as trickle down economics – has enforced inequality in the country. The 2009 Human Development Index report places Colombia as the 6th most unequal country in the world after Angola, Haiti, Botswana, Comoros and Namibia. In other words, Colombia’s poorest 10 percent control 0.8 percent of national income whereas the richest 10 percent control 45.9 percent of income.
The accumulation of land in fewer and fewer hands only reinforces the vicious circle of violence that has engulfed Colombia since the Spanish conquistadores looted the country in search of El Dorado. The reality today is considerably more tragic. At least 500 years ago foreigners exterminated the local population; now Colombians are killing each other in the name of a seemingly cursed resource.