I frequently get asked by friends and family outside of Colombia about the hows and the whys of the armed conflict here. Most folks outsiders have heard that there’s some sort of war here, and know that drugs is somehow related, but that tends to be the extent of their knowledge.
What I’ve come to understand more deeply since being here is that – like most armed conflicts in the world – the Colombian conflict continues because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful (Iraq, anyone?). The government does not, in fact, really try that hard to end the violence. Instead, it exploits the conflict, using it to further its desires to enrich its land-holding and multinational corporation-owning friends. President Uribe, himself the owner of vast expanses of land in the Urabá region, has been particularly interested in and efficient at such enrichment for himself and his cronies. I think it’s safe to say that the government isn’t even really that interested in completely getting rid of the guerrillas, because they serve the role as the enemy that justifies the war. At the same time, the guerrillas and narco-paramilitaries themselves are often happy to push people off their land in order to cultivate coca and generally control territory.
War is profitable and beneficial in obvious ways for the military-industrial complex: in generates income and employment for the arms manufacturers, the military and police, intelligence agencies and the companies that supply such equipment, etc. In the case of Colombia, though, it also provides a way gain control of another source of vast riches: the incredibly fertile Colombian land and the natural resources – copper, oil, carbon, emeralds etc. – that abound. Displacement (see previous post for more on displacement) of the rural population from its land as a result of the violence is not just an unfortunate accident of the violence. Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi calls it “accumulation by dispossession.”
The Colombian government, of course, doesn’t work alone in this dispossession. Although they employ anti-guerrilla rhetoric and practice social cleansing, the paramilitaries have always also used the power of violence and terror for economic ends, both for themselves and their friends in politics and business. Demobilized paramilitary leader Éver Veloza García, alias "H.H.", in testimonies given as part of his demobilization process, said that “the only winner of the war that Urabá lived were the large landowners, the owners of the big farms and companies.” H.H. was speaking in the past tense, perhaps because he was about to be extradited to the U.S., but such strategies continue.
The region of Urabá, where the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is located, and the experience of the Peace Community itself, provides a useful case study for how the strategy of accumulation through dispossession has been employed. Urabá has incredibly fertile land, as well as mineral deposits like carbon and oil. In addition, its location on a gulf with access to the Caribbean Sea provides an extremely useful exit point for legal and illegal goods. Vast swaths of land are now controlled by paramilitaries, many of whom can even claim legal ownership due to a recent law that grants land title after 5 years of possession.
Apparently there’s a huge carbon vein running through the very earth on which I walk everyday, and according to what we hear, the government is hurriedly attempting to buy up land around here, presumably in order to turn around and sell mining rights. For smallholding peasant farmers, the few million pesos offered (equivalent to a couple thousand dollars) is a huge sum, but chump change for mining interests. Then in a year or two when the money runs out, the former farmer is, well, screwed. Similarly, when civilians displace, abandoning their land due to continued violence, the land is “conveniently” there for the taking. There are plentiful examples of the government then repopulating the area with folks from other areas, who tend not have historical attachment to the land and happily work in the mines and other mega-projects.
Zibechi refers to this phenomenon as neocolonization. “Eliminating the FARC from the scene,” he says, “would be an bad deal for the imperial strategy of destabilization and recolonization of the Andean region… This project cannot be completed without war, direct or indirect, that is without the permanent destabilization as a way to reconfigure territory and politics of this strategic region.” The massacre of 27 individuals from the Awá indigenous community early this month [Link to previous post] demonstrates how the conflict is used to reconfigure territory and politics. The region in which the Awá live, in the southern Pacific coast of Colombia, is highly sought-after for rubber and African palm plantations – as well as, of course, coca – despite the fact that much of the land is supposedly protected as a resguardo (indigenous reservation).
My sense is that it’s not just the radical peasants and indigenous communities that are angry about the privatization and exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources: middle-class folks from Medellín, for example, have also expressed to me disgust at what they refer to as Uribe’s gifting of Colombian land and ecological richness to multinationals. “He’s giving our country away,” I’ve heard them complain.
The state tries to disconnect massacres here in the Peace Community, massacres of indigenous peoples, the assassinations of labor leaders, and denies that internal displacement still occurs. But of course it’s all connected; it’s all part of the strategy.