A Precarious Peace in Putumayo

The arrival of demobilization efforts to a remote, former FARC stronghold in Colombia has brought many welcome changes and challenges to the local community. An anti-peace president in Colombia could reverse such gains.

May 4, 2018

The baby of ex-militant FARC members in a demobilized zone in Putumayo (Photo by Winifred Tate)

A year into peacetime, daily life in Colombia’s major cities is largely unchanged. But in rural areas where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) remained strong throughout the 50-year conflict, the shift is palpable. Putumayo—a sliver of fertile land bordering Ecuador and Peru—is one such region. After decades of violence between competing FARC and paramilitary forces that peaked in the early 2000s, newfound peace means the end of roadblocks, curfews, and massacres. Even as the region is opening up to new investment and infrastructure, residents warn that ongoing inequality and environmental destruction are sowing the seeds of new conflicts to come. The FARC’s March 8 announcement that they will suspend their campaign for the May 2018 presidential elections following security threats raises further questions about the future of peace in Colombia.

Peace Accords, Finally

The peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government under President Juan Manuel Santos was finally ratified on December 1, 2016, after years of negotiating talks in Havana and the narrow defeat of a popular referendum to adopt the accords in October 2016. But Santos opted not to return the accords to a popular vote. After modifying a few key elements, including additional requirements for asset forfeiture by the guerrillas, the accords were approved by the Colombian Congress. Since then, FARC troops have gathered in designated concentration zones, and on June 27, 2017, handed over more than 7,000 arms in their official transition to civilian life.

La Carmelita, a vereda, or settlement, along the Puerto Vega-Tetaye corridor, was once in the prime conflict zone, in a region largely controlled by the FARC since the 1980s. “If we told you about all the violence that we lived through, we’d be here a long time,” one teacher told an assembled group of community leaders on March 20. “We have to recognize that the peace process has improved life in the zone. Many children have returned to school. As teachers, now we are not just thinking about protecting the students but about educating them. There are still a lot of needs, infrastructure has not grown, we lack classrooms, a cafeteria, and other things. But with peace, students learn more.”

Demobilized FARC combatants are living down the road from La Carmelita in the zona veredal, one of 26 zones designated for integration into Colombian society. In this zona in Putumayo, colorful murals of commanders cover the walls of the concrete houses, built by the residents over the past year. Thanks to a recent baby boom, small children fill the local playgrounds.

Over the past year, FARC members living in zones designated for integration into Colombian have painted their homes with colorful murals. (Photo by Winifred Tate)

Yet this zone, like much of rural Colombia, is beset by land conflicts. Despite the governor’s promise to resolve the issues and purchase land for resettlement, the land is at present only rented. Uncertainty over housing and agricultural projects on this rented land has caused some residents to leave in search of better options. Almost half of the roughly 475 inhabitants from the zona have left to look for work in other regions.

Economic Opportunities of Peace

On March 20, I accompanied Colombia’s German Ambassador Michael Brock and his entourage as they traveled to Putumayo to announce a new $6 million euro European Union Fund for Peace development program, which pools EU aid for post-conflict development. In meetings in Puerto Asis, Puerto Caicedo, Mocoa, and the zona veredal, Brock repeated his message of support for the process: “the international community continues firm in our commitment to peace.” A year ago, he toured Putumayo at the request of the Alianza Departmental de Mujeres, and when handed page after page of local projects seeking funding, he vowed to return. Now, here he was, with cameras in tow.

Program administrators from Caritas Germany emphasized that these funds will be used for small-scale projects, but that finding suitable products will be difficult. Producers of hearts of palm in the region have yet to find buyers, and cocoa producers have been hit hard by falling prices due to over-production. World cocoa prices fell sharply in 2017. While infrastructure in the region has improved, thanks to a new almost completely paved road that cuts the commute time in half between the biggest city of Puerto Asis to the regional capital of Mocoa, the vast majority of rural residents do not have access to convenient transit. Muddy ground and river transport remain slow and expensive.

