I’m reading the Colombia-FARC peace agreement, so you don’t have to

A wonderful coincidence, I got to see the Colombian government signing its long-awaited peace agreement with the FARC while spending time at home last week. I will admit I got goosebumps when watching the signing ceremony in Cuba. A shadow of their former selves, the FARC have nonetheless caused awful damage in Colombia for the last 52 years, and really get a prize for taking what was a standard Latin America guerrilla war and plunging it into a real-life horror movie. Hence, if we now have the chance to get them out of the mountains and eliminate their structures, I am, in principle, all for it.

Partly because it’s the right thing to do, and partly because of political considerations eerily reminiscent of Brexit-like calculations, the government agreed to submit any peace deal to a referendum (I’ll spare you the controversy on whether this step was required or even legal, but suffice to say that the Constitutional Court gave its blessing over the summer).

A few weeks before the deal got signed, the Colombian opposition, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, made official its intention to oppose any deal in the upcoming referendum. Since coming home, I’ve had multiple discussions with friends and, well, everyone from parking attendants to fellow trail runners, on whether the deal “sells the country to the FARC,” “fundamentally violates the Rule of Law,” or “it’s a good step in the right direction.”

So far, I’ve let my pragmatism guide me. I don’t think this deal is a panacea or will fundamentally eradicate the deep social issues at the root of Colombia’s troubles. I also believe that a meaningful number of guerrillas will not demobilize and find ways of staying in the drug trade. However, I rather have the largest military infrastructure opposing the government dismantled, and, as wise friend of mine says, I’d rather have FARC leadership stealing money in Congress like everyone else than planning attacks out in the mountains.

Now that the accords are published, my pragmatic approach no longer cuts it. I’ve decided, then, to read the peace deal in its glorious 297 pages and see for myself whether it does sell out the country and whether it’s something I can support. There are six chapters overall, and I plan on writing up my thoughts and summaries of each of them in the coming week or two. Today, I’ll cover the critical chapter on land and agricultural reform.

A couple of important caveats

  • I think the FARC are just awful. Truly. My support for the peace deal does not mean — at all — that I’m suddenly sympathizing with these folks.
  • I start from the premise that if you are negotiating terms with someone (as opposed to delivering instruments of unconditional surrender) you will have to give up some stuff in return. Most likely, that will mean lower or reduced sentences, if sentences at all. That’s the cost of doing business. If you disagree, that’s fair (I mean, so did the Allies in WWII), but then I’d hope you will advocate an escalation of the conflict to ensure that surrender is militarily achieved.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s delve into Chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Towards a New Colombian Countryside — Integral Reform to the Rural Areas

This chapter is crucial and unique. While the rest of the agreement deals with very specific FARC issues (e.g., how they will participate in politics, how they will demobilize, how they’ll be judged), this chapter instead deals with the issues of economic and social development in the rural areas. If you buy the FARC’s populist and rural rhetoric, then this is where we, the Colombian state, will concede on a number of points to meet the FARC’s longstanding pro-rural agenda. As a result, this chapter is the perfect place to sell the country out.

The chapter does none of that. Instead, I found it to be a combination of tendentious if harmless old-school leftist rhetoric, a restating of things that should be so-obvious but that are not in our current context, and a number of policy proposals that, on a standalone basis, sound quite promising and should probably happen with or without a peace deal, but only after a thoughtful discussion on how to pay for them and over what period. My less charitable self just say this chapter is the world’s most negotiated and expensive Model UN resolution. Cute, but impractical.

That said, the entrepreneur and technologist in me gets really excited about the potential to bring technology to the countryside with transformative effects. If the basic groundwork is there (clear land titles, empowered farmers), then I think technology can go a long way in meeting some of the goals of the chapter, albeit from a capitalist standpoint. I’ll probably be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

I’ll skip the principles and the preamble (Pages 10–11 of the official document), as they all motherhood and apple pie, and focus on the highlights from the three subsequent sections.

Increasing access to land for small-scale farmers and rural communities (mostly from section 1.1)

The government has committed to establishing a National Land Endowment (Fondo de Tierras, page 11–12) of 3 million hectares (~7.4mm acres). This endowment will give out land grants to those rural communities and small-scale farmers that either don’t have land, lost their land, or have insufficient land. Additionally, the government will establish two new financing mechanism to assist small-scale farmers and rural communities:

  • A new rural subsidies program to facilitate land purchases when the Land Endowment is, I guess, either not applicable or not enough.
  • A new subsidized-credit program to facilitate land purchases when neither the Land Endowment nor the actual subsidies are enough.

