Apr 01

In our December report on U.S.-funded counterinsurgency programs in Colombia, we discussed a major threat to these programs’ success: populations’ fear of a “land grab.”

Much hinges on land tenure in places like the Montes de María, a region near the Caribbean coast where USAID has been supporting a Colombian government “Fusion Center” for about a year. This small zone saw some of Colombia’s most intense violence in the early 2000s, when paramilitaries carried out a string of massacres whose names (El Salado, Chengue, Mampuján, Macayepo, and dozens more) remain notorious today.

The paramilitary offensive displaced most of many communities’ populations; nine or ten years later, only a minority have returned to their lands.

These lands are fertile, and with the near-total disappearance of leftist guerrillas from the zone since 2007, the Montes de María have become much less violent. As a result, land prices are skyrocketing, and speculators are looking to buy up the small parcels held by displaced, or recently returned, farmers. According to a March 6 article in Colombia’s Semana magazine:

Some years ago, large investors – the majority from Medellín – arrived in the Montes de María to buy parcels from campesinos who had been displaced and had become indebted to banks. In a town-hall meeting with President Álvaro Uribe in El Carmen de Bolívar, several farmworkers denounced that intermediaries are massively buying land at low prices. The campesinos said that the buyers or middlemen arrive shortly after visits from bill-collectors announcing to them that their lands could be foreclosed upon. Cornered, with no other choice, the campesinos were selling.

At the August 2008 town-hall meeting, President Uribe exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!” Meanwhile Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that loans to landholders who were displaced should be renegotiated or forgiven. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons, from the lack of necessary paperwork to farmers being unaware of their rights.

In response to this situation, the authorities in Montes de María have temporarily prohibited the sales of thousands of hectares of landholdings. Most of these are small parcels handed out in the 1970s-1990s by Colombia’s normally ineffective land-reform agency. Semana reports:

As an official of the Bolívar departmental government explained, the intention of these restrictions on land sales is to keep land from concentrating in few hands, thus affecting thousands of campesinos’ return after being expelled by paramilitary violence in the zone. And the philosophy of protecting those lands not only has to do with legal buyers; it also seeks to keep illegal groups from obligating campesinos to sell at low prices. Throughout the country about two million hectares are protected for the same purposes.

This “freeze” in land sales has modestly allayed farmers’ fears that the U.S.-funded “Integrated Action” program might pose a threat to their landholdings. Although the stated goal of the U.S.-supported “Fusion Center” is to assist the return of displaced communities, fears of a “land grab” are rife in the Montes de María. For many, the prospect of a stronger state presence in the zone implies the stronger presence of institutions not only tied to the elites who sponsored the paramilitaries 10 years ago, but also tied to the shadowy groups of investors who are buying up land right now. The freeze in sales offers some security from the threat of a “land grab.”

But that freeze may not be in place much longer. At the beginning of March, a judge in El Carmen de Bolívar, one of the biggest municipalities in the Montes de María, set a very troubling precedent. At the request of a group of displaced campesinos who wanted to sell their lands, the judge lifted the “freeze” for 40 landholdings, totaling about 1,000 hectares, so that they could be sold to two Medellín investors from a company called Agropecuaria Tacaloa.

Semana warns:

With the decision of the El Carmen de Bolívar judge comes the possibility of the massive sale of thousands of hectares that until now were protected by the Departmental Committee [for attention to the displaced], and the possibility of these lands ending up in the hands of large businesses or, even worse, warlords, while the idea of these campesinos’ return, or of their reparation as victims, is truncated.

The Montes de María are at risk of witnessing an all-out land grab, at the expense of victims who were forced to flee the region for their lives a decade ago. If that happens, the stated goals of the U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” program will be undermined. Displaced populations will not return, the region will undergo a “reverse land reform,” and the population will be even more distrustful of the state. Last month’s court ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

Dec 02

Tomorrow we will be releasing “After Plan Colombia,” a lengthy report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action”  or “CCAI” programs, which appear to constitute the next phase of U.S. support to Colombia.

One of the report’s recommendations is that far more must be done to speed land titling in the zones where these state-building-and-counterinsurgency programs are being carried out. Farmers in the “Integrated Action” zones are still not getting titles to their land, and Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry (whose policies, as recent scandals indicate, favor large landholders) is chiefly to blame.

This was a big issue on our April and July research visits. It was very discouraging yesterday to see this piece by John Otis yesterday on the Global Post website, indicating that even today, months later, not a single land title has been handed out in the La Macarena “Integrated Action” zone. This is stunning.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land.

The land issue is critical to the CCAI strategy’s success. If it goes unaddressed, especially in zones where land is being bought up rapidly, it will be a key reason for its failure.

“After Plan Colombia” includes a discussion of the land-tenure issue and the CCAI’s strategy. We will add a link and a summary to the report here tomorrow morning. (We note that the INDEPAZ website in Colombia already has posted an earlier draft, with several typos.) Here are the blog entries that served as a rough draft of our work, which has since been substantially edited.

Oct 09

(This post written in collaboration with CIP Intern Hannah Brodlie.)

“Subsidies to the rich do help reduce inequality:
[former Uribe Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe] Arias.”
(Photo source and article link)

Update 10/9: Colombia’s Contravía television program broadcast an excellent show about this very topic last night. It has been uploaded to YouTube and is very highly recommended (in Spanish).