Peace, many hope, will also bring tourists to visit the region’s natural wonders as the foothills of the Andes mountains descend to the Amazon jungle, an environment that was paradoxically preserved in a relatively pristine state by the conflict. As geographer Diana Ojeda has shown in the case of the Paque Tayrona on the Atlantic Coast, however, tourism development projects can contribute to land grabs and dispossession.

Mildred Alejandra Ortiz Martinez is one of those gambling on more tourists in Putumayo. Born and raised in the region, death threats forced to her to flee for several years in the early 2000s, but she returned and bought 16 hectares to create a private nature reserve, the Reserva Natural Paway, which is state-recognized but not publicly-funded. She rehabilitates baby monkeys and parrots rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, and has set up a butterfly reserve and breeding facility. Her day job and the treehouse bed and breakfast that stands 25 meters high in a ceiba tree that she runs, pay the bills. “Most of our guests are foreigners,” she told me, admitting that Colombian national tourists still view Putumayo with a jaundiced eye after years of stigma as a guerrilla and criminal stronghold. Yet she views her work as part of the long road to national reconciliation, speaking of right-wing Colombian hardliners who have reflected differently on the conflict after staying a few days with her in the Reserve.

The first time I went down the Putumayo River, in 1999 with a group of human rights activists concerned about the region’s growing conflict, we stopped at the La Paya National Park, 422,000 hectares of river and swamp, home of the famous pink Amazonian river dolphins. We saw their thin curious noses in the late afternoon, more gray than pink. The Park’s lone security guard admitted he didn’t see many visitors because of the conflict, but he promised that someday this site would be a tourist paradise. The war had kept the land and water pure, undeveloped—the kind of place that foreigners love, he told me. At that time, river travel was intermittent, tightly controlled, with a 6 PM FARC-imposed curfew. In June 2016, I traveled again down the Putumayo River, but we sped past the park entrance in the regular 8 AM boat from Puerto Asis to Puerto Leguizamo. There, I talked with the mayor’s assistant about peace, and how it will change the region. The mayor has a lot of big plans, he told me. Development is hard here because the population is so dispersed; the municipality holds almost half the department’s land but none of its infrastructure. Ecotourism is their big hope for the post conflict period, he tells me. People—he means foreigners, people like me—haven’t traveled here in the past because of the stigma of FARC-controlled territories. Some settlers have invaded the parkland; some of them grow coca, so that has to be dealt with. But with the national park, and the pink dolphins, all this is really going to take off.

Ferries and smaller canoes travel across the Putumayo River to get to demobiilzed zones. (Photo by Winifred Tate)

Peace has already brought intensified oil exploration into the region. Putumayo has been reclassified by the federal government as a mining district, rather than part of the Amazonian protected region. Over the past few years there has been a dramatic expansion of mining and oil operations in the region.  Canadian Oil Company Gran Tierra, who claims to be the largest landowner in Putumayo with “approximately 1.1 million gross acres of land” forecasted a 20% increase in production in 2018.

The Putumayo governor’s staff told me, “there are a growing number of conflicts over the consultas previas [the requirement that extractive industries consult with local communities before beginning operations]. There is an avalanche of new processes because of the expanded investment in the region, leading to a lot of social conflict.” Divided communities debate over the immediate benefits of employment and one-time community investments versus the long term environmental impacts of extraction.

“The multinational is taking over some state functions, which leads some to support them,” according to one local representative to the Juntas de Acción Comunal, a local neighborhood association. “People have two choices: work in coca or work with the petroleros (oil companies). But there is a big problem with the lack of water. Armed conflict has calmed but not the environmental, social, and economic conflict.” One community activist said that before the increase in oil drilling, residents could dig a well and find “fresh water you could drink without boiling. Now, any water that comes up is polluted.”

Coca cultivation for the international cocaine trade continues to be a sustainable livelihood for communities in remote areas. State officials told me about 30,000 families have signed up to participate in the crop substitution program. The government’s ambitious eradication plans remain behind schedule. Like many previous failed efforts, these projects have been criticized by experts as requiring eradication without offering adequate alternatives for struggling peasant families in need of new ways to earn an income.

