Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia peace deal: Left in limbo as Farc rebels fail to show

Independent journalists Steven Cohen and Camilo Mejia visit an area of the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, near the border with Ecuador, where Farc rebels had been expected to gather for "transition" after a peace deal had been ratified. But the accord was rejected in a referendum, leaving all parties in limbo.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY CAMILO MEJIA

Image caption Some 500 Farc rebels had been set to arrive on Hector Moreno and Eumenia Acosta's farm

Hector Moreno and Eumenia Acosta's farm should have been filling up with rebels on 6 October.

That would have been four days after Colombians had ratified a historic peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

But despite four years of negotiations and 52 years of armed conflict, the ratification didn't happen.

Farc landmines

Delegates from both the government and the Farc had shown up at the couple's door a month earlier, after inspecting two other hamlets in La Carmelita - a collection of rural communities known as a corregimiento - near Puerto Asis, not far from Colombia's southern border with Ecuador.

They said they "hadn't liked the other places", remembers Eumenia, and that they wanted to convert part of her and Hector's 27-hectare property in the Amazonian plains of Putumayo department into one of 20 "transition zones" where Farc guerrillas would submit to police, the military and international monitors during a six-month demobilisation process.

Image caption The area slated to host demobilising Farc rebels at the farm in the Amazonian plains of Putumayo
Image caption The corregimiento, or region, of La Carmelita is scheduled to host one of the 20 Farc transition zones in Colombia

"There were going to be around 500 men," Moreno explains. "They were going to make camp over there," he says, pointing over the first hill in his cow pasture.

But then the vote took place. In a stunning upset, a slim majority of the Colombians who participated in the 2 October plebiscite rejected the agreement, which had been signed in Cartagena the previous week.

The result plunged the peace process into uncertainty. While President Juan Manuel Santos scrambled to reach a political compromise with leaders of the opposition "No" campaign in Bogota, Farc's command ordered troops to withdraw from the positions they had taken en route to the transition zones.

Anticipating construction crews and security personnel, Hector had already bought more space to graze his 65 head of cattle. He hasn't heard anything from either the government or the Farc since the plebiscite, though the seller did inform him that sections of his new property were still laced with Farc landmines.

The mines are one legacy that Colombia's armed conflict has inflicted on Putumayo, a strategic rebel stronghold and the focal point of the US-backed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency strategy. But by far the most pressing concern for residents is the future of the region's coca economy.

Compensation grievance

Long a testing ground for hardline international anti-narcotics policies, Putumayo was meant to benefit from the illicit crop substitution programme outlined in the rejected peace accord.

Having spent years financing its revolution with drug profits, the Farc had signed on to help the government move peasant farmers away from coca, the raw material used to process cocaine.

Image caption Peasant farmers listen to a government delegate as he explains the compensation they will receive after having their coca crops eradicated to make way for the transition zone
Image caption Eradication teams have already visited farms falling within the security perimeter of the would-be Farc transition zone

Even if the peace agreement were to be salvaged in its present form, Putumayo's coca farmers would still harbour serious doubts about a commitment by a historically neglectful central government.

That commitment is to supply the investments in infrastructure, agrarian planning and social development needed to provide their communities with viable alternatives.

The original plans called for a 1.4km (0.8 mile) perimeter, divided into three rings of oversight and protection, to encircle the Farc's encampment. To save embarrassment in the presence of UN observers, government functionaries made a last-minute decision to uproot any coca plants that fell within the designated limits, one government delegate told the BBC.

Under the terms of the Farc accord, the government would have reserved the right to forcibly eradicate coca crops, but only after attempting a concerted dialogue with affected communities to design sustainable long-term substitution projects.

There are some 110 families around the Carmelita transition zone and those with crops on the wrong side of the transition zone border were offered a fixed compensation package and told their crops would be torn up whether they accepted or not.

"They caught me with my pants down," said one farmer, who told the BBC he was obliged to give consent the same day he was informed of the pending eradication.

Image caption Many residents of La Carmelita, an area heavily affected by the conflict and a strategic coca growing region, supported the peace deal

Once their crops had been destroyed, farmers were told they would be given a one-time payment of 3 million pesos ($1,032; £840), groceries equivalent to 740,000 pesos, and 2 million pesos worth of technical farming assistance.

At a meeting with a government representative, community leaders complained that the first grocery delivery barely amounted to half the promised value and included items that had passed their expiry date.

But leaving aside the question of compliance, Yuri Quintero, a Putumayo assemblywoman from La Carmelita, feels the government's improvised ultimatum was wrong.

"It had nothing to do with the transition zone proposal," says Ms Quintero, who twice travelled to Havana to meet government and Farc negotiating teams. "In fact, it goes directly against the spirit of what's in the peace accord."

Despite the general uncertainty and their own specific concerns, residents of La Carmelita overwhelmingly support the peace process.

For their part, if and when a new agreement emerges, Hector and Eumenia are still willing to contribute. "We gave our word," says Eugenia. "Even if it's in three or four months, the [transition zone] will be here."

Steven Cohen is a US-based journalist and former editor at Colombia Reports. Camilo Mejia is a Colombia-based journalist and co-founder of Vela Colectivo.

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