The indigenous peoples of Colombia took their protest to its 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 been inhabiting small plots of land given the history of forced displacement.
The latest culprits are 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 peoples only desire autonomy on how the land is cultivated – in a sustainable manner. The objectives of the march are very simple and straightforward, until the interests of the government, which naturally are opposed to the interests of the majority of Colombians, stepped in.
The government opposes equitable land distribution which has been the policy of the elites of hundreds of years. The main conflict is the degree of productivity of the land. The meaning of “productivity” has to be considered carefully as well as the kind of production that is considered worthy of developing. For the government, the only productive parties are the big landowners and the agribusiness, who are merely after profits.
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 middle of the country. Initially, the 17,000-hectare plot of land was promised to displaced 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 corporations have been promised productive lands. 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. The multinational corporations have been 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 have reached a deadlock. Europe and the USA do not want to scrap their massive subsidies, so their farmers stop cultivating, while demanding poor nations to open up their agriculture markets to these heavily subsidized products. Protecting national agriculture is a matter of national security, for rich nations at least.
Among the 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 Asia and Africa. In South America, this trend has been slow but Japan already owns 100,000 hectares in Brazil and 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’ corporations. Colombia is also launching negotiations for a bilateral investment plan with Japan. Naturally, sooner rather than later Colombia will become a farming land for other countries. 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 these corporations 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 populations. Crops do not suit the local culinary culture. The Colombian government would have other incentives 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, who 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 their corporations.
Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian studies psychology and political economy at the University of Hong Kong