By Nelson Bocanegra
With a machete across his chest, sugar cane worker Aldemar Moreno guards the entrance to the farm where he has been employed for 23 years, ready to defend it from land occupations by groups indigenous and others that have exploded in Colombia. .
“We have made the decision that if to defend our rights… we have to die, we will die because my family depends on this,” said Moreno, standing at the entrance to the large corporate estate in Corinto. in the southwest of the province of Cauca.
Land occupations have skyrocketed since the election of leftist President Gustavo Petro, who has vowed to spend tens of billions of dollars to ensure small farmers and indigenous groups have access to more land, as part of a plan to correct generations deep inequalities.
Indigenous communities, many disenchanted by years of unfulfilled government promises, have a long history of occupations, which they call liberations.
But the recent occupations are also being run by impoverished farmers, many of whom have interpreted Petro’s promises as permission to carry them out, despite his insistence that the reforms be carried out in accordance with the law.
They are perhaps the clearest example of the delicate road Petro must travel if he is to live up to the high hopes raised by his idealistic campaign rhetoric without provoking conflict or alienating the agricultural sector. Agriculture will be particularly crucial for Petro as it seeks to diversify the economy away from oil and coal.
“The issue of liberation is a broader concept that includes the recovery not only of the land, but of the water, of the wild areas, of the animals,” said an indigenous leader who identified himself as Cruz.
Occupying the Castilla sugar cane farm in Cauca with 450 others, he said his group had been inspired by Petro’s promises, but acknowledged that the indigenous leadership may be misinterpreting the promises.
The occupations threaten investment, businessmen say, and have drawn sharp criticism from Petro’s opposition in Congress. Sugar cane industry group Asocana said the invasions have halted the production of around 75,000 tons of sugar this year, equivalent to about half of a month’s average production.
“Who loses if business owners pack up their processing plants and go elsewhere?” Sugar worker Juan Carlos Agudelo said: “We are the ones who lose because our work is all we have.”
There are currently 108 land occupations in Colombia, affecting a third of its provinces, the Ombudsman’s Office said last week. Although comparative figures were not available, several organizations consulted by Reuters said that occupations have increased in recent months.
“In the midst of high expectations about the structural changes that the government is promoting, very rapid action is needed to reduce the risk that social movements will initiate new mobilizations,” said the Ombudsman, Carlos Camargo.
The government rejects the occupations and says that both landowners and squatters must respect the rule of law. “We will not accept any self-defense force. It is the State that must act with great force to defend property rights,” Agriculture Minister Cecilia López told Congress this month. “Absurd ways of acquiring land without any right, that’s where the law will be applied with all its force.”
Colombian law allows the police to evict the occupants within the first 48 hours. Beyond that term, the owners must use a slow judicial process.
The invasions could become even more tense if illegal armed groups are involved, legislators and the Ombudsman’s Office have warned. At least 13 occupations are connected to armed groups, the Ombudsman’s Office said, without giving further details. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” Senator Andres Guerra, of the right-wing Democratic Center party, said after a congressional debate on occupations.
Although several armed groups that participated in Colombia’s long conflict – including the right-wing paramilitaries and the Marxist rebels of the FARC – have demobilized in the last 15 years, armed guerrillas and criminal gangs descended from the paramilitaries continue to exist.
Cruz said his group had seen a dozen armed men sneaking through the sugar cane fields near the occupation. They identified themselves as military but wore no insignia, he said. “We don’t know what is happening with the reactivation of the paramilitaries here in northern Cauca,” he said. “It is a great concern for us as liberators.”
Their fears are based on history: 21 Colombian indigenous people were killed in a paramilitary attack in December 1991 during an occupation in the municipality of Caloto. Several days after Reuters’ visit to the occupation of Castilla, four indigenous people were wounded by gunfire in an attack by an unknown group, the indigenous group said.
The occupations are beginning to affect potential investment, entrepreneurs say. A Middle Eastern investment fund has halted plans to invest $10 million in an avocado farm because of the occupations, said Gerardo Arroyo, head of the Cauca business association. He declined to name the potential investor. “The invasions generate insecurity, instability and that, of course, destroys the confidence of investments in the province,” said Arroyo.
“Obviously the investment will not come” if property rights are put at risk, said Nicolás Pérez, president of the palm growers’ association. Occupations at two palm farms over the past month ended peacefully, he added.
Others fear that the occupations could trigger ethnic conflicts between indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians, who have also historically seen their land rights marginalized. “That is what is beginning, a war, because in the end there will be clashes between blacks and indigenous people,” said Otoniel Candelo, a 64-year-old sugar cane grower, president of the Afro-Colombian community committee of the El Tetillo Tamboral municipality. . “We’re not going to put up with being kicked out either.”
But indigenous leaders say their communities will stand firm. “The indigenous movement has made many deals with different governments to guarantee land rights, which so far have not materialized,” said the movement’s leader, Milady Dicue. “The communities will continue to resist.”