The Peace Laboratories of the European Union: Europe’s Plan Colombia?
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
18th December 2005
What is the European Union’s game in Colombia? When the Clinton government announced its anti-narcotics strategy, Plan Colombia, many human rights and social organisations spoke out against it, correctly describing it as a military plan that sought to take advantage of an anti-drugs discourse in order to reposition the USA militarily and economically in the continent. Time has proved those critics right. Today we see an increase in US personnel levels in the country and a race to get their hands on the natural resources and the assets of the state.
The European Union as a whole did not support Plan Colombia due to its high military content. They said that they would carry out social investment in order to strengthen civil society and to support peace building and in line with that, these investments would not form part of the misnamed social component of Plan Colombia. It is presumed that the peace laboratories are that contribution.
Generally the ‘Peace Laboratories’ are presented and perceived as a ‘European’ strategy in the field of aid for development and peace. The name itself states that it is a concept at odds with military and belligerence; it relates pacific with what is ‘European’ in opposition to the predominantly military actions related to the traditional policies of the United States of America in Colombia.(1)But are they really that different to the social component of Plan Colombia? If Plan Colombia through its social projects sought to pacify its critics and at the same time implant production models that prepared the ground for the free trade agreements, what then does the European Union seek with its Peace Laboratories? And what is their role in the Colombian conflict?
It is not easy to unravel the European proposal given that the EU is not that transparent with information beyond generalities about peace, development and welfare etc. The USA was and continues to be more explicit about its plans for the country, a worrying factor in and of itself.
Chris Patten announced the first peace laboratory as a plan to build peace from below; to strengthen the judicial system in Colombia and to help the victims of the conflict, particularly the displaced. However, in the same communiqué Patten points out that the EU has an economic interest in Colombia as according to himself FDI amounted to 880 million euros in 1999. But at the same time he announced, that large amounts of capital would only enter the country if there was stability.
That comment is not a minor one if we bear in mind that in recent years many multinationals were awarded various state companies (privatised as part of Plan Colombia). In May 2003 Chris Patten was much more explicit about the EU’s intentions in Colombia and stated that
The EU institutions are not the only ones to believe in Colombia. European companies also do. The EU is the leading source of foreign investment in this country, which serves both to demonstrate and to magnify our stake in the search for a negotiated solution to the conflict. We want to do all we can to foster these economic ties... We will also try to boost these economic ties further by working for a successful outcome to the ongoing WTO trade round. For us, the Doha Round must not only liberalise market access, but also promote a wider development agenda…
This pronouncement looks like a communiqué before a round of the WTO or the signing of some commercial agreement and has little to do with its peace proposals. It seems that the EU has its own interests in Colombia and its plans are not just the mere benevolence that they try to feign. It is significant that the EU has a good image in Colombia as a disinterested and benevolent actor (unlike the USA). Their intentions and proposals in Colombia have never received the same amount of critiques as those of the USA, neither have they been put under the microscope to the same degree. In some cases the imperialist role of Europe in Africa and Asia is forgotten, in other cases it is ignored. It is a role just as bloody if not more so than that which the USA played and continues to play in Latin America. It is not history but current. One only has to think of the role of France in the massacres in Rwanda and Zaire or the support that the white regime of South Africa received from Great Britain until the fall of apartheid. They also deliberately ignore that the US domination of the American continent dates from the first half of the 20th Century, as Great Britain disputed its influence with the USA even in the race to build the Panama Canal. The Second World War gave the final blow to British imperialism in the continent. Since then they have been seeking a replay.
The EU rarely explains what its intentions for the country are and we are limited to the inept comments of the ex governor of Hong Kong and failed British conservative politician, Chris Patten. However, recently the EU has published an evaluation of the first peace laboratory that shines some Light on what are the real thoughts of the “benevolent” Europeans that invest so much in the “search for peace” in the country.
