In the vacant lands, Santos will have to choose between tycoons and his peace discourse in Havana By: Andrés

Bermúdez Liévano and Juanita León Translated for La Silla Vacía by Matilda Villarraga After many meetings and at least four drafts, several of which are already circulating in the media, last night officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Presidency finally reached a consensus on the famous 'law of vacant lands'. If they can convince President Juan Manuel Santos of this new position and it becomes law, large companies and the tycoons that bought land in the vast grasslands of eastern Colombia violating the established limits, will be the big losers. But the President could thus save the dream that has been sold on the countryside, on the restitution of bare lands and on the peace process. Summit on vacant lands at the Palace As La Silla confirmed, this Friday night ended in a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture between officials of Agriculture and the Government's Legal Department with a single conclusion: there is no viable formula to solve the problems of companies such as Cargill, Riopaila Castilla, Monica Seeds, and Poligrow, who bought land in Vichada and Meta in the last few years accumulating old vacant land and skipping limits set by a 1994 law on property of land destined to agrarian reform. The conclusion after this meeting was that the drafts, which have stirred a national debate and which were drafted with help from former minister of Justice Néstor Humberto Martínez –head lawyer for Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, one of whose companies also bought in the Altillanura– would end up in the dustbin, at least in the most essential points. La Silla has seen three of these drafts - not necessarily the last ones - which would have effectively become a lifesaver for the businesses that purchased these lands. Among these drafts there are many differences, both in substance and form. So many that it is obvious that, as the weekly political magazine Semana already anticipated, there are many conflicting positions on the issue among all the people who have been working on it. The earliest version that La Silla read proposed a formula of temporary contracts for the troubled properties where it could be ascertained that there was a productive project. In these areas, companies would lose the title to the land but would retain tenure up to 30 years, in a kind of 'leasing' that would require them to maintain productivity, pay taxes on this and forge associations with - and not only hire – peasants. A second version eliminated these contracts, but included the idea that if land that preoviously belonged to the Nation had no prohibition of sale clearly marked on its real estate license, buyers

had no way of knowing this and therefore any transaction would have been made in good faith. La Silla established that this idea, which Nestor Humberto Martinez has already spoken about publicly and was disputed by the Super notary Jorge Enrique Velez, was finally discarded in the meeting yesterday. The Government's 'vacant land' dilemmas The problem of both drafts is that they clearly show the Government's intention to legalize the potentially irregular purchases of many powerful businessmen, many of whom have also financed Santos’s campaign, are his friends or were advised legally by his friends. And all this happened, despite the fact that the Minister of Agriculture Francisco Estupiñán had promised on several occasions that the project would not seek to render any questioned transaction legal. Already the fact that the prestigious law firm Brigard and Urrutia had created the legal scaffolding for two of these purchases had a political cost: Colombian ambassador in Washington Carlos Urrutia, owner of the legal firm when these consultancies were done, had to resign last month after pressure from the opposition mounted. The conclusion after the meeting was that if the Government moves forward with these drafts and presents them as a bill in Congress, the scandal would only grow and give more arguments to congressmen like Jorge Robledo and Wilson Arias who have led such investigations. And that in the end it could be struck down by the Constitutional Court, who already did so two years ago with the part of Santos's Development Plan on vacant lands. But more than anything, this law could threaten to jettison the efforts made by the Government to foster a true structural reform in the countryside that will benefit small farmers and to serve as the basis for a peace process with FARC. By pushing this bill, Santos would be sending a message that instead of closing the gap of inequality between Colombia's urban and rural population and convert farmers into first-class citizens, the Government's interest would be to promote the large-scale agro-industrial development, at the expense of peasants who were precisely the benefactors of this 1994 agrarian reform. The project of the Government, as agreed at the meeting on Friday, should focus on resolving the issue toward the future, especially because a good part of Meta or the Vichada - the heart of the Altillanura - has a vacant land origin and land by definition are reserved for the landless peasants. They are based on the assumption that all the vacant lands are not equal and that there are areas that do not make sense to award the peasants. The reason is purely economic: in Vichada, for example, the Government estimates that a hectare of land can cost a million pesos (although some of the companies questioned bought for 60 to 80 thousand pesos). An Agricultural Family Unit (UAF by its initials in Spanish) - the amount of land for a peasant family to live with dignity- in this are of Colombia amounts to 1300 hectares.

When the government awards a peasant a UAF it would be 'giving away' 1300 million pesos, giving them an enormous incentive to sell. Above everything, to put this land into production requires an investment of approximately US $5,000 per hectare to reach the organic soil. The size of this investment makes it very difficult for a farmer to make it alone, which is why many within the Government are convinced that they need to bring the private companies to develop this agricultural frontier. The question is how to make both things possible. The tentative formula they have reached is that in the future they do not make assignments of UAF to private entrepreneurs but they are given the usufruct for 30 years and with strict conditions for involving farmers in the project and help develop the infrastructure of the region. And that if they do not do it, these lands are revertible to the State. With this formula, the Government could develop the 4 million hectares of the Altillanura (of which only 400 thousand have already been sold) without putting at risk the discourse Santos has defended, both in Havana as well as with the rest of Colombians. That is, that the Government is truly committed to an agrarian reform that will benefit farmers and that the law would not aim to resolve the problem to the mighty businessmen who bought land irregularly. For this to be possible, however, Santos's advisors first have to convince the President to pick this fight with the tycoons that are expecting him to come to their rescue. Will they achieve it?

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