Land reform a breakthrough in Colombian peace talks

Colombia’s U.S.-backed government and the FARC rebel group, which have been in peace negotiations to end a half-century of conflict, announced on Sunday that they had made an important breakthrough on the nettlesome issue of land reform.

Both sides characterized the agreement as a significant advance after six months of talks in Havana between a team of negotiators from President Juan Manuel Santos’s government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The news buoyed this country’s 47 million people, who have been cautiously hopeful that peace can be achieved even as other negotiations in years past have collapsed in recriminations and violence.

“It’s the first time ever that the Colombian government and the FARC have agreed on a substantive issue — on any issue,” Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, said in a phone interview from the Cuban capital. “There have been general agreements about things, but never on a concrete issue.”

Vice President Biden, who arrived in Bogota Sunday for meetings with Colombia’s government, told the newspaper El Tiempo that Santos’s government “deserves enormous recognition for launching this serious and well-designed process designed to put an end to the conflict.”

The misuse of land, and the violence that disputes over land have generated, has fueled Colombia’s current conflict since 1964, when a band of peasants founded the FARC and took to the mountains to fight the state. Under Sunday’s deal, the government agreed to an ambitious program of land distribution and titling and to set up mechanisms to deal with quarrels over farmland, Jaramillo said.

The state has also pledged a range of development programs for swaths of long-forgotten corners of Colombia: everything from roads to schools, nutritional programs to health care.

“I can say with certainty that the agreement on agriculture permits a radical transformation of the rural reality in Colombia,” said Humberto de la Calle, the government chief negotiator in the talks. “This is set up to create real changes and close the breach between the countryside and city.”

Though the accord was celebrated by both sides, there are still four major points left to resolve in the agenda that serves as the framework for the talks.

In June, when the two sides resume negotiations, they will pick up discussions over how to permit FARC commanders, many of whom face charges of war crimes and drug trafficking, to transform their organization into a political movement.

Reincorporating the commanders into civilian life faces opposition in a country where many people see the FARC as a violent criminal organization.

Other unresolved issues include creating a workable plan to battle drug trafficking in rural regions and to deliver justice to the victims of the conflict.

Though this has been the most promising of the four peace negotiations the government has held with the FARC since the 1980s, it has not been without serious obstacles.

Santos’s predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who remains politically powerful, has steadfastly opposed the talks and has accused Santos of trying to placate FARC commanders. And while some in the government talked last fall about six to eight months of negotiations, it now appears that the discussions will go on until late in the year.

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