Uribe’s economic policy has exacerbated one of Colombia’s most ancient problems, rural inequality. The Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal is not an isolated fluke, but rather just one example of a policy that emphasizes growth and exports at the expense of justice, equity and rural development.
I recently spent three months working in Colombia. Returning after a four-year absence, I was eager to get a sense for my native country’s evolution and its challenges moving forward. Not surprisingly, many of my friends and relatives were as supportive of President Uribe and hopeful about the future as they had been on my last visit in 2005. Interestingly, however, not a single person I talked to hesitated to admit that the President has blatantly neglected one key issue: rural development.
Indeed, much of the Colombian countryside is in the midst of a worsening social and economic crisis. Hotel districts in Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena get glossier every time I visit Colombia, but rural land concentration is as unequal as it has been for centuries. Miles away from any “zona rosa”, Colombia’s peasants continue face violence, repression and injustice.
Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS), a government program aimed at reducing inequality, was recently found to be doing quite the opposite by channeling state funds to wealthy landowners. Worse yet, many beneficiaries of the program are old political allies of President Uribe. Some have been accused of links to paramilitary groups. Those responsible for the debacle, including the current and former Agriculture Ministers, are having to answer tough questions about AIS.
Andres Felipe Arias, the former minister of Agriculture, has tended to stick to the unconvincing excuse that all the subsidies handed out under AIS were legal, even if mistakes were made. Legal, as most Colombians know, does not always mean ethical. His successor, Andres Fernandez Acosta, at first addressed the scandal only by promising that next year’s subsidy applicants would face different selection criteria. Neither, in short, seemed to publicly acknowledge the degree to which the program had failed.
Indeed, the government’s response seemed to downplay the AIS debacle has a mere technical glitch. Unfortunately, rather than being a fluke in an otherwise egalitarian and development-oriented rural economic policy, AIS became a piggy bank for politicians and aristocrats because the Uribe administration has not made rural equity a top priority. For the past seven years, Colombia’s pro-business President has emphasized exports and growth at the expense of long-awaited justice and equality in the countryside. Simply put, AIS is Uribista economic policy gone too far.
To give just one example, oil palm cultivation, an export industry with a very bloody history in Colombia, has more than doubled under President Uribe. For years, it has been no secret that oil palm plantations were largely owned or policed by paramilitary death squads and their partners in the business community. Many plantations are composed of land seized by paramilitary groups from local peasants in the past ten or fifteen years. Nevertheless, the government has been worryingly reluctant to push forward the return of such stolen land. Further, grassroots organizations that support displaced persons’ claims to their former land have faced repeated death threats and assassination attempts.
The government has denied that violence is widespread in oil palm areas, and claims that the expansion of the industry has boosted growth and employment in rural areas. Palm oil, which is mostly shipped to consumer markets in the U.S. and Europe, is a perfect example of Colombia’s export explosion under Uribe. Exports, the government argues, are increasing peasants’ incomes and their competitiveness.
Reality, however, shows otherwise. Throughout rural Colombia, poor peasants continue to be driven out of their land by illegal armed groups, large companies and crushing poverty. Colombia’s land gini (a measurement of the inequality of land ownership), already among the world’s highest, has increased under Uribe from .85 to .87. The Uribe government, notoriously hostile to peasant unions, seems to have strengthened the wealthy’s political, territorial and economic control over the Colombian heartland.
For decades, many analysts and observers have cited rural inequality as the spark that ignited the country’s decades long armed conflict. Today, it is not only war’s basic fuel, but also one of its most devastating consequences. It is therefore worrying that a government promising both reparations for paramilitary land seizures and rural development has done so little to approach either goal.
AIS is not a glitch. It is simply the latest chapter in Colombia’s long, dark history of rural injustice. Uribe’s agricultural and economic policies may have boosted growth and exports, but they also carry a huge social cost.