In Colombia, land occupations raise tensions and spook investors

  • World
  • Friday, 30 Sep 2022

FILE PHOTO: Workers of a sugar mill prepare the land to plant sugar cane in a cane field that, according to them, could be invaded by indigenous communities and poor farmers, in Corinto, Colombia September 20, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

CORINTO, Colombia (Reuters) - A machete slung across his chest, sugarcane 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 indigenous groups and others that have erupted around Colombia.

"We have taken the decision that if to defend our rights... we have to die, we will die because this is what my family depends on," said Moreno, as he stood at the entrance of the large corporate farm in Corinto, in southwestern Cauca province.

Land occupations have spiked since the election of leftist President Gustavo Petro, who has promised to spend tens of billions of dollars to ensure small-scale farmers and indigenous groups have access to more land, as part of a plan to correct generations of deep inequality.

Indigenous communities - many disenchanted by years of unmet government promises - have long histories of occupations, which they call liberations.

But recent occupations are also being led by impoverished farmers, many of whom have interpreted Petro's promises as permission to carry them out, despite his insistence reforms will take place according to law.

They are perhaps the clearest example of the delicate path Petro must tread if he wants to meet the high hopes raised by his idealistic campaign rhetoric without stirring conflict or alienating the agricultural sector. Farming will be particularly crucial for Petro in his bid to diversify the economy away from oil and coal.

"The issue of liberation is a wider, deeper concept that includes the recovery not just of land, but of water, of wild areas, of animals," said an indigenous leader who gave his name as Cruz.

Occupying the Castilla sugarcane farm in Cauca with 450 others, he said his group had taken inspiration from Petro's promises, but acknowledged indigenous leadership may be misinterpreting the pledges.

The occupations threaten investment, business people say, and have drawn sharp criticism from Petro's opposition in congress.

Sugarcane industry group Asocana said invasions have stopped production of around 75,000 tonnes of sugar this year, equivalent to about half a month's average output.

"Who loses if business owners pack up their processing plants and go somewhere else?' said sugar worker Juan Carlos Agudelo. "We are the ones who lose because our jobs are all we have."

There are currently 108 land occupations in Colombia, affecting one third of its provinces, the human rights ombudsman's office said last week. Though comparative figures were unavailable, multiple organizations consulted by Reuters said occupations have risen in recent months.

"Amid high expectations about the structural changes the government is promoting, there needs to be very swift action to diminish the risk that social movements start new mobilizations," ombudsman Carlos Camargo said.

The government rejects occupations and says both landowners and occupiers must respect the rule of law.

"We won't accept any self-defense forces. It is the state that must act very strongly to defend property rights," Agriculture Minister Cecilia Lopez told congress this month. "Absurd ways of acquiring land without any right, that's where the law will be applied with all force."

Colombian law allows police to remove occupiers within the first 48 hours. Beyond that time frame, landowners must use a slow judicial process.

Invasions could become even more tense if illegal armed groups become involved, lawmakers and the ombudsman's office warned.

At least 13 occupations are connected to armed groups, the ombudsman's office said, without giving further details.

"It's a time bomb," said Senator Andres Guerra, of the right-wing Democratic Center party, after a congressional debate on occupations.

Though several armed groups who participated in Colombia's long conflict - including right-wing paramilitaries and the Marxist FARC rebels - have demobilized in the last 15 years, armed guerrillas and crime gangs descended from the paramilitaries remain.

Cruz said a dozen armed men had been spotted by his group moving surreptitiously through the sugarcane 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 paramilitaries here in north Cauca," he said. "It's a huge worry for us as liberators."

His fears are founded in history - 21 indigenous Colombians were killed in a December 1991 attack by paramilitaries during an occupation in Caloto municipality.

Several days after the Reuters visit to the Castilla occupation, four indigenous people were injured by gunfire in an attack by an unknown group, the indigenous group said.


Occupations are beginning to hit potential investment, business people say.

An investment fund from the Middle East put the brakes on plans to invest $10 million in an avocado farm because of occupations, said Gerardo Arroyo, head of the Cauca business guild. He declined to name the potential investor.

"Invasions generate insecurity, instability and that of course smashes investment confidence in the province," Arroyo said.

"Obviously investment won't come" if property rights are put at risk, said Nicolas Perez, head of the palm growers' association. Occupations at two palm farms over the last month ended peacefully, he added.

Others fear the occupations could spark ethnic conflicts between indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians, who have also historically had their land rights marginalized.

"That is what is being incited, a war, because at the end there will be confrontations between Blacks and the indigenous," said small-scale sugarcane farmer Otoniel Candelo, 64, president of the Afro-Colombian community committee in El Tetillo Tamboral municipality. "We also aren't going to stand to be kicked out."

But indigenous leaders say their communities will stand firm.

"The indigenous movement has made many deals with different governments to guarantee land rights, which up to now haven't materialized," said movement leader Milady Dicue.

"Communities will keep resisting."

(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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