After years of arduous negotiation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and months of negotiation with his political opposition, President Juan Manuel Santos finally secured Congressional approval for the implementation of a peace accord with the country’s largest rebel group. If there is to be any hope for lasting peace in Colombia, key issues regarding sustainable development and social justice throughout the countryside must be addressed. Regardless of the specific terms agreed upon by political and civil society actors, formalized rural development and the preservation of natural resources must be at the center of Colombia’s peacebuilding policies during the coming years.
Today, Colombia’s economy consists of 59 percent services, 34 percent manufacturing, and only 7 percent agriculture. Therefore, the Colombian government and its mostly urban electoral base, particularly workers in the manufacturing and service industries, have little interest in matters of agriculture, community-specific land grants, and territorial redistribution.
In a sense, the armed conflict planted the seeds of apathy towards Colombia’s most central issues by displacing people from the rural zones into the cities, resulting in large numbers of citizens who are disconnected from the countryside. Thus, issues relating to sustainable rural development that were central to the national agenda 50 years ago have been replaced by the central government’s desire to consolidate its control through the forceful pacification and integration of the national territory. However, the presence of the state in remote areas can facilitate environmental degradation and corruption, particularly when the state institutions in these regions are weak or detached from the central government.
Colombia has a Gini coefficient above 50, a rating indicative of the prevailing economic gap between social classes, making it one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. For decades, this wealth inequality and the neglect of vulnerable communities have been at the root of Colombia’s armed conflict. As a developing nation, the Colombian government struggles to consolidate its authority in the most peripheral parts of its sparsely populated domestic territory, such as the southern departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. Colombia’s natural complexity, combined with its vast territory of over 1 million square kilometers, almost twice the size of Texas, has impeded the implementation of a comprehensive nation-building agenda.
The absence of government institutions and basic social services in peripheral regions has sowed the neglect that led thousands of people to join armed groups such as the FARC. The lack of socioeconomic integration has allowed the creation of independent sub-economies of subsistence and the negligent exploitation of natural resources by non-state actors active throughout the country.
Problematic practices such as environmental degradation and abuse occur most in the geographic regions that are beyond the reach of the state’s institutions. Activities such as illegal mining and logging, and the widespread cultivation of crops destined for illicit drug production, prevail in areas where non-state actors fill the void left by the national government. These regions tend to be rich in natural resources and are likely to fall into the hands of abusive companies, drug cartels, and armed groups that become the de facto authorities and go about their activities unchecked. Regions where the local population or the few government institutions in place feel detached from the rest of the nation are prone to widespread corruption, abuse of power, or even secessionist movements.
In the short term, the Colombian government should focus on nation building through socioeconomic integration by extending its reach within the national territory; a responsibility that it has never fulfilled completely. This can be achieved through concerted state efforts such as the building of vital infrastructure as well as organized and sustainable private sector investment. The implementation of international treaties and protocols, such as the Paris Agreement, will also entail a positive state presence in peripheral regions of the country.
These initiatives allow the state to be present while at the same time preserving biodiversity and creating well-managed natural reserves, without urbanizing. Furthermore, the creation of scientific research centers in rural communities and natural reserves would serve as a way to create national cohesion by employing local labor and facilitating education initiatives for peripheral populations. Therefore, in order to both consolidate the integrity of the state and achieve a healthier degree of social equality, the Colombian political class needs to engage in concerted efforts to empower and protect the peripheral regions of the country.
Glenn Ojeda Vega is an emerging markets consultant in Latin America. He earned his BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014. Glenn is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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