But before we look at the content of the said document it is worth remembering that
The study of the relevant documents of the Colombian government and the multilateral organisms show us that the design, development and implementation of the so called Peace Laboratories are not that ‘originally’ European but form part of the integral policy of ‘peace and development’ shared by the Colombian government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank (WB) and the EU amongst others.(2)If we look at the projects of the EU we see that there is a continuity between Plan Colombia and the Peace Laboratories as they promote the same agricultural development model. In Magdalena Medio the EU promotes the monocultures of African palm, rubber and cocoa just as Plan Colombia did and what is more in the exact same areas. One takes up where the other left off and it couldn’t be otherwise as the agency used by the EU to implement its projects is the same agency that acted for Plan Colombia, the World Bank and USAID (agency of the US government currently “developing” Iraq). The Programme for Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio (PDPMM) is the largest manager of international funds in the region which gives it huge political and economic power and it is the natural counterpart of the EU due to its experience, ability and not least its ideological position to bring the farming communities to play within the economic aperture and not to oppose this same aperture which has ruined Colombian agriculture.
Perhaps the most complete public document
about the peace laboratories is the evaluation report about the first peace
laboratory. This shines some light on what they intend to do in Magdalena
Medio and especially in the strategic area of Southern Bolivar. There
are three topics of interest, African palm, mining and the so called peace
process with the paramilitaries.
The EU promotes African palm in the same way as Plan Colombia and USAID. In its opinion
It is difficult for the peasant economy to provide a sufficient economic base to meet the needs of the majority of the rural population. Especially in as far as are market prices are concerned the problems that the Programme [PDPMM] has had in supporting traditional peasant food crops (manioc, corn, etc.) show that the development of the peasant economy is difficult to base on efforts aimed at just the traditional peasant crops.(3) From that flows that the production of leader crops with a relatively high valued added (for example, African palm, cocoa, rubber) in association is considered by the Programme as an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and marginalisation of many farmers in the region.(4)
Whilst it may be true that the peasant economy finds difficulty in satisfying the needs of the population, the EU completely ignores an important factor in the crisis of the peasant sector which is, apart from the traditional abandonment by the state, the economic aperture. The economic aperture in the 1990s produced a loss of thousands of hectares of land and currently continues to produce such losses.
…el DANE [national statistics body] revealed an industrial growth rate of 2.4% in the first seven months of the year . On the other hand, the agricultural information shows a monumental contraction in the short cycle crops such as rice, cotton, soya and sorghum etc. It is certain that the agricultural area will decrease relative to last year and with difficulty the production will increase by more than 2.5%. The country has returned to the first years of the aperture…(5)The EU is not worried much by the threat to the food sovereignty of Colombia(6) s they are also a destination for the exotic products such as palm oil. In fact Great Britain consumes half of the Colombian exports of this product. Behind their statement that the peasant economy cannot satisfy the needs of the peasantry lies an ideological refrain that tries to justify monocultures. As Mondragón says “The historic operation of peasant evictions has been projected and hidden for a long time by an ideology that denies any possibility for the peasant economy and sees in the peasant, distinct from the large landowners, an obstacle for development.(7)
The peasant when he tries to satisfy his needs does not do so in the same conditions as the large landowner or the multinational company. Well, he receives less credit and fewer subsidies from the state. As Suárez points out…
…despite the credits awarded by the Fund for the Financing of the Agrofishery Sector (FINAGRO) to all the members of the agrofishery chains increasing in the last two years from little more than a billion pesos in 2002 to 1.8 billion in 2004, the small scale producers barely represent 6% of the total. Equally in accordance with the tendencies in the sector in recent years they continued to promote the sowing of tropical crops such as palm, rubber, tropical fruits and cocoa; moreover, in order to do this, on top of everything they gave tax relief to those that produce them.(8)
In the EU and Plan Colombia projects etc, with a leader crop such as African palm we also see an imbalance in the sharing out of credit. Between 1999 and 2003 the small scale producer of African palm (including the Strategic Alliances) received 26.5% of all credits approved by FINAGRO. However, they barely received 0.1% of the credit approved by FINAGRO for the maintenance of the palm crops! They get involved in the work and then they receive almost nothing in terms of credits or subsidies.(9)
If the peasant received 94% of the FINAGRO money rather than 6% and if they were the ones who enjoyed the tax breaks, perhaps the peasantry could meet their own needs. To talk of the inefficiency of one and the efficiency of the other when the large producer is subsidised by the poor is a neoliberal ideological position without any basis in reality and is moreover cynical. However, it is the basis for European policy in Colombia. The Colombian peasant is not inefficient, he simply does not receive the same credits, tax breaks etc. as the large landowners.
