The Netherlands may have found in Colombia a strategic partner to help expand its commercial activities, but Colombia’s complex social context needs to be carefully considered. Whether this alliance will benefit both countries, or will reinforce the dynamics of the longest conflict in Latin American history, will depend greatly on the Dutch stance towards very sensitive issues that affect the Colombian rural sector.
The Netherlands has found in Colombia a strategic partner to expand its commercial activity in Latin America. In 2017, the exports of the South American country to the Netherlands amounted to 1.542 million US dollars, situating the Dutch economy as the fourth most important destination of Colombian products worldwide, and the first within the European Union.
This partnership is presented as a win-win scenario. While the Netherlands could benefit from Colombia’s 40 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture, Colombia could fully develop its rural potential through an alliance with the world leader in agricultural innovation. This cooperation holds a great deal of promise. Thus, there are grand expectations regarding the meeting that took place last November in Bogotá between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and President Iván Duque, who came to power in August 2018.
However, some caution is needed. The Prime Minister’s visit occured in a context of uncertainty and digression given Duque’s lack of political will to comply with the peace agreement reached between the former government and the FARC, as well as his dismissive attitude towards structural problems of the rural sector such as the excessive concentration of land, extreme poverty, and inequality.
In this regard, a study conducted by Oxfam in 2017 revealed that currently, concentration of land in Colombia is much higher than it was in the 1960s when the conflict started. The statistics show that while 80% of rural land in the country is controlled by 1% of the large estates, small farmers have lost most of their territory. As evidence, 80% of small peasants have a landholding smaller than 10 hectares, which do not occupy even 5% of the census area. Moreover, official data shows that the Gini coefficient of rural property is 89,7% (with 0 corresponding to complete equality and 100 corresponding to complete inequality).
The government’s approach, however, has been to neglect the multidimensional character of the rural problem. Since his presidential campaign, Duque has been skeptical of the peace process. Therefore, although the first point of the peace agreement is to push forward a comprehensive agrarian reform, the policy of the new government has focused mainly on supporting agro-business, implementing modernisation measures, and protecting the property rights of large landowners.
This official position has raised a deep concern among many civil society actors who have fears pertaining to the success of historical compromises reached in La Habana. The initiatives that are at risk include: the creation of a Land Fund for the distribution of land that was illegally acquired; the development of procedures to formalise property rights of small and medium farmers; and the establishment of ‘Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation Spaces’ (ETCR in Spanish), which are places dedicated to training the former members of the FARC for their reincorporation into civil life through productive projects. To this day, the government has not shown a serious commitment to advance any of these strategies, threatening the future of the post-conflict phase.
Most worryingly, the Office of the Ombudsman in Colombia reported that 331 community leaders were killed between January 2016 and August 2018, and that the number keeps growing. The seriousness of the situation led the UN and IACHR to urge the Colombian government to strengthen protection measures to guarantee the integrity of social leaders. Although the government has denied the systematic character of these killings, in the face of strong national and international pressure, the creation of an integral policy to tackle this urgent situation was announced. It is worth noting that 80% of the leaders that have been killed were involved in the defense of the territory and restitution of land efforts.