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Yenly Méndez, legal adviser to the Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC), was in London from 23-25 May 2012
Peasant Enterprise Zones - A Solution to Colombia’s Land Woes?
I interviewed her about the Peasant Enterprise Zone - a sustainable model for rural development in Colombia, which promises to increase food production and give small-scale farmers control over their land
Emma Marshall / Tuesday 26 June 2012

ACVC is a grassroots organisation representing over 30,000 peasant farmers of the Cimitarra Valley in the Magdalena Medio region, which helped establish one of the first Peasant Enterprise Zones (Zonas de Reserva Campesina - also known as Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones).

The Peasant Enterprise Zones (PEZ) have undergone successful pilot tests, but have faced sustained government opposition as well as brutal repression from rightwing armed groups, which have accused the model’s organisers of being a front for leftwing guerrillas.

Creating "a dignified life"

Yenly Méndez believes the PEZ model offers a viable alternative to the current development model in Colombia and is capable of drastically improving life for the country’s rural poor.

In her view, the model is important for several reasons: Because it is an idea that originated from the campesino (smallhold farmer) movement itself, not a model imposed from above; because the model tackles the problem of concentration of land ownership by limiting each family to ownership of a specific measure of land, which is sufficient to sustain them comfortably; and because it requires the government and population to work together towards sustainable development.

This security of access to land within the context of a plan for sustainable development would enable the rural economy to develop while guaranteeing the rights of the campesinos, says Méndez. "In other words, it can make a dignified life viable for the campesino population."

Colombia’s rural population is 11.5 million, or 23 per cent of the country’s total population, according to a 2011 World Bank report. In the Cimitarra Valley alone (which runs through the departments of Antioquia and Bolivar), the PEZ benefits almost 9,000 families living over an area of 550,000 hectares.

There are six established PEZs in the departments of Guaviare, Cundinamarca, Caquetá, Bolívar, Antioquia and Putumayo, with three more currently being set up. Many more around the country are planned. The driving force behind them is the National Association of Peasant Enterprise Zones (ANZORC), an amalgamation of more than 20 campesino organisations, including ACVC.

Through the implementation of the PEZ model, they aim to correct the unequal distribution of land to create conditions for the sustainable development of the rural economy, regulate the use of vacant lands, stimulate food production, prevent displacement, and improve quality of life for poor rural populations.

The model would also help generate rural employment and food security, aid the eradication of drug crops, give the state legitimate presence in a conflict zone from which it is largely absent, and provide an opportunity for the adequate regulation of natural resource use and conservation.

Opposition and stigmatisation

The first six PEZs were piloted between 1997 and 2002, but during the tenure of former president Álvaro Uribe, authority figures, including the president himself, condemned the model, linking it with guerrilla groups. Legal recognition of the project was suspended, and, as often happens in Colombia, the public stigmatisation led to persecution and many leaders were subsequently threatened, attacked, criminalised and imprisoned on baseless charges - including ACVC’s entire board of directors.

All those imprisoned were eventually declared innocent of the charges against them and released, after imprisonments lasting as long as two years in some cases. Many continue to rely on protective measures for their safety. "It’s a situation of permanent risk," says Méndez.

On paper, the current Colombian government led by President Santos supports the PEZ model. The legal suspension was lifted in February 2011, and a Ministry of Agriculture delegate stated at an ANZROC meeting that year that the PEZ was part of official land governance policy. However the 2012 budget did not allocate any resources to the initiative.

"The will of the state has to manifest itself in funds, otherwise it’s just a discourse," she says.

She points out that the earlier opposition reflected the stance of important sectors, which remain as influential as ever: Large-scale landowners, multinational companies interested in exploiting natural resources, and even the armed forces, which at times weighed in on the debate about the efficacy of the PEZ as a development model.

"The PEZ is touching a very sensitive place, and one of the causes of the armed conflict, which is the land problem," says Méndez. "So, well, it’s a model with a lot of potential, but it’s a bold model in the Colombian context, or any Latin American country where concentration of land is a problem."

When the PEZs that are in development require the release of land from large estates, it will be seen whether there really is the political will to make it happen, she says.

Reasons for optimism

Méndez is encouraged by the strength and resilience of the campesino movement, which is driving the initiative having survived decades of persecution and conflict. Local and international solidarity is also crucial. But another fundamental source of hope comes from the fact that there are few alternatives:

"The current development model clearly doesn’t work," she says. "The experiments with PEZs in this region have shown that it is possible for people to live in a better way, and to coexist with the environment in a better way".

In 2010, ACVC won Colombia’s National Peace Award, which recognised the organisation’s work on the Peasant Enterprise Zone, as well as its contributions towards human rights, land rights and food security in Colombia.

This is a prominent national award, granted by the United Nations Development Programme, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation, and some of the country’s most important media outlets, including the newspaper El Tiempo, Caracol Radio and Television and Semana magazine.

It signified unprecedented formal recognition for ACVC’s members following years of stigmatisation. The organisation is now recognised as being at the forefront of national civil society initiatives promoting peaceful solutions to Colombia’s armed conflict.