The government will further develop a mechanism to ensure only the real small-scale farmers and rural communities can have access to these programs and will particularly pay attention to women and minorities. Lastly, for a period of seven years, the lands acquired or granted through these programs are exempt from foreclosure.

In principle, this sounds reasonable. Small-scale farmers have been the most affected by the conflict and a large number of them (as in millions) have left the countryside in the last twenty years to escape the conflict. In a not-small number of cases, their lands have been taken over by large-scale interests. If we can reverse that process and provide rural communities with a real shot at economic empowerment, that’s great.

It all comes down to implementation and cost. The deal does not specify where the the 3mm hectares are coming from, and in fact goes so far as to call for donations into the land endowment (page 13), as clear a sign as any that nobody has any idea what is going on. Given our recent history, I’m skeptical of any large-scale, centrally-driven program that allocates resources and credit, even more so if it first has to determine who is real enough of a farmer to qualify for it. Furthermore, I’m not sure how we can quantify the expense behind this program without having at least a census of the small-scale farmers and communities that would qualify for it.

Net/net — This initiative could become a large-scale boondoggle. I’d bet that the government will have neither the will nor the resources to fund it at a large enough scale to become one. Instead, some marginal improvements will happen (I hope). Expect nepotism.

Expand (and create where nonexistent) a clear census of rural property titles and property taxes (sections 1.1.5 and 1.1.9).

Excellent. This is overdue, and despite recent evidence, I remain a big fan of De Soto’s work. If the country can get a real and enforceable title census and registry for its rural areas, that makes this deal almost worth it on its own. No clear mention of cost and implementation plans, as you would expect.

Clear boundaries on agricultural and protected lands (section 1.1.10)

I’m biased here, as I think national park systems are great and that we have a duty to protect our natural resources. Another great idea. However, we should note that Colombia already has an extensive park system, and that does not prevent illegal mining and poaching within its territories. How are we going to enforce it? Who will pay for it?

Creation of a National Plan for rural reform (Section 1.3)

The goal is to reduce poverty by 50% over the next 10 years in rural areas. I mean, sure, but do we have any historical precedents for a reduction that large?

  • Development of National Plan for Infrastructure on rural and secondary/tertiary roads (Section 1.3.1.1)— Again, this falls in the MUN-resolution category. In principle, I don’t think anyone would object to this. But, who pays for it? Over what time frame?
  • Development of a national irrigation plan with best practices (Section 1.3.1.2) — See above. Similar concerns.
  • Innovate approaches for health access in rural areas, including telemedicine (1.3.2.1) — Potentially awesome. Could be potentially even more awesome if the government allows solutions from private sector entrepreneurs.
  • Incentivize small-scale agriculture, cooperatives, and the “solidarity economy” (1.3.3) — Another proposal with potentially positive impact (e.g., improving yields, more efficient agriculture) but also clear potential for an unwieldy bureaucracy with limited impact. I’d also imagine my friends on the Colombian right would get paranoid about the expression “solidarity economy) and would say that is the birth of the Castro-Chavez ideology in the country. I say… Sure.
  • Develop marketing and economic strategies for the rural economy (1.3.3.4). OK. I get really excited about this one. This calls for the government to build sustainable marketing (though I think they mean go-to-market) strategies for rural farmers and communities. I’m not sure the government or the FARC has really thought about how to do this. And yet, I think technology here has a massive role to play. The ability to integrate vertically, and also integrate the local markets internationally is massive. I’ll be writing about this more in the days to come.
  • Lastly, formalize labor standards; end child labor, foster coops, etc. (1.3.3.5). Sure. However, this section does call for the creation of yet another government agency to address these standards. Not optimistic.

If you have read this far, thanks for staying with me. These highlights should give you a sense of why I see this chapter as glorified MUN resolution. A lot of very-cool, almost-common-sense proposals, with limited discussion on cost and trade-offs. None of them, however, would qualify in my mind as country-selling or a meaningful change to our economic system. If anything, a very cynical person could say that the government managed to demobilize the FARC by selling them the Brooklyn Bridge.

Hopefully, even if poorly implemented, they can improve the lot of those who have borne the brunt of the war so far. Personally, and I’ve said this twice already, I think technology here can play a huge role in making this chapter’s proposals a sustainable success.

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