Also when he tries to compete with the foreign imports he is not able to do so. He is, once again, inefficient, if we believe the EU and other neoliberals. Here he has to compete with huge subsidies received from the USA and EU by the large companies such as Cargill one of the largest companies in terms of grains and cereals. Despite being one of the largest private companies in the world, the North American tax payer subsidises it in order for it to compete with the peasants of the world, amongst which are the Colombians. However, for the EU the problem resides with the peasant and not with the system that they impose and now through the Peace Laboratories seek to convince the peasant to accept.
The other part of the peace laboratories is related to what is termed associative work. This model has expanded throughout Colombia where workers associate in small cooperatives and work as a small company but they are the ones who take charge of all of the costs, social security, uniforms, tools etc. and not the boss who limits himself to contract them for hours or piece work. Under the ideology of associated work, both are businessmen and share a common interest but in reality the members of the cooperatives are the same workers of yesterday without any rights and with an inferior salary. With the peasants, they produce for the companies under contracts where they assume all costs of production but with contractual obligations that turn them into a poorly paid employee on their own land.(10) In effect the companies become the real owners of the land or at least its permanent usufructories.
This model is backed by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank which praises the model and particularly the company INDUPALMA in San Alberto where the trade union was broken in the 1990s, a process which ended with the murder of trade union leaders in the midst of negotiations.
Associated work is now the policy of the Colombian state and also of the paramilitaries. In Chocó where the paramilitaries have expelled the black communities from their collectively owned lands, they proposed a strategic alliance between the paramilitary “businessmen” and the displaced. Faced with the negative response of the communities the state opted to legalise the theft of lands by the paramilitaries. In the context of the Magdalena Medio, Álvaro Uribe in the conference of the Sociedad de Agricultores de Colombia (Society of Farmers of Colombia, SAC) in 2001 said “If we are going to set up in Barrancabermeja an associated peasant company, we should demand of those beneficiaries that they must integrate into an efficient company in San Alberto in order that associated peasants and businessmen with a tradition of efficiency vouch for the good fortune of those projects.”(11)
Uribe puts into practice what he announced in the conference of SAC and the paramilitaries continue to emulate him. The reference to San Alberto is not fortuitous; it is an area of African palm and is dominated by the paramilitaries where various trade union leaders of palm oil companies such as INDUPALMA have been murdered.
The EU document recognises that there are problems with the palm crops. It says that the peasants are vulnerable in the face of the market, particularly in the case of African palm because it is a monoculture.
In relation to the market and marketing processes peasant production is characterised by the following traits, amongst others: it is weak and vulnerable in the market because it offers small quantities; it has a diminished storage capacity; restricted access to credit; frequent indebtedness; peripheral geographic location; it depends on the immediate sale to intermediaries in relation to the harvest, which results in low prices. All of these factors represent risks for the productive projects of the Laboratory with a leader crop. These risks are particularly notable in the case of the African palm project as it is a monoculture with a perishable intermediate product and requires access to technological “packages” and new technical assistance as amongst the peasants of the region a palm “culture” does not yet exist.
In the case of palm (and to a lesser degree the crops of cocoa and rubber) the peasants continue to be direct producers of primary materials and they have no autonomous control over the technological packages needed to begin planting the crops. At the same time they lack any control over other key stages which create a higher value added such as the chain of processing (extraction, refining) and the commercialisation of the final product, oil.(12)
With these recommendations it clear to be seen that to this day such studies do not exist. They ignore that the proposal for palm is an old one and precedes even Plan Colombia as the PDPMM has been promoting its supposed “peasant palm” since the 1990s, though it didn’t actually begin planting till 2000. In an interview with this author in 2002, the director of the PDPMM, Francisco de Roux stated that they had studies on the viability of African palm and of the entry of the peasant farmer to the said market. He even stated that they had plans for a refinery. In other words he sold the tale to the peasant saying that they had all the studies that the EU say are lacking and it follows were always lacking even when they were trying to convince the peasant farmer.
But what is the EU doing proposing and financing projects that are not based on adequate studies? Do they not care what happens to the peasant farmer? Or are there other interests in play?
