Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cultivating Peace and Rural Development in Post-Conflict Colombia

By: Andres Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas

La Union, Valle del Cauca (Photo by Andres Varona)

For more than 50 years, large segments of Colombia’s countryside have been the battlefront of guerrilla rebels, paramilitaries, and drug cartels. The violent clash between these factions and Colombia’s armed forces has not only displaced millions of campesinos to the country’s sprawling cities, it has also contributed to the further degradation and neglect of Colombia’s rich agricultural and food-producing regions. With the signing of the peace deal with the FARC, the largest guerrilla group, the government of Colombia faces a unique opportunity to not only forge greater peace and security, but also a chance to restore the environmental vitality of its countryside and the socio-economic well-being of millions of people that been displaced from their lands. As the FARC put down their weapons and other armed groups (e.g. ELN) begin negotiations to do so, the government should move quickly to regain control of the areas previous controlled by these armed factions. This will have to be done swiftly but with tactical precision as to prevent the proliferation of other armed groups and criminal activities (e.g. illicit mining, deforestation, coca production) into these fragile and impoverished conflict hotspots.

The aim of this revamped rural development strategy, however, should not only be to win the hearts and minds of local people. Likewise, it should also incorporate mechanisms that empower a real and tangible improvement in the quality of life of rural communities that, for decades, have been systematically neglected. Such a strategy will require various levels of government (e.g. national, departmental, municipal, indigenous) to work in concert with a wide array of private enterprises (e.g. agribusiness, ICT, tourism providers), civil society organizations (e.g. NGOs, foundations, academia) and the international and bilateral donor community (e.g. United Nations, IDB, USAID, European Union) to develop and rollout a comprehensive rural development plan in Colombia’s conflict-prone areas. These initiatives should also integrate and promote the conservation Colombia’s natural protected areas, especially given that many of these ecological areas also straddle areas of high and medium conflict.

To be effective, inclusive, sustainable and participatory, this rural development strategy should prioritize the following three areas:

1) Investing in social services: Many rural communities in Colombia lack basic and quality social services such as schools, hospitals, law enforcement and emergency response. Without these in place, many rural dwellers will continue to face growing levels of poverty, undernourishment, illness, and insecurity. The government out to direct more of the national budget towards investment in these geographic and thematic areas. For example, the government could expand the network and reach of public schools and agricultural universities, thus providing rural children and youth with increased educational opportunities. With more access to a quality education in their communities, many of this young people could break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, avoid moving to the already crowded cities, as well as deter them from turning to criminal activities and/or armed groups.

2) Generating quality and formal employment: While education is important, Colombians in conflict prone areas also need access to a more diverse base of quality and formal jobs. The absence of technical skills and formal employment opportunities leads many campesinos to either move to the cities in search of economic opportunities or fall victim to criminal or illicit activities that can provide them sustenance. In this way, there is much that the government, along with the private sector and academia, can do more to strengthen the technical skills of rural dwellers as well as generate good paying jobs in the most remote and conflict-prone communities. For example, the government could work with leading universities to expand its current network of National Learning Service (SENA) centers to more remote and conflict-prone areas. In partnership with leading public and private univerisities, these SENA center could get access to more resources (e.g. funds, books, technology) as well as a more robust course curriculm that empowers campesinos with the set of skills they need to work and generate value in the context of their communties. For example, these centers could also partner with private enterpirses (e.g. agribusinesses, hotel chains, energy providers) in order to train and hire people from conflict areas in various local and sustianble value chains, such as environmental management, permaculture, ecoturism, small enterprise development, renewable energies, among others.

3) Improving transportation infrastructure and market linkages: In addition to more schools and hospitals as well as increased technical capacities, rural communities in Colombia are also in desperate need of transport infrastructure. This means better quality roads that wither through intense tropical weather patterns. It also means revamping the country’s outdated rail network and fluvial ports so that local campesinos have transportation multiple transportation option to take the crops they produced to markets. In addition to infrastructure, these communities will also need better access to markets. This could be done by establishing procurement policies so the government as well private contractors have cost incentives to procure more of their materials and services (e.g. coffee, snacks, building materials, and call centers) from small and medium enterprises situated in these areas.

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