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Colombia: A peace with winners and losers? Challenges for human development in the context of peacebuilding

Alejandro Matos
Intermˇn Oxfam
Alejandro Matos

Alejandro Matos

Many factors in Colombia interweave development and the causes of the armed conflict. I will refer in this article to two of them: land and mining. Both of these elements are strongly implicated in serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, on a scale which reflects the depth of the problems faced by human development.

Land. Colombia's model of rural development is highly inequitable and exclusionary, a fact which provokes the emergence of countless conflicts. The seizing and abandonment of land in Colombia as a result of violence affected, between 1980 and July 2010, 12.9% of the country's cultivable area. Almost half of this land was seized or abandoned between 1998 and 2010. Article 99 of Law 1448, the Victims' and Land Restitution Law, which is part of the legal framework for peace, lays down that if the lands appropriated from small farmers are in the hands of corporations setting up megaprojects (African palm for palm oil, rubber, corn, etc.) there are two possible outcomes. If the multinational holds the land in good faith, the small farmer is obliged to negotiate with the company (that is to say, with a powerful law firm) because productivity takes precedence over peasants' rights. If the multinational did not acquire the land in good faith, the megaproject is transferred to a state entity, which in turn hands it over to a third party (possibly another multinational) and the profits would go towards collective restitution, including the small peasant proprietor. In neither case is there full recognition of the rights of the peasant farmer to the use and exploitation of their seized land. This legal situation makes it very difficult for the forcibly displaced population to go back and rebuild their lives. It is an example of how in Colombia, even when laying down the laws for peace, the political commitment is maintained to an unjust development model in which the rights of the poor are sacrificed to the economic interests of the elites.

Mining. Colombia has not traditionally been a mineral extracting country, if we compare it with Venezuela, for example. However, the mining industry has been implicated in the financing of the armed conflict: when subjected to extortion, they have paid the guerrilla groups and then, in order to stop paying the guerrillas, they have funded the creation of paramilitary groups and/or Army brigades which have sometimes then been used for various dirty operations, such as the elimination of trade unionists or the displacement of populations so as to permit energy exploration. President Santos declared that his government would be economically driven by the locomotive of mining. And that is what is happening, but without a rural development or environmental policy which ensures the conservation of the territory and the people who live in it. Thus, once again, they ignore the rights of the citizens in the areas affected by the impact of the exploitation of natural resources.1 The growth of mining in Colombia is not being planned as part of a strengthening of national industry and manufacturing, but rather fits into the transnational strategy which aims to cover, in the countries of the South, the great international demand for minerals and energy from the developed countries or the emerging economies. Given this framework, there will be less decision-making power in the hands of the central government, not to mention local governments, and still less the indigenous peoples, the communities of African origin and the peasants in whose territories the oil, the coltan or the coveted gold are to be found.

Fortunately, development has long since ceased to be thought of simply in terms of economic statistics. It has come to be understood as "a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy", and from this viewpoint rights are both the primary end and the principal means of achieving development.2 In Colombia, the degree of human rights violations in relation to the two factors mentioned above is so high that this has itself become an impediment to human development and thereby to the building of peace. It should be recalled for example that as of October 2011, the National Registry of Disappeared Persons included 16,884 victims of enforced disappearance.3 Furthermore, the Colombian state is investigating about 2,500 suspected cases of extrajudicial killings, mostly committed between 2004 and 2008, involving at least 3,527 victims.4

The "general agreement for ending the conflict and building a stable and lasting peace", the roadmap which lays down the guidelines for the current negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, speaks of truth, but does not mention justice. South Africa is often referred to as an example of a conflict resolved through truth. However, this does not take into account the fact that the central importance of the truth was directly and proportionally related to the fact that those who had been oppressed under apartheid are now in power. In Colombia there will be no negotiation to permit the victims (the indigenous people, children, women, the population of African origin, peasants, trade unionists, etc.) to come to power. They will probably continue to be oppressed and excluded.

For that reason, this process might well produce a peace of winners and losers. But not in the typical way, with the victory of one warring party over the other. What could happen is that the winners are precisely the parties in conflict (landowners, politicians, guerrillas, paramilitaries, the military, businessmen, ranchers, etc.) and that the vanquished are the victims of the conflict; that is, the vast bulk of the civilian population, especially those from the poorer social classes and/or the ethnic groups other than the white Creoles. This outcome would reproduce exactly the unequal development model that has been applied in Colombia over its more than two centuries of existence. If impunity, transnational investment and the legalisation of accumulation prevail, then without a doubt the process which is now beginning, which is supposed to bring an end to the conflict, will paradoxically but very really contribute to reinforcing the causes of the war.


1. See CINEP, Minería, conflictos sociales y violación de los derechos humanos en Colombia, ["Mining, social conflicts and violation of human rights in Colombia"] Bogotá, October 2012. (Back)
2. Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 36.(Back)
3. OHCHR, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia, 2011, A/HRC/19/21/Add.3, Bogota, 31 January 2012, paragraph 62.(Back)
4. Christian Salazar Volkmann, OHCHR Representative in Colombia, "Presentation of the Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2011" [in Spanish: "Presentación del Informe Anual de la Alta comisionada de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos 2011", http://www.hchr.org.co/publico/pronunciamientos/ponencias/ponencias.php3?cod=133&cat=24(Back)