Here is a quick overview of the utterly depressing scandal that, for the time being at least, has knocked Hugo ChÃ¡vez off of Colombia’s front pages.
On August 8, 2004, Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe announced that his government would liquidate Carimagua, an enormous state-owned hacienda in Meta department, in Colombia’s eastern plains. 17,000 hectares (43,000 acres) of land, Uribe told reporters, would be distributed to 800 families who had been forced off their land by violence.
This giveaway alone would have increased by one-third the 54,500 hectares of land that the Uribe government has distributed to displaced families since 2002. (This total, however, hardly makes a dent in the 2.9 million hectares that, the Colombian government Comptroller’s Office estimates, have been stolen from forcibly displaced Colombians during the past twenty years.)
Three years passed, though, and nothing happened with Carimagua. Not a square inch of the land has been distributed.
The Colombian daily El Tiempo revealed why in a story published February 10. At some point, the Uribe government changed its mind about Carimagua quite radically. In July 2007, the newspaper revealed, Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry decided instead to make the 17,000 hectares available to large agribusiness companies, promising a fifty-year lease to the highest bidder. The displaced families, who had been waiting for years, were not told of this decision.
This revelation has shed an uncomfortable light on the Colombian government’s agriculture minister, AndrÃ©s Felipe Arias, an ultraconservative young politician who is so close to President Uribe that Colombian commentators frequently call him “Uribito.” Arias – who is known more for campaigning against demilitarizing territory for talks with guerrillas than for any rural development policies – defended the decision to break his government’s promise to the displaced families by arguing that Carimagua is not appropriate for small-scale agriculture.
Arias argued that the 17,000 hectares are poor-quality land (a claim that other experts have since disputed), far from transportation (though along one of Colombia’s largest rivers, the Meta), and that “nothing can be done with only 11 hectares per family.”
In an El Tiempo column, analyst CristiÃ¡n Valencia responded to that last point, recounting conversations with displaced families he encountered trying to scratch out a living by selling goods at busy BogotÃ¡ intersections.
When I asked the GonzÃ¡lez family (stoplight at the circunvalar and 92nd Street) and the Santos family (stoplight at 94th Street and 18th Avenue) what they would do with 11 hectares of land, their eyes teared up.
“Yeah, eleven. Of land, but they say that it is acidic soil and it’s in the eastern plains [llanos].”
My question brought back bitter memories for them. Because they remember the countryside, and life in the countryside, and the peace they used to enjoy in the countryside. The countryside from which they were forced to flee.
“We would be alive again,” one said.
“It would be a miracle,” said another.
Valencia also responded eloquently to Minister Arias’s argument that large investors would make more efficient use of the Carimagua land.
If this is to be the standard for adjudicating lands, all of Colombia’s uprooted people will have to go off and forget about ever having even one hectare. Because there will always be investors with more money, more vision, and more ability to produce and generate dividends.
Minister Arias’s claims, meanwhile, have been called into question because of the political connections of some of the corporations – several of them large-scale African oil-palm cultivators – that have expressed interest in the Carimagua offer. One, notes El Espectador columnist and former presidential intelligence (DAS) director Ramiro Bejarano, is owned by the uncle of the current treasury minister.
Arias’s announced solution to the Carimagua controversy is to appoint a “high-level commission” to decide whether the lands should be distributed to displaced people, wealthy agribusiness investors, or a combination. But with his choice of commissioners, Bejarano argues, Arias “designated recognized allies and spokespeople of industrialists, investors and big capital. He put the mice in charge of caring for the cheese.”
Whatever ultimately happens with Carimagua, much of the damage has already been done. In a country with the world’s second-largest displaced population, where land has been at the center of generations of violent disputes, the current government showed itself to be vastly more sensitive to the needs of large landholders than to those of poor, vulnerable, displaced families. (It remains to be seen what damage has been done to AndrÃ©s Felipe Arias’s political ambitions.)
“Taken together,” wrote Colombian author and El Espectador columnist Alfredo Molano, “the agrarian policies of the last few governments have been, in practice, a drama in three acts. In the first act, the paramilitaries enter, chainsaws in hand, and displace the campesinos. In the second, the government negotiates with the paramilitaries, and in the final act, it distributes the lands to large investors.”