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"Land laundering": how Colombian paramilitaries hijack grassroots development

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This is a guest blog by Teo Ballvé, one of the speakers at the 2nd International Conference on Land Grabbing this week.

With the start of peace negotiations this week that will hopefully bring an end to Colombia’s civil war, it’s time for researchers and watchdog groups to take a closer look at the role of armed conflict in the rising global interest in farmland.

For a variety of armed actors, displacing peasant farmers is both a means and an end for waging war. It’s how they gain territorial control. Land is the violent meeting point of heated ideological struggles and cold economic interests.

A major World Bank study last year found that one in five people in the world live in conflict-affected countries, including those with high levels of organized crime. Almost all these countries also appear in a World Bank report on the rising global interest in farmland—or what some scholars call the “global land grab.”

The geographical overlap is not surprising. The Bank’s findings show that land grabs and violent conflicts thrive on the same structural deficiencies: fragile states, poverty, and weak governance.

Addressing these problems, says the Bank, requires programs that combine top-down state initiative with bottom-up community approaches. In short, the World Bank wants to see more grassroots development.

The reports both feature Colombia, where I work as a geographer of the armed conflict. Approaching the 50-year mark, Colombia’s civil war is one of the world’s oldest armed conflicts. It also demonstrates the complexities of implementing the Bank’s recommendations.

Over the last 20 years, the war has forced at least four million peasants off their land—that’s about one of every ten Colombians. In the process, these farmers have lost as much as 6.8 million hectares of land—an area the size of Ireland.

The government’s presence in wide swaths of the country could be generously described as “skeletal.” Indeed, Colombia would appear to be an ideal candidate for the Bank’s grassroots development strategies. But my research shows that—however well intentioned—grassroots development can have disastrous results.

In a war-torn part of the country called Urabá, international donors, the private sector, and the national government worked together to help set up cooperative-driven agricultural projects for peasant farmers.

The programs were supposed to strengthen both livelihoods and governance in this unruly area by giving peasant farmers a legitimate source of income and supporting local institutions.

But murderous paramilitary groups financed by the drug trade ended up hijacking the grassroots development programs and used them as vehicles for concealing vast amounts of stolen land. My work traces this process of what I call ‘land laundering’.

The paramilitaries divvied up the lands they had violently stolen into small fractions and ceded them to sham “peasant cooperatives.” Parceling out the land to the fake cooperatives helped scramble each property’s paper trail. It also helped justify the projects’ claims of being participatory, small-scale, and environmentally friendly—in a word, grassroots.

The story of the paramilitary-backed projects could be easily dismissed as a case of a land grab being white-washed with fashionable development-speak. But the problem is actually more serious.

Grassroots development structures became utterly instrumental to how the paramilitary land grab was executed and laundered. This not only raises questions about the strategies being endorsed by the Bank, but also indicates the difficulty of even detecting land grabs in conflict situations.

The Colombian government recently introduced a program that helps farmers legally recover these lands. The move surely helped set conditions for the historic peace talks that begin this week in Norway with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A more equitable distribution of land is rightly at the top of the agenda in the negotiations.

Colombia is a stark example of how violent conflict and the concentration of land ownership can become a vicious feedback loop. Breaking the cycles of violence identified by the World Bank requires decisive action aimed at reversing the tectonic concentration of rural property currently underway worldwide.

Otherwise, we will have Colombias all over the world for generations to come.

Teo Ballvé is a journalist and PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He blogs at Territorial Masquerades and tweets at @teolandia5. His research is made possible by the Drugs, Security and Democracy Fellowship and the International Dissertation Research Fellowship of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

(Image: Soldiers patrol an area an area frequented by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Photo: Soldados de la Fuerza Tarea Omega by mauriciomoreno on Flickr)

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