January 31 – Negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas re-opened today, after a week-long recess.
Objecting to bilateral agreements before peace negotiations are finalized, the government of Juan Manuel Santos refused to halt fire alongside guerrilla troops, thus ending the FARC’s cease-fire on January 19 at midnight. Without state reciprocation, the unilateral truce ran its sixty-day course as planned, returning FARC forces to guerrilla-style warfare that has typified the group since its beginnings.
Despite significant drops in violence, the cease-fire was widely disputed. Critics claimed FARC attacks continued throughout the country, despite claims to have halted offensive attacks. The New Rainbow Corporation Armed Conflict Observatory documented 41 armed actions involving both guerrilla fighters and armed forces during this period. Of these actions, seven were clear violations of the unilateral truce; another eight ran a thin line somewhere between defensive and offensive; and the remaining 26 were classified as defensive attacks, calculating thatalmost 90% of FARC stopped offensive attacks for the duration of the cease-fire. The outcome places in doubt a previous supposition that internal FARC divisions between units could nullify potential peace accords.
The Christmas cease-fire marked the first time in more than ten years that FARC combatants have willingly laid aside their arms. Yet the Santos government, burdened with years of mistrust and failed peace attempts, received the news with outward skepticism. Recalling previous cease-fire attempts, state analysts advised against suspending military attacks. They claimed it would ultimately be catastrophic for the process, creating temporarily demobilized zones ideal for groups such as mafias, drug traffickers, criminal gangs, and paramilitary troops to expand forces and improve their strategic position, with little to lose.
Excluded from official negotiations, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second largest guerrilla group, has stepped up its violent actions in hopes that their voices will be heard. Impatient toincrease the pace of negotiations and encountering fears that their presence would delay the five-point agenda, ELN representatives arrived at the negotiations in Havana only to be immediately turned away. Some observers hope the guerrilla group may simply fold into accepting post-negotiation conditions along with the FARC. If not, estimates suggest their numbers could grow from 2,500 to 6,000, providing an outlet for ex-FARC guerrillas unhappy with negotiation results.
Pushing for the inclusion not only of smaller armed groups, but a range of civil society voices, the Forum for Integral Agrarian Development, held in Bogota December 17-19, opened a space for community dialogue around agrarian reform, the first issue in the negotiations. Land reform is at the core of the country’s 49-year-old conflict, and is expected to be the most complex of the five-point peace agenda. The forum attracted 1,314 attendees and generated more than 400 proposals calling for access to land and participation in decision-making, attention to issues such as climate change, food security, oversight of foreign companies and limits on foreign investment, and indigenous rights to land and natural resources.
The proposals that were forwarded to Havana guided conversations when negotiations re-opened on January 14. The FARC, reducing the land issue to its basic elements, presented ten points considered crucial to land reform and essential to the process of creating lasting peace. Although the FARC has been demanding territorial reform since its beginnings in 1964, these ten agrarian tenets reflect what manyconsider a recent evolution in their approach. For the first time, rather than insisting on the complete deconstruction of the existing latifundio (large farm) system, they are calling for the redistribution and transfer of “idle and underused” lands to small-scale farmers. It is estimated that, of 40 million hectares that are dedicated to large-scale cattle ranching, approximately half are ill suited for this use, and would fall into this category. Instead of ostracizing multinational corporations and foreign investment, they have requested the re-negotiation of contracts in ways that prioritize local populations and protect the environment.
Beneath the semantics of these ten agrarian points lies a shadow of possibility that FARC and government dialogues are today becoming closer to agreement than ever. The FARC appears to have accepted the changing reality of the Colombian economic and productive landscape: a future that will encapsulate, “multiple modes of production coexisting,” despite “socioeconomic contradictions and antagonisms.” But details have yet to be worked out, and before then, “nothing will be approved until everything has been negotiated” – which is to say, the conflict will continue as always.
Emily Schmitz is a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation accompaniment team in Colombia. Anotherrecent review of the negotiations was posted by Just the Facts.