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Final Exam Colombian Conflicts: The Control of Land and Its Resources Paul Birdwell POL 562A – Natural Resources and International Security in Latin America Summer II - 2018 Professor Matías F. Bianchi University of Arizona August 26, 2018


For several decades oil has played a significant and growing role in Colombia’s economy with the country now producing almost 900,000 barrels of oil a day. That is large enough to make Colombia a top 25 oil producing country in the world, and Colombia is now sitting on over 2.3 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (EIA, 2018). Colombia exports more than fifty-percent of its oil production with more than half of that going to the United States, with oil accounting for upwards of 5% of overall Colombian GDP and roughly 25% of all exports (CIA, 2018). Since the late 1940s conflicts have raged in areas where Colombian oil is produced and since the 1960s two groups, FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN), driven by Communist ideology have waged a multi-front war against the Colombian government and natural resource extraction companies doing business in the country (Frontline, 2011). Both FARC and the ELN have proclaimed they are fighting for Colombians that have been taken advantage of by their government and have cast their fight as a battle between the rural poor and the rich elites. Kidnappings and drug trafficking have been key ways that FARC and ELN have funded their military operations against Colombian government forces and privately-hired parliamentary groups, and both FARC and ELN have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department (Felter & Renwick, 2017). In 2000 with the help of financial aid from the U.S., the Colombian government began a crackdown on the cocaine drug trade and both FARC and ELN in the country leading to dramatic drops in violence across the country under a policy led President Alvaro Uribe. This policy led to reduced kidnappings, homicide rates, and the influence of FARC and ELN waned which many experts claim led to peace negotiations between


FARC and the Colombian government in 2012. With the governments of Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela involved the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC/ELN centered on five key principles (Felter & Renwick, 2017): 1. future political participation of FARC/ELN members, 2. rebels’ reintegration into civilian life, 3. illegal crop eradication, 4. transitional justice and reparations, and 5. rebel disarmament and implementation of the peace deal. Colombian President Manuel Santos elected in 2010 pushed aggressively for a peace deal and hailed the peace agreement with FARC/ELN in 2016 as a major stepforward in reducing violence in the country with Santos pledging to spend billions of dollars to develop rural areas. After the first peace deal between FARC/ELN and the Colombia government was rejected by the Colombian people in September 2016, a revised peace agreement was ratified by Colombian Congress in December 2016 (Felter & Renwick, 2017). Now almost two years later the peace agreement between FARC/ELN and the Colombia government is showing signs of wear with rising violence in FARC controlled areas which may lead to major political changes since the peace deal has never been popular with the Colombian people (Valores, 2018). In order to understand how Colombia got to where it was forced to negotiate peace agreements with rebel Communist organizations that have been waging a war against oil and other natural resource development companies in Colombia for fifty-plus years, one must know just how differently that Spain colonized South America compared to how England colonized the North American continent. The conflicts between


FARC/ELN and the Colombian government and other outside natural resource producing companies is really about the distribution and ownership of land in Colombia. In the 16th and 17th centuries in North America, the British quickly began to grant ownership of parcels of land to everyone from the wealthy who owned large tracts of land down to local farmers who took personal ownership of property that they could sell or pass down to future generations. At the same time in countries like Colombia (then part of Spanishcontrolled New Granada), the country of Spain was primarily interested in extracting whatever valuable resources they could from the land and exporting it back to Europe, and they saw the people of Latin America as slaves to be used in that work. The Spanish approach to land distribution in Latin American led to the land being held in the hands of tiny groups of elites as determined by the Spanish crown which laid the groundwork for the conditions that still exist in Colombia today. FARC and ELN’s development were a direct reaction to the people of Colombia being taken advantage of at first by Spain, but even later by Columbian elites that lingered on after the country had been liberated from the Spanish in 1819 (Demir, 2018). It was the Communist groups FARC and ELN that pushed back against elites in Colombia that had held onto their land since the time of Spanish rule by taking control of that land to allow peasants to grow crops, raise cattle, and have a piece of land that they controlled. Indigenous groups gaining control of land they had lived on for years was a major part of the 2016 Colombian peace agreement, but with FARC’s pull-back the indigenous peoples lost some of their protection which opened some parts of Colombia to private paramilitary groups who often work for people connected to oil companies and other outsiders looking to extract natural resources and drugs off the land (Klein, 2017).


