Of Agro Industrialists, Godfathers, And Hangmen

In less than a month, a law and a pair of presidential decrees from Uribe have institutionalized what many years of violence and forced displacement had brought to Colombian campesinos.

The Law of Development Planning means that the subsidies that were previously given by the Incora Agrarian Reform Institute to campesinos will now be given only to “productive projects of a private-enterprise character”, “to guarantee their competitiveness.” Lands that are “abandoned” by campesinos can be taken over by any “producer”. Two decrees have liquidated the Incora and three other bodies and replaced them with an institute for “rural development” with a ridiculous budget. The minister of Agriculture-himself a businessman-said with a triumphal air: “no more priming the pump of agrarian reform.”

The financing for the new policy will come from the World Bank, which approved a $32 million dollar loan for the “Productive Associations” project. This project will subordinate the campesinos to the contracts of large landowners and business owners. Six out of the eight zones of the program are controlled by the paramilitaries.

The bank reacted this way because of the failure of its project of squaring the circle by trying to do “agrarian reform by way of the market” or, in reality, to subsidize the land market to prevent an agrarian reform that would have redistributed land to 4.7 million hectares of good agricultural land, now wasted by the large landowners, to campesinos.

Despite the waste of land on the large estates, the dominant mentality sees independent campesinos as an unacceptable competition to modernization. The idea seems to be that Colombia can only develop by way of large estates and that Colombian campesinos can either follow the dictates of the large landowners and business owners, or disappear. In reality the campesino economy is the basis not only of subsistence, but also of production for the internal and external food market. In return, campesinos have received the worst of the violence, massacres, and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands, which the government has now used to tie them to the powerful.

In his electoral campaign, in a speech on November 8 2001 to the congress of agricultural producers, the president said: “If we are going to install an associative campesino business in Barrancabermeja, we will demand that the associates join an efficient entrepreneur from San Alberto so that associate campesinos and business owners can jointly make these projects successful.”

San Alberto is a zone where business owns a great deal of property. There are large World Bank projects in the area. The ‘efficiency’ of its business owners depends on customs protection for palm oil to the tune of 140%. Colombian neoliberals only allow free importation of products that will ruin medium and small producers: they protect the big producers, those of sugar or palm oil. The current government has announced that it will forgive the taxes of plantation owners in the long term.

The star plantation of the big landowners will soon be cocoa. The palm oil market is too narrow, threatened by a global increase in production and the threat of ‘free’ ‘trade’ agreements. The conflicts on the Ivory Coast and other parts of Africa, by contrast, make the cocoa market a good prospect.

The ‘peace processes’ that the Uribe government has started with the paramilitaries are another element to help the plantations. Another peace process echoed in the press is in the Northeast of Boyaca in the emerald production zone. The production of this precious stone is a good model for what the government seeks to do in the agricultural sphere: decades of violence have forced thousands of small miners under the thumb of 13 patrons (perhaps ‘godfathers’ is more appropriate). The 13 have united to sign an eternal peace.

The 13 major emerald godfathers have received letters-of-marque from the state as legal businesses, guaranteeing order, peace, and security and demarcating their zones of influence. The small producers work for them. They have promised as well to substitute coca production in their zones, for coca. The small producers in the plantations will be ‘associates’-meaning that they won’t have labor contracts or worker protections, following the model of the ‘producers’ associations’ of palm oil.

The main emerald godfather (who is also a major landowner in the Meta region, site of a massive privatization project) has just been declared innocent of promoting paramilitarism. The bishop of Chiquinquira was attending the peace meeting of the emerald bosses while the Prosecutor-General was preparing the persecution, supposedly for collaborating with guerrillas, of another bishop, Monsignor Jose Luis Sena. Jose Luis Sena had actively supported the marches of the coffee-growing campesinos for a default on their debts. He was the mediator in peace negotiations with the guerrillas. Various campesino leaders of the few campesino reserves, created by the same state, were also prosecuted for

Uribe is propping the economy with unpayable debt and emergency taxes. He is hoping to win the war with the rebels with the help of the US, who will intervene in Colombia to impose FTAA on South America. So Uribe will serve two masters: The United States wants him to lift the taxes and customs that protect the plantations. The FTAA that threatens the poor also threatens the agricultural business owners, who find that their US godfather is also their hangman. Only those latifundistas who speculate on the price of strategic lands that they have accumulated will be saved.

[Translated by Justin Podur]

Hector Mondragon is an activist and economist based in Colombia.

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