By Patrick Kane
As peace talks begin in Norway between the Colombian government and Farc guerrillas, any brighter future for the country's people requires new responsibility from the City of London and the British government.
The UK represents one of the biggest investors in Colombia and last year president Juan Manuel Santos made a special visit to drum up trade in Britain.
But UK-based multinational companies stand accused of fuelling a conflict which has already lasted four decades.
Despite welcoming the talks as a moment of "optimism", an important coalition of Colombian social movements is demanding that civil society be allowed to play a key role in constructing peace, in order for a negotiated solution to have legitimacy and sustainability. The coalition, which includes War on Want's partner Nomadesc, released a statement calling for the construction of a "social route to peace" which allows for real participation by society.
The social and armed conflict in Colombia has seen a dirty war waged against civil society organisations over the past 25 years, in which tens of thousands of civilians have been murdered by state forces and their paramilitary allies. Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, and scores of activists continue to be murdered every year there. Amnesty International has reported that state forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups continue to be responsible for "serious and widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law".
Nomadesc works to educate and empower communities to defend their human rights by helping them to
identify and understand the root causes of the conflict and the poverty and human rights violations which accompany it. Nomadesc director Berenice Celeyta said: "This has the potential to be an historic moment, but we know that peace in Colombia will only be sustainable if the process addresses the root causes of the conflict. For this we need an inclusive process which allows the participation of all sections of Colombian society, not just the government and the guerrillas."
Despite having a huge wealth of natural resources, according to government figures almost 40% of Colombians live in poverty and many observers believe the real figure is much higher.
According to CODHES, a non-governmental organisation which specialises in recording displacement statistics, the conflict has forced over five million Colombians to leave their homes. Only Sudan has more internally displaced people. CODHES has shown how the majority of displaced persons live in terrible poverty and find it difficult to access public services, such as education, health and housing. Colombia is also one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.
Foreign direct investment by multinational corporations has been seemed to actually boost human rights violations and increased economic inequality, while bringing little benefit to the majority of Colombians, most of whom still live in poverty. Multinational companies in the natural resource extracting sector have been accused of being indirectly, and in some cases directly, responsible for human rights violations against communities and social leaders actively opposed to their presence.
Already, however, the head of state oil company Ecopetrol has predicted that peace in the country would be "great for business" and would attract new foreign investors in the country's hydrocarbon sector. Some economists predict investment by foreign multinational companies could rise by as much as 25% if peace talks are successful.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has prioritised the growth of the country's mining sector. Santos announced at the recent UN summit in Rio de Janeiro plans to open up 17.6 million more hectares of land for exploration by mining companies, claiming Colombia would become a world leader in "sustainable mining". Critics have pointed out this move could cause human rights violations, environmental damage and local conflict because much of the land is inside the territories of rural indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities, as well as ecologically important areas, such as the Amazon rainforest.
Rural indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities have suffered disproportionately from the social and armed conflict. In July, indigenous communities in the Cauca region made international headlines when, in an inspirational act of peaceful civil resistance, thousands of unarmed community members dismantled the trenches of government and Farc fighters, and removed them from sacred sites in their territories.
The Colombian indigenous movement rejects the presence of all armed groups in indigenous territories, which are afforded autonomy under the national constitution. Despite this autonomy, for the past few years northern Cauca has been the scene of heavy fighting. Indigenous authorities reported that 40 community members have been violently killed so far this year in the region. Some 24 have been murdered by paramilitaries aligned to the government and Farc guerrillas since the communities' heroic action in July, as retribution for their resistance to the armed groups. After the murder of community leader Salatiel Mendez, indigenous authorities blamed the Farc for the killing. In a statement, they asked the government and Farc: "What peace are you negotiating, whilst defenceless communities continue to be massacred?"
The movements calling for the construction of a "social route to peace" believe the success of Colombia's peace negotiations will depend on how far civil society - including rural communities which live with the social and environmental impacts brought by natural resource extracting industries - are genuinely engaged in a process of peace construction which transforms the structural causes of the social and armed conflict. If this engagement fails to materialise, the long term prospects for any peace agreement look ominous.
Patrick Kane works in communities in the Global South, specialising in natural resource preservation and limiting multinational involvement. He spent three years working for a Colombian human rights non-governmental organisation and worked on capacity building projects with Colombian trade unions on behalf of the Northern TUC. He is currently War on Want senior programmes officer.
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