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Apr 302006

Go hiking in Shenandoah National Park, about an hour and a half west of Washington, and you might come across foundations or other remains of old houses. It turns out that the heavily forested spot on which you are enjoying scenery and wildlife was once cleared farmland where rural families scratched out a living.

A National Parks Service website explains the history:

In the 1930s, Shenandoah National Park was pieced together from over 3,000 individual tracts of land, purchased or condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and presented to the Federal Government. In the process, at least 500 families – described as “almost completely cut off from the current of American life” – were displaced in what was considered by some to be a humanitarian act.

Archeologists in the park have since found “an array of kitchen and dining wares, pharmaceutical glass, military items, mail order toys, 78 RPM record fragments, specialized agricultural tools, store-bought shoes, and even automobiles.”

I was reminded of this by a debate Monday night before a George Washington University class. I was paired with Jaime Ruiz, a principal author of Plan Colombia who is now Ambassador Pastrana’s number-two at the Colombian embassy in Washington.

I made the argument (often expressed in this weblog) that Colombia will not resolve the twin challenges of insurgency and illicit crops until it is able to govern – to enforce laws and provide services – in the remote, neglected areas where both thrive. Ruiz disagreed strongly, using an argument that I’ve heard before and have found difficult to dispute.

While I’m paraphrasing, the argument runs along the lines of “Colombia is far too vast to expect the government to be present in every last corner of the country where a few people decide to live. Many of these ungoverned spaces are dense jungles that were only settled because of the coca economy. The soils are terrible, and markets are very far away. People should not be living in these areas to begin with.”

Never mind that there are many places with near-zero government presence where people have been living for generations (think afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific coast, or the paramilitary-dominated towns across northern Colombia). For many areas, Ruiz’s argument applies, and the population’s isolation is a big challenge.

But these people are there now. As much as 3-4 percent of Colombia’s population are newcomers to areas that were largely empty before the 1960s or 1970s. Many participate in the coca economy, and many form the “social base” of armed groups active in these regions. What should the Colombian government be doing for these forgotten citizens?

The United States, which also has huge expanses of nearly empty territory, offers an interesting counterexample. According to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Resources, 29.6 percent of U.S. national territory is owned by the federal government. (This includes 91.9 percent of Nevada, over 66 percent of Alaska, Utah and Idaho, and half of Wyoming and Arizona.) A smaller but significant number is in the hands of state, county and municipal governments.

On this land, you can’t just settle in and plant crops (legal or illegal) and try to make a living. (Though as we’ve noted before, that doesn’t stop everyone from trying to grow marijuana in national parks and reserves.) You can’t build a vacation home either (though some permits for doing that in national forests were issued until the 1960s). And even if you have a clear claim to private land, there’s always the possibility – however remote – that the government, citing the “greater good” and the need to bring you out of isolation and into modernity, could leave you in the same situation as the former inhabitants of Shenandoah National Park.

In Colombia’s ungoverned zones, of course, land tenure is more ambiguous. The Colombian government is generally unable (and at times unwilling) to evict colonos (“colonizers”) from national parks, indigenous reservations and public lands, much less empty wilderness zones.

And it’s not clear whether it should be doing so. To begin evicting people and relocating them closer to the country’s core would be a huge, costly and complicated effort. It would face legal and human rights challenges. It would have to grant concessions to indigenous groups – including nomadic, barely contacted tribes – who were in these areas first. For Colombia to approach the U.S. model of government dominion over unused land would be a long and painful process.

What to do, then? The 1999 “Plan Colombia” document, written largely by Jaime Ruiz, offers the outlines of a solution.

It is estimated that as much as 60 percent of the coca-producing areas are far from potential markets and in areas that are poorly suited to any sort of sustained agricultural production. To offer legal income opportunities to small farmers and laborers in such areas, the Colombian Government envisions three possible responses: First, farmers and others with an agricultural vocation will be offered the opportunity to move from the coca-producing areas and resettled on land that has been seized from narcotics traffickers or provided by the land reform institute, INCORA; second, economic opportunities in small- and micro-enterprise will be offered in the urban areas of origin for migrant coca farmers, to remove the economic incentive for that migration; third, the Colombian Government will work with indigenous groups and local governments to launch economically feasible environmental protection activities that conserve the forested areas in an effort to slow the advance of the agricultural frontier into inappropriate areas.

