BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Ask any Colombian why their country has been at war for nearly 50 years, and most will answer in one word - land.
Unequal land distribution in rural areas was the driving force behind the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla group set up back in 1964 to defend the rights of landless and poor peasants.
The land issue is the first item on the five-point agenda for the peace talks the government and the FARC are currently holding in Cuba.
While the closed-door talks continue in Havana, 1,200 Colombians representing indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, women’s groups and business leaders from the agricultural sector are meeting this week in Bogota to put forward their ideas about rural development and land reform.
The three-day event, organised by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and Colombia’s National University, is being held at the request of peace negotiators from the two sides. They say it’s important for ordinary Colombians to be involved in the peace process and are asking for their views on land reform.
For those taking part, it’s an important opportunity to make their voices heard.
“It’s a chance, however minimal, for me to express myself and raise awareness about the plight of indigenous people,” said Regino Yepez, who heads a farming association of indigenous communities in Cauca, a volatile province in northwestern Colombia.
Others hope peace negotiators will discuss how to improve the lives of Colombia’s estimated 10 million farmers.
The UNDP says around 60 percent of Colombians in the countryside live in poverty - double the rate of poverty found in the cities.
The other big problem is land ownership, concentrated in the hands of powerful landowners and cattle ranchers. In 2011, the UNDP estimated 52 percent of Colombia’s agricultural land is owned by just 1.15 percent of the population.
“I’m here at this event because I feel it’s important that peace negotiators take into account the farmers, those who don’t own land and the ones who’ve been forcibly displaced from their lands. It’s the farmers who’ve been most affected by the conflict,” said Manuel Vargas, who heads a farmers association in Antioquia province.
The FARC started out as a Marxist agrarian movement but later turned to the cocaine trade, kidnapping and extortion to fuel its war coffers.
Over the decades FARC rebels, along with right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, have snatched swathes of land to gain control of strategic corridors for smuggling cocaine and arms.
The government estimates seven million hectares of land have been stolen during the last 25 years through violence, extortion and fraud by armed groups. This land grabbing is the main reason why around four million Colombians have fled their land.
Candelaria Moreno, a community leader from impoverished Choco province, hopes to raise awareness of the hardships women there face.
“We hope the suffering we have to live through reaches the negotiators in Havana. The forced recruitment of children by illegal armed groups, all the violence, the struggle to feed our children. They need to be aware of the realities on the ground,” she said.
While most Colombians welcome the peace talks with the FARC, optimism that a peace agreement will happen by November 2013, the deadline set by the government, is waning.
A recent opinion poll published in the local press showed that 54 percent of Colombians believe a peace deal won’t be reached, while 56 percent disapprove of the government’s secrecy over the peace talks.
“I want to believe in peace and be positive about it. But it’s hard for Colombians to believe in a positive outcome with three previous failed peace processes. How many peace processes do we have to go through?" asked Jairo Prado, a farming community leader.
To encourage Colombians to take part in the peace process, the government has set up a website where citizens can submit proposals to peace negotiators on land reform and other issues on the agenda, including the drug trade, victims’ rights, and FARC participation in politics. So far, nearly 3,000 proposals have been sent.
In addition, over the last two months ‘regional peace commissions’ overseen by Colombia’s Congress have been travelling round the country. They have collected suggestions from nearly 2,300 people on land reform and other issues on the negotiating table.
Some want more roads to be built so that farmers can get their goods to market, others urge the government to give farmers more technical training and better access to loans for fertilizers and equipment. Other proposals call for tighter regulation of mining and oil exploration rights awarded to multinationals, the prompt return of stolen land to its rightful owners, and the resolution of land tenure problems.
Whether the distant negotiators will consider the proposals, only time will tell.
What is certain is that unless the land issue is resolved, there’s little chance of the peace talks making serious progress and achieving a lasting peace in Colombia.