In a best case scenario it is naive to think of the peasant control over the chain of production. There is absolutely no possibility that the peasants gain control over other stages in the chain of production. One only has to look at the production of coffee. Colombia is one of the three largest producers in the world in terms of volume and also in terms of value. However, Germany produces more toasted coffee (final product) than Colombia. In fact Colombia doesn’t really figure as an exporter of toasted coffee; it occupies 43rd place in world terms. This situation is due to the very nature of the Colombian economy as a producer of primary material. If after more than 100 years of coffee growing in Colombia neither the peasants nor the large landowners have managed a significant control over the production and exporting of toasted coffee, what possibility is there that they do so now with other products in the midst of an economic aperture? In case the EU doesn’t know how to respond the answer is simple; no possibility. It is naive or deceitful to speak otherwise. Such a change would require changes in the neoliberal policies of the EU and also in the very Colombian state. With the other leader crop, cocoa it is true that the peasant can gain some control over production, but only on a small scale as two companies, Empresa Nacional de Chocolates and Luker S.A. represent 87% of the market.
There is another serious problem raised by the report which is that
At the moment an accelerated process of concentration of the best lands of the region in a few hands is being Developer. The drug trafficking groups and the paramilitaries launder or formalise their capital through the purchasing of estates for pasture or for large scale economic projects (African palm, cattle ranching).(13)And furthermore
It is worth taking note that in the large productive projects, such as African palm, apart from the peasant participants there are other opposing interests amongst different actors such as the guerrillas, paramilitaries, agroindustrial producers and coca manufactures and traffickers.(14)At this point in time they could hardly deny it as the paramilitaries themselves have publicly stated that they support the palm crops. Vicente Castaño acknowledged in an interview with the Colombian magazine Semana that they are behind the palm crops in Chocó where the black communities have been expelled from their collective lands. The Centauros Block [of the paramilitaries] also announced in June 2004 that they intend to plant 30,000 hectares as a “natural” barrier to the insurgency.
Although the EU does not wish to acknowledge it, their support for the palm crops forms part of a debate on the future of Colombian agriculture and they and their intermediaries give ideological cover to the process of expansion of palm and the monoculture system.
In the department of Chocó, where the black communities have been expelled from their lands, the “businessmen” supported by the paramilitaries proposed that the communities return to their land and that they adopt the same associative model that Plan Colombia and the EU have promoted throughout the Magdalena Medio. Faced with the negative response of the communities, INCODER (Colombian Institute for Rural Development) legalised the theft and handed over 10,000 hectares of collective inalienable land belonging to the communities to the paramilitaries. Neither is it fortuitous that in Cesar where there are already large extensions of land under palm it is considered as a project to reinsert paramilitaries into society and they say that they will seek foreign funding to finance it.
In the case of mining, although the authors of the EU report do not recognise it there are other interests at stake. Companies such as the Anglogold Ashanti multinational operating under the name Kedahda S.A. The report says that they EU wants to promote mining in Southern Bolívar where the largest gold deposits in the world are to be found, worked by thousands of craft miners. The report recognises that there are fears about the reinsertion of paramilitaries in the area. Their wish is that this doesn’t happen however, their policies contradict this. On the one hand the EU says that it supports “peace process” with the paramilitaries and the EU has stated this on various occasions. For peace process they understand Santa Fe de Ralito where the paramilitary chiefs rest but from where they continue to coordinate their organisation. The report says that “In recent months the dialogue with the government and the paramilitaries has begun. In addition to the dialogue zone in Santa Fe de Ralito there will also be a dialogue zone in Southern Bolívar.(15)
The dialogue zone in Southern Bolívar will be a dialogue with the paramilitaries as under no circumstances could one have imagined at that point in time that it would be with the ELN and less still with FARC which is not dominant throughout the area. They are only dominant in the southernmost part and the paramilitaries in Southern Bolívar are candidates for a misnamed “demobilisation” which requires territory.
This dialogue could take place in the mining zone as there is a so called Humanitarian Space there and according to the report the EU aims to strengthen
...its organisations [of the communities] and generate spaces of dialogue and negotiation; the principal parts implicated in the conflict will be called together and establish fundamental agreements(16) to deal with the principal causes of the conflict and generate a space to protect the life, work and education of the communities.(17)
The aim, according to the document is to turn Southern Bolívar into the first area without coca and without conflict which requires a regional dialogue that includes the paramilitaries. The director of the PDPMM Francisco de Roux has repeatedly stated that “Magdalena Medio will be built by everyone”. Everyone, according to the director includes the paramilitaries (but he adds that they must change).