Very little of this has happened, needless to say. There have been some efforts along these lines: USAID has supported the second idea with productive projects to generate employment in some small cities near coca-growing zones, while the third idea is reflected in the Uribe government’s “forest-guard families” program, which pays about 30,000 families in several dozen municipalities to keep forests from being felled.

If you’re not one of the lucky few rural Colombians to benefit from these small programs, however, the U.S. and Colombian governments have probably already made it clear to you that they don’t want you to be living where you’re living. You may have been fumigated, perhaps several times. Military offensives and other combat may take place nearby, though these efforts to push out guerrillas have not included any attempt to win your support by providing you with basic services.

Fumigation and military pushes into these zones usually cause de-population as residents are displaced. U.S. and Colombian officials consider this de-population to be a sign of progress toward their goals. The Colombian government estimated that Putumayo’s population declined from about 320,000 in 2000 to about 270,000 by the end of 2002. It’s considered good news that Plan Patriota has turned several coca boomtowns in southern Colombia – Peñas Coloradas, Caquetá, Miraflores, Guaviare – into near-ghost towns.

Where did these tens of thousands of people go? Did they give up the coca economy, or have they re-planted the crop elsewhere? (Statistics show that re-planting has been very robust.) Have they made common cause with an armed group? How are they and their children feeding themselves? Can they really be considered citizens of Colombia?

It is entirely unacceptable that the U.S. and Colombian governments can only answer these questions with a big “I don’t know.”

Even a mass relocation – loading people and their belongings on trucks and giving them land titles in more-governed areas – would be more humane than the current policy. Even the Shenandoah solution would be an improvement. Not only is the current strategy inhumane, it’s ineffective if the goal is truly to reduce coca-growing and strengthen the Colombian state.

3 Responses to ““People shouldn’t be living there””

  1. jcg Says:

    A very reasonable and valid argument.

    The thing is, trying to do what is really necessary to tackle this issue once and for all is likely seen as more expensive and resource intensive, especially for an already weak state, than carrying on with failed or only partially successful policies (which may be comparatively less expensive and less resource intensive, at first, even if they are far from cheap themselves in the long run).

    Hopefully, however, somebody in power eventually understands that you cannot simply ignore all of this and expect anything other than stagnation (at the very least).

  2. Rainer Cale Says:

    “Can they really be considered citizens of Colombia?” An excellent question. And it is indeed entirely unacceptable that the US and Colombian governments can only answer with a big “I don’t know.”

    Unfortunately the debate, when it reaches this point, no longer fits into the suffocating confines of a GW University debating hall. For here it begins to point to the important debates of the 2nd International, calling into question the very legitimacy of the nation state, the destiny of organized human society, and so on.

    The debate will never go too well for those of us arguing Adam’s side until we succeed in challenging these notions that are at the basis of conservative/reactionary ideologies–i.e. the unquestioned legitmacy of the state as the optimal form of social organization, the unquestioned monopoly of violence, etc. Why is it that we are ashamed to do so? Jaime steps onto our turf, and we’re embarrassed about it? If I sat down and set myself the task of formulating an invective against–not just the policies–but the legitimacy of the Colombian state, I could hardly think of something more damning than Jaime’s pro-goverment argument paraphrased in today’s post. Reality is truly magical.

    I know it chafes just about everyone to suggest that there is any relevance between the 2nd International and something happening today, but it’s not my fault we are still caught in the same unpleasant argument with Hegel (represented in this case by Jaime). The fact is that the discussion hasn’t been concluded, and won’t go away until it is.

  3. jcg Says:

    Rainer, while I’m certainly no expert on the issues you are now proposing for this debate (let alone on all the Internationals), let me ask…is the only alternative to the “unquestionable legitimacy of the state” something closer to the “unquestionable illegitimacy of the state”?

    If the state openly lacks legitimacy in the eyes of part of its population, does that make it illegitimate as a whole? What if it is accepted or at least tolerated by a comparatively greater part of it? Or what if there’s no scientifically accurate way to quantify the exact amounts of legitimacy/unlegitimacy, beyond philosophical calculations made by those in favor/against?

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