Families participating in the eradication efforts also face threats from criminal networks in Putumayo. According to Nancy Sanchez, there have been 15 documented cases of threats against women leaders in the Valle del Guamuez and San Miguel, including cases of intimidating phone calls targeting women activists for bringing the state into rural zones. Criminal organizations financing ongoing coca cultivation want no police or state presence.   

An Uncertain Future

Last summer, the FARC launched a new political party, with a stylized rose logo and the same initials, now the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común, (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force.) In the March 11 parliamentary elections, the FARC made a poor showing, with only .34% of the national vote in the Senate, and .21% in the House. Yet as part of the accords, the FARC will have Congressional representation. In one of the most controversial provisions of the peace accords, the FARC political party is guaranteed five of 102 seats in the Senate and five of 166 seats in the House of Representatives between 2018 and 2026.

The upcoming presidential elections on May 27 could have a big impact on the future of the peace accords. After announcing on February 8 they were unable to campaign because of violent threats, the FARC withdrew their candidate, Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timochenko,” after he suffered a heart attack on March 7. The close races includes Ivan Duque on the right and four contenders on the center-left—and the likelihood of a runoff on June 17, in the case of no majority winner, remains high. Duque, right-wing strongman Alvaro Uribe’s heir and staunch critic of the peace accords, has promised to correct “errors in the [peace] process.” Duque has also critiqued Santos for allowing “impunity” in the form of reduced jail time for FARC members through the peace process.

My taxi driver in Bogota eloquently defended Duque, claiming that he would continue Uribe’s hardline policies. “Uribe offered a multi-million recompensa (reward) for guerrilla leaders, when Santos set them up in luxury in Havana [during the peace talks],” he explained, dismissive of the peace process as capitulation to terrorists, and objecting to 10 years of guaranteed seats in Congress.

Following an appearance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC, Duque announced on March 22 that if elected he would resume aerial fumigation, the spraying of chemical herbicides to kill coca plants, suspended in 2016 after years of controversy when the World Health Organization found glyphosate, the main ingredient, was a probable carcinogen. Duque said rather than the current focus on voluntary crop substitution programs, he favored a combined approach including aerial fumigation, eradication, and mandatory crop substitution programs. This promise may have been a response to criticism by the Trump administration for Colombia’s inadequate counternarcotics efforts. In September 2017, the U.S. State Department wrote that the agency was “seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements due to the extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past three years, including record cultivation during the last 12 months.”  Since then, Trump, who just canceled his visit to Latin America, including Colombia, requested a dramatic cut in U.S. aid to the country, from $391 million in 2017 to $140 million for spending through September 30, 2018. U.S. Congress has maintained prior spending levels, however, so possible future financial support for the peace process remains to be determined. An anti-peace accord president in Colombia like Duque might find a friend in Trump.

“There is a lot of concern about the cambio de gobierno (change of government) and discussion about what we will do if Duque wins and starts rolling back the peace process,” said Nancy Sanchez, advisor to the Alianza de Mujeres. “It can’t be something worse than what we have already lived through, what we have already resisted. But it does revive our pain—revive our fears.”

Although local officials in Putumayo downplay it, there is a growing concern that dissident FARC troops are re-arming and organizing to gain control of the lucrative narcotics trade. Three Ecuadorans—two journalists and their driver—were kidnapped by FARC dissidents in Ecuador on March 26 and confirmed dead on April 13. In response, the Ecuadoran president Lenín Moreno announced increased military operations on the border. Reduced state funding for remote rural regions like Putumayo will only accelerate this escalating violence, which would in turn jeopardize the nascent tourism industry as well as EU-funded development initiatives.

Perhaps accustomed to years of difficult prospects, local activists and officials repeatedly told me that peace was the only option. Javier Pae, an advisor to the Putumayo governor, emphasized that civil society organizations as well state agencies vigorously support the process. He concluded, “The peace accords are an achievement that here at the local level, the department can’t stand to lose. No se puede perder.”

Winifred Tate is an associate professor of anthropology at Colby College, and the author of Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia.

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