What is most worrying is that 10 years ago the paramilitaries tried to take the zone in order to hand over the mining resources to the multinational mining companies. The social organisations managed to stop the entry of the companies. However, nowadays in the context of a peace laboratory and a humanitarian space in the mining zone a new multinational is taking over the mines.
Kedahda S.A. is a subsidiary of the multinational Anglogold Ashanti and it now has one area in Southern Bolivar under its own name and two others in the name of the substitute manager. In this business appears a person well known to the small craft miners, Luisa Fernanda Aramburo Restrepo who was the lawyer that represented the multinational Corona Gold Fields and the Illera Palacio family who tried to take over the mines in the 1990s. She was also the author of the Mining Code of the Samper government. The Mining Code included articles that aimed to hand over the mines of Southern Bolívar not just to the multinationals but significantly it contained an article which exclusively favoured the company that she represented, Corona Gold Fields. The code was declared unconstitutional. Apart from representing the mining multinationals Ms Aramburo was one of two partners of the Empresa Minera San Lucas.(18)
Now Aramburo has returned to torment the small scale miners as she is part of the board of directors of Kedahda S.A. and the only Colombian on it. It is noteworthy that this company has no difficulties in entering a zone where the multinationals couldn’t enter before. The future of the miners is uncertain as the new Mining Code of the Pastrana government which was also drawn up by the lawyers of the multinationals favours them. The policy of the EU of negotiation and the ideological position of the PDPMM that the country is to built by everyone (including the paramilitaries) puts the people of the area at a disadvantage as they will come under pressure to reach agreements with the multinational. Ten years ago the miners were called to take part in a conciliation with the Illera Palacio family(19), conmen and usurpers that had no right over the mines. However, their lack of rights over the mines did not prevent them from trying to convince the miners that they had to arrive at an agreement with the said family.
Today when the EU says that it wants to promote small scale mining in Southern Bolívar they resort to deceit, as in legal terms, the concept of the small miner no longer exists. In the new Mining Code there only exists mining without any distinction between large scale and small scale mining. Here the communities run the risk of facilitating the entry of the multinational companies.
What the EU and the PDPMM propose with the humanitarian spaces is to demobilise the communities and wrest from them their mobilising power. As the report highlights the laboratory (read PDPMM) has become a “space for the exchange of ideas, debate and the search for solutions for different regional problems relating the sub regional and regional at a national and international level.”
Nowadays the mobilising power of the communities is increasingly weaker and that of the PDPMM greater. The zone has lived through a food and medicine blockade by the paramilitaries and the state forces (now somewhat waned). The leaders of the zone that signed the agreements with the Pastrana government in 1998 where murdered, disappeared and charged with crimes. All of the social organisations in Southern Bolívar take part in or want to take part in the laboratories. It is no so much an ideological affinity or trust; rather in the midst of poverty it is difficult for an organisation to reject offers of money for projects. Whilst it is true that the social organisations have been able to on certain occasions bow the PDPMM and oblige them to finance projects that are genuinely of the community(20), the PDPMM is increasingly in a position to replace them or impose their ideological criteria of economic aperture, dialogue and accommodation with the paramilitaries. As one farmers’ leader said “we are conscious that the food crop projects are the carrot with which they try to bring in their projects of palm and rubber monocultures.”(21)
The offensive against the leaders hasn’t ceased. The most recent arrests were carried out in October 2005 when three leaders and participants in the humanitarian space of Micoahumado, municipality of Morales, were arrested and accused of rebellion. The EU has not pronounced itself on the arrests but it has made pronouncements about the agreements with the paramilitaries where they vouch for and support them.
Now that the social organisations have various projects financed by the PDPMM and laboratories, nor will they be able to resist political pressures if future or current projects are in jeopardy. Money is power and the EU is clearly in favour of a dialogue with the paramilitaries and the economic aperture. The laboratories are a mechanism to break the resistance to those policies and are not an attempt to achieve peace.
