In a country where the level of land concentration is extremely high, land has become the most precious right
The history of Colombia is a history of land dispossession, concentration, and fragmentation. Colombia has one of the highest rates of land concentration in the world. Land has been at the heart of Colombia’s violent conflicts for the last two centuries