Two weeks ago, the Colombian magazine Cambio broke a story about Agro Ingreso Seguro (Secure Agricultural Income), a seemingly benign program run by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture since its inception in 2007. Among the principal objectives of AIS are “to promote productivity and competitiveness, reduce inequality in the country and prepare the agricultural sector to face the challenge of the economy’s internationalization.”

The Uribe government billed Agro Ingreso Seguro as a program providing subsidies for smallholding farmers. However, it appears that many – if not the majority – of the program’s subsidies, particularly those designated for “irrigation and drainage” projects, have in fact gone to a few of the wealthiest landowning families. This is particularly true along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, arguably the part of the country where land distribution is most unequal. The cover story in this week’s Cambio explains how 25 billion pesos (US$13 million) in subsidies went to four rich families in Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena department.

  • Each project may receive a maximum of 600 million pesos (about US$322,000) in subsidies. However, the Dávila family of Magdalena divided their land, much of it used to grow African oil palm, among individual family members in order to obtain 2.2 billion pesos (US$1.18 million). Juan Manuel Dávila Jimeno did so by renting parcels of his existing land to his wife, children and his girlfriend, a former beauty queen, for small amounts of money.
  • Subsidies totaling 3 billion pesos (US$1.6 million) were given to the family of Alfredo Lacouture Dangond, father of Maria Claudia Lacouture Pinedo, director of the Colombia es Pasión tourism-promotion and public-relations program that organized a promotional display of heart-shaped sculptures all over Washington in September. These 3 billion pesos, notes the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (IPC), are equal to the assistance the Colombian government provides to 5,779 internally displaced families.
  • The Vives family, which is politically and socially influential in Magdalena department, received more than 13 billion pesos (US$6.9 million) from AIS last year.
  • Another AIS beneficiary – with 194 million pesos (US$100,000) in subsidies – is Ismael Augusto Pantoja, alias “El Negro,” a narcotrafficker requested in extradition by the United States since 2005. Pantoja received his subsidy in January 2008, was arrested in October 2008, and was extradited in September 2009.

The Inter-American Agricultural Cooperation Institute (IICA), an OAS-affiliated body, was contracted by the Agriculture Ministry to select AIS beneficiaries. Daniel Montoya, coordinator of Agro Ingreso Seguro in the the IICA, said that mistakes were made: “Many families obtained those subsidies because there weren’t established prohibitions, but today we see that the policy was badly designed.”

However, it is worth noting that the main link between AIS and the IICA was Carlos Manuel Polo, who in 2007 became head of the IICA “irrigation and drainage” program thanks to personal connections with former Magdalena Congressman Luis Eduardo Vives. The former congressman, whose family has received generous subsidies, was convicted in 2008 for ties to paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar (”Jorge 40″) as part of the “para-politics” scandal. Polo told Cambio, “I don’t deny my friendship with Luis Eduardo Vives. … That relationship does not compromise the interests of the Ministry and much less those of the IICA.”

Critics view the revelations as evidence of rampant cronyism, with the Uribe government handing out benefits to its wealthiest supporters from the public treasury. It recalls the 2008 “Carimagua” scandal, in which land set aside for displaced Colombians was instead leased to agribusiness interests. “The Uribe government loves to give public money away to the richest and collect heavy taxes from the weakest,” wrote former minister ex ministro Juan Camilo Restrepo in Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper. Writing in the Bogotá daily El Espectador, former Central Bank Director Salomón Kalmanovitz added, “In Álvaro Uribe’s two terms, the largest agrarian counter-reform in the nation’s history has been consolidated.”

The AIS revelations are a political blow to Andrés Felipe Arias, the Uribe administration’s minister of Agriculture from 2006 until early this year, who championed the program. Arias, a deeply conservative young politician considered a strong presidential contender if Álvaro Uribe is unable to run, has been so closely identified with the president that Colombians frequently refer to him as “Uribito.” In an opinion piece in Thursday’s El Tiempo, Arias defended himself by arguing that AIS has benefitted 316,000 families in the countryside, 98% of whom are small and medium producers, who have received 88% of the resources. He also contends that AIS has generated 376,000 jobs in the countryside.

Cambio acknowledges that the program has generated employment, although not not as much as ex minister Arias and current Agriculture Minister Andrés Fernandez claim. Others dispute Arias’s claims about the distribution of resources. Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and leader of the opposition Liberal Party, said that in 2007, the program gave out 114 billion pesos (US$60 million) in subsidies, of which 65 billion (US$34 million) ended up in the hands of only 103 beneficiaries.

Former minister Arias said Thursday that it would be a bad idea to end the AIS program. He justifies that assertion, oddly, by citing the Uribe government’s high poll numbers. “This is what only a few people want. Those who appear very low in the polls. When the polls go well for us, the debate is harder.”

Indalecio Dangond, one of the major beneficiaries of the AIS subsidies, wrote an opinion piece opposite former Agricultural Minister Arias’s in Thursday’s El Tiempo. He contends that “the beneficiaries are not to blame, rather the model of ex minister Andres Felipe Arias, who designed it to reach the rich and not the poor.”

According to Cambio, this year the program has approved subsidies for 100 projects, which include more than 1.57 billion pesos (US$840,000) for Magdalena. This year’s figure is significantly lower than in years past due to the fact that those who received subsidies in 2007 and 2008 could not present again this year. An AIS analyst explained, “they realized that the majority of the resources were remaining in the hands of a few, and that was disgraceful.”