If one wanted to set up a peace laboratory in an area hit hard by violence and where the community was organised in their own peace initiative one wouldn’t choose the Magdalena Medio as first choice rather the Urabá region of Chocó and Antioquia. There are a number of communities there that have been resisting the paramilitaries and they are well organised. We refer to the communities of resistance in Jiguimindó, Cacarica etc. and also San José de Apartadó. They declared themselves against the presence of any armed actor including the armed forces of the State and the police in their territories. They rejected the attempt by Uribe, when he was governor of Antioquia, to militarise their communities and involve them in the conflict on the side of the police and the army. Today, these are the same communities, particularly those of Chocó, who oppose the large paramilitary African palm projects. And what of the EU and its peace proposals? Well it seems that in the search for peace they are not interested in those stubborn communities that are not willing to be used for the expansion of agro industrial capital. What the EU is interested in is not exactly peace but capitalist “development”.
What will the future look like?
If Colombia and the Magdalena Medio continue along the path outlined for them by the EU, the World Bank, USA etc. the future will be desolate. In Colombia there are various examples of what happens when a region gambles on a monoculture and agroindustry in detriment to the peasant farming communities. It is sufficient to look at Valle de Cauca where less then 60 years ago it gave a panorama of forests, rivers, animals and high level of biodiversity now replaced by the monotony of the monoculture of sugar cane.(22) That change was also promoted by foreign capital.
But we don’t have to look that far back in history. We can look at the monocultures of pine and eucalyptus in Quindío where they have replaced fields for green deserts. Quindío like Valle de Cauca imports its food from other parts of Colombia and abroad when before it used to produce a large part of it. In San Alberto so eulogised by Uribe and in Puerto Wilches (both palm municipalities) how many peasant farmers are there?
What is at stake is not just the future of the peasant farmers, but of Colombia itself. The food sovereignty and security is at stake. The aim is for Colombia to import its food and export exotic crops such as cocoa, palm oil etc.
A country which depends on the importation of such basic products as cereals is a weak country when it comes to defending its own interests. In the negotiations for the free trade agreement the USA declared that if the treaty wasn’t signed they would not renew the preferential system for certain Colombian exports (ATPDEA), which caused the government to tremble. What is stopping the EU or the USA in the future from forcing Colombia to change its policies through the threat to cut off the food supply (not produced in Colombia but imported from the USA or the EU). Or if that scenario is difficult to imagine, well they simply stop buying Colombian products (situation which could happen for the simple reason of obtaining a better price elsewhere).
For the USA the question of feeding its population is a question of national security. They understand that any country that cannot provide for itself in basic items is weak and could be defeated in a war or in international politics in times of peace. “The expansion of international trade is vital for the security of the United States[...] The trade agreements serve the same purpose as the security pacts during the Cold War.”(23)
Although the EU isn’t as forthright in what it says its support for the attempt to defeat the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein through a food blockade shows that they understand the power of control over food. The Colombian peasant farmer self sufficient in food crops or at least not totally dependent on imported products upsets that relationship. With the aim of imposing themselves they recur to deceit telling the peasant farmer that he is poor because he chose the wrong product and it has nothing to do with the structure of the world economy. The never tell the peasant how many products he could buy in the long term with the money received for his exotic product, because if they were to make such a comparison the farmer would see things in a different light. The person who has done such a study is Vandana Shiva and she calculates that with the flowers and shrimps grown in India they can only buy one quarter of what they could have grown on the same land when one takes into account all of the expenses associated with the crop.
But if one wants to believe in the bonafides of the EU’s productive proposals, one has to ask why does the EU link its proposals for helping the farmer to accepting a process of negotiation with the paras? The question is not a minor one, if they really wanted to help the poor there would be no need to link it to the process with the paras and neither would there be any need to tie it to Colombian support for the EU positions in the WTO negotiation rounds. However, these links are made because what the EU is doing is disputing terrain with the USA for the future of the Colombian market and the political domination of such a strategic country. In the sense that Plan Colombia was a disguised strategy to dominate the country the peace laboratories are Europe’s Plan Colombia. And as always there are those who in exchange for some crumbs from the table of the EU are willing to handover the country: the Latin Uncle Toms, the house slaves who venerate the master sacrificing the field slaves to suffer the whiplash of the master.