Colombia-FARC: from freedom fighters to tree huggers?

As peace negotiations continue between the Colombian government and FARC, one proposed initiative would see ex-fighters lay down their arms and take up stewardship and recuperation of Colombia’s ravaged countryside.

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FARC negotiators in Havana, Cuba. In the centre is Jorge Torres Victoria, commander of the FARC. Photo courtesy of Infolatam

The peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC – Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), which are aimed at putting an end to nearly half a century of armed conflict and de facto civil war, are ongoing in Havana in Cuba, with provisional deals on land reform and political participation already in the bag. Currently up for discussion is the issue of the illegal drugs trade, with the cultivation of marijuana, coca and poppy plantations near the top of the list, and the question of offering rural communities an alternative lifestyle that is not dependent on illicit drug cultivation also high among the left-wing rebels’ priorities.

Amongst the negotiations, an eye-catching proposal has emerged that would set a clear path for the rehabilitation not just of demobilised guerrillas, but also of the forests and countryside that have suffered just as much from decades of armed conflict as have the communities that live there. The programme, called Visión Amazonía (Amazon Vision), if implemented would see fighters lay down their guns and instead take up arms in the fight to protect the environment, according to the environment minister Luz Helena Sarmiento. Former fighters would be given stewardship roles with the aim of safeguarding forests affected by illegal drugs cultivation, as part of government plans to reduce net deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, currently at some 70,000 hectares per year, to zero by 2020. In just a few months, the programme has already secured funding amounting to well over US$100m, through donations from Germany, Norway and the UK.

The areas most likely at the centre of such a scheme would be Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo, in the south of the country, regions which have been among those most affected by the conflict. Fighting has led to the displacement, often forced, of hundreds of thousands of families and entire communities, who are then left with nowhere to build a sustainable new life for lack of support from the government, often powerless in these war-torn parts of Colombia controlled by the FARC. In desperation, and often also at the behest of FARC or paramilitary forces, these displaced communities turn to the only apparent source of income: growing marijuana, coca and poppy plants for the lucrative drugs trade. This trade, in turn, is often controlled by the FARC and by paramilitaries in these regions, and has provided them with the financial resources to maintain their armed struggle.

A Colombian soldier in 1992 looks at deforested land formerly used for poppy plantations. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

During talks over the weekend (18-19 January), FARC negotiators insisted that the issue of ending illegal drugs cultivation be seen through the lens of human rights. One leading negotiator, Luis Alberto Albán (alias “Marco León Calarcá”), argued that the conditions that lead to the proliferation of such plantations are of “a socioeconomic character, and are founded in the poverty and misery of the dispossessed, expropriated and displaced rural populations, of peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities”. To this end, the FARC are calling for the recognition of and respect for these communities’ territories, as well as for an improvement in their quality of life, as a way of ensuring that they refrain from turning to illegal drugs cultivation. Furthermore, Sarmiento has called the Visión Amazonía initiative “an opportunity for the post-conflict era”, and said that the aim is that those who have formed a part of the armed forces in forested areas should be at the head of efforts to help these areas recover.

There can be little reasonable doubt as to the potential of such a scheme for post-conflict integration for providing a better and more sustainable life for displaced rural communities, as well as for the wellbeing of the forests and ecosystems which they inhabit. Not only is inclusion of those who currently make up the armed rebels a key ingredient for lasting peace, but a clear roadmap of how these sectors can sustain themselves and reintegrate into Colombian society after the fighting ends is also essential.