The Spanish conquest of Latin America and it’s focus on resource extraction from the continent set the long-term direction for the entire region and Colombia is but a microcosm of how land in Latin America today is often controlled by elites and others that do not live on or work the land. With the rise in the price of commodities in the 21st century what is above the land, coca plants, and below the land, large amounts of oil and gas, generates lots of revenue for the owners of the land and that stream of money that is generally not going to locals who live on the land has driven much of the conflict in Colombia. In addition to the historical reasons why local peoples have not had control of the land they have lived on for generations there are three other factors that add to the historical problems that have led to conflicts (Lavaux, 2006): 1.

the absence of the state at an institutional and coercive level

2. the presence of neighboring countries considered to be sources of destabilization and distrust 3.

the geographical and ecosystem complexity favorable to the establishment and survival of outlawed armed groups. All of the above three factors that have fueled conflict across Latin America exists

in the Putumayo region of Colombia which has a long history of growing coca to make cocaine for export (Leech, 2007), and today is a rapidly growing area for oil and gas production. The Putumayo department of Colombia rests in the Amazon basin in the southwest part of the country and shares a long border with Ecuador and Peru along the eastern flank of the Andes mountains.


Putumayo Department - Colombia,

Over two billion barrels of oil have already been extracted from the resource rich Putumayo department and there are by conservative estimates hundreds of millions of barrels of oil still be discovered along with enormous amounts of natural gas (Higley,


2001). The indigenous Siona people have lived in the Putumayo region for centuries and have been caught between the Colombia government fighting the growing of coca to produce cocaine, which was a major revenue generator and controlled by FARC, and now the Siona people are being threatened by the growing number of companies extracting oil, gas and other natural resources from the land. Even after the peace deal between FARC/ELN and the Colombia government in 2016 FARC and other splinter rebel groups have maintained control of many parts of the Putumayo region and significant numbers of Sionans have been killed in the wars the U.S. has waged in the region, the “War on Drugs” first and then after 9/11 with the “War on Terror.” With so much violence going on around them large portions of the Putumayo region are effectively off-limits to the Siona people who cannot hunt, fish, raise crops, or even visit family members with many different guerrilla groups and Colombia-supported or sanctioned armed units fighting for control of natural resource rich areas. The mafia has even moved into the region in recent years as FARC’s role has been diminished across Colombia with the 2016 peace agreement, with the mafia taking control of many coca growing areas which has created a new group for the Colombian officials to deal with as the government maintains a focus on natural resource extraction across the country (Hill, 2018). A fragile peace has emerged in the Putumayo region in the aftermath of the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC/ELN and the Colombian government with FARC roadblocks, curfews and massacres mostly disappearing as the Communist rebel group has pulled back from its operations which has allowed more outside natural resource investment in the region. Even with the increased investment in the Putumayo region the


long-simmering issues of inequality and environmental damage to areas where natural resource companies and those cultivating coca for cocaine still exist. Locals do now have a say in whether natural resource companies will have the right to extract gas and oil off their lands which has led to number of new conflicts as people in the region weigh the benefits of new jobs against the potential for environmental destruction. Often the choice for people in the Putumayo region is to work for groups cultivating the coca plants or work with multinational companies extracting oil and gas that in some communities are taking on many of the roles that a government would normally play such as building infrastructure, funding schools and supporting local institutions (Tate, 2018). The 2018 Colombian Presidential election saw Ivan Duque, the conservative protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe, elected to the Presidency and now serving a four-year term that began in early August 2018. Duque has been critical of some parts of the 2016 peace agreement with FARC/ELN and the Colombian government and has promised changes in the agreement such as requiring former rebels to admit their wrongdoing before they assume political office. Duque defeated Humane Movement party member Gustavo Petro in a second-round runoff with Petro running on a leftist progressive platform that was developed over time as Petro moved from M-19 rebel leader in his youth, to member of the Colombian House of Representatives, to a contentious time as mayor of Bogota which included removal and then reinstatement to the position. Gustavo Petro vehemently opposed the policies of former Colombia President Alvaro Uribe which made for a contentious showdown against Uribe’s protégé Ivan Duque in the 2018 Presidential election which will continue forward as Petro will now return to the Colombian Senate (AP, 2018).


The issues that divide new Colombian President conservative Ivan Duque and progressive Gustavo Petro reflect the divisions within Colombia as a whole with large parts of the population not seeing the promised economic grains from the 2016 peace agreement between FARC/ELN and the Colombian government. Oil and gas companies still have to deal with varying levels of violence from rebel groups who are protective of the land they have lived on for decades which has hampered the ability of the Colombia government to extract more natural resources from the country which was one of the main goals of the 2016 peace agreement (Anderson, 2018). That reality has in turn led to the political differences between right and left with the conservatives led by Duqua pushing for more economic development and the progressives headed-up by Petro as defenders of the people pushing for those on the lower rungs of the ladder to receive more from the productive assets of the nation. The political divide in Colombia is little different than the political debates one sees in the United States of America, in Europe, and even across most of the Latin American region as right and left fight to gain control of countries with powerful forces behind both sides pushing for more control of power and the money that flows into and out of their nations. The United States of America, China, the European Union and other advanced economies need the oil and gas in countries like Colombia to power their economies, and the Colombian government sees the extraction of those resources as key to economic development which both sides seem to agree will hopefully enrich the country and its people. The progressives in Colombia and other Latin American countries see the extraction of natural resources from the land as an opportunity to use the money generated from those operations as way to advance the rights of the people that


have lived on the land for centuries. Those issues make the political situation on the ground in Colombia little different than what many Western countries now face as a battle between public and private, the company and the individual, the land owner and the land user rage on which is fight that is as old as humans have fought each other over the available limited resources which stretches back to at least 80,000 years ago when human beings first emerged from Africa (Gugliotta, 2008). The direct connection between the control of natural resources and the armed conflict that flows from who controls the land and thus those resources (Lavaux, 2006) is even in the aftermath of the 2016 peace agreement between FARC/ELN and the Colombia government a defining reality of Colombia today which played itself out in the political debates around the 2018 Colombian Presidential election. In the last century, Latin American countries like Colombia have vacillated between right and left governments with progressive parties often gaining control through democratic elections and proclaiming their independence from the U.S. and other Western interests that have played a large role in the ups and downs of many countries in the region. During the post-World War II period, the U.S. CIA has been involved in overthrowing a number of leftist governments in Latin America (Talbot, 2016) that either nationalized the assets of American companies or impeded the ability of those companies to operate without governmental interference (Tablot, 2016). In more recent years Americans trained in U.S. police forces have moved into many Latin American countries like Colombia working with conservatively elected governments to tamp-down violence of rebel groups (Langguth, 2018), and possibly even to target social critics that speak out against the government (Baca & Jimenez, 2018).


The Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda who lost his way in celebrating the rise of Communism and the victory of the people over capitalistic forces in the rise of the Soviet Union and China in the 20th century, and later recognized the evils of the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Mao (Feinstein, 2004) also recognized the evils that flow from humans love for money which in Latin America was exemplified by the pursuit of natural resources such as oil and gas. In his 1940 poem Standard Oil Company Neruda identified the essential issues that are still playing out across Latin America today as governments pursue economic development, often at the expense of the people and the environment (Neruda, 1940): Standard Oil Company, Pablo Neruda When the drill bored down toward the stony fissures and plunged its implacable intestine into the subterranean estates, and dead years, eyes of the ages, imprisoned plants’ roots and scaly systems became strata of water, fire shot up through the tubes transformed into cold liquid, in the customs house of the heights, issuing from its world of sinister depth, it encountered a pale engineer and a title deed. However entangled the petroleum’s arteries may be, however the layers may change their silent site and move their sovereignty amid the earth’s bowels, when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage, Standard Oil arrived beforehand with its checks and it guns, with its governments and its prisoners. Their obese emperors from New York are suave smiling assassins who buy silk, nylon, cigars petty tyrants and dictators.


They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils, distant regions where the poor hoard their corn like misers their gold: Standard Oil awakens them, clothes them in uniforms, designates which brother is the enemy. the Paraguayan fights its war, and the Bolivian wastes away in the jungle with its machine gun. A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum, a million-acre mortgage, a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified, a new prison camp for subversives, in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots beneath a petroliferous moon, a subtle change of ministers in the capital, a whisper like an oil tide, and zap, you’ll see how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds, above the seas, in your home, illuminating their dominions.�

The challenge for leaders of Latin American countries today, including new President of Colombian Ivan Duque, is to balance the necessity of economic development to move a country like Colombia forward while also taking care of the people that are essential for the full development of a nation. It is often the government as the only thing that stands between powerful forces such as multinational companies who have little concern beyond the bottom-line revenue and profit numbers and the people of a country. That goes for Colombia and even the United States of America where the push of capitalism will always need a certain level of pushback from public officials to achieve an optimum balance of a strong economy and the assurance of basic human rights for the people. Finding that balance is the primary role of leaders if they unselfishly seek the full


potential for their country and the people that they should see as fortunate enough to serve. Colombia today is like many countries on the Earth dealing with the natural resource conflicts that exist between capitalists that hope to make as much money as possible and the people who want good jobs but not at the expense of the destruction of their local communities and environment. At the point where those two powerful forces meet is where 20th century Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck defined on what politics is really all about (Steinberg, 2013): “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.”

The leaders of Colombia and other Latin American countries need to find agreement with all people and groups that have a stake in the future of their countries at the point where “the attainable – the next best” is achieved because that is the point where the countries can move forward together while not leaving any behind, while protecting the environment, and while doing what it is never too late to do, which is doing what is right.


Works Cited Anderson, M. (2018, January 10). In Colombia, Marxist Rebels Hold the Oil Industry Hostage. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from AP. (2018, June 17). Ivan Duque elected to be Colombia’s next president. USA Today Retrieved August 23, 2018, from Baca, L., & Jimenez, A. (2018, August 9). In Colombia, Will Peace Continue Costing Lives?. NACLA. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from CIA. (2018, August 14). The World Factbook: COLOMBIA. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from Demir, J. (2018, April 03). Understanding the causes of Colombia's conflict: Land ownership. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from EIA. (2018, January 1). Oil reserves by country, around the world. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from EIA. (2018, January 1). U.S. Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from


Feinstein, A. (2004). Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA. Felter, C., & Renwick, D. (2017, January 11). Colombia's Civil Conflict. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from h Frontline, PBS. (2011, June 1). Frontline: The Pipeline War in Colombia. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from Gugliotta, G. (2008, July 01). The Great Human Migration. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from Higley, D. K. (2001, June 1). The Putumayo-Oriente-Maranon Province of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—Mesozoic-Cenozoic and Paleozoic Petroleum Systems. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from Hill, D. (2018, June 27). 'The war goes on': One tribe caught up in Colombia's armed conflict. The Guardian. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from Klein, R. (2017, October 11). One year after peace Colombia's indigenous peoples feel FARC power vacuum | DW | 29.11.2017. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from


Langguth, A. J. (2018). Hidden Terrors: The Truth About U.S. Police Operations in Latin America. New York, NY: Open Road Media. Lavaux, S. (2006). Natural Resources and Conflict in Colombia: Complex Dynamics, Narrow Relationships. International Journal, 62(1), 19. doi:10.2307/40204242 Leech, G. (2007, September 25). Plan Petroleum in Putumayo. NACLA. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from Neruda, P. (2015). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Steinberg, J. (2013). Bismarck: A Life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Talbot, D. (2016). The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. Tate, W. (2018, March 4). A Precarious Peace in Putumayo. NACLA. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from Valores, C. (2018, March 05). Colombia's Tattered Peace: Rising Violence Will Impact Economic Growth. Seeking Alpha. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from

Profile for The Jefferson Century

Colombian Conflicts: The Control of Land and Its Resources  

Colombian Conflicts: The Control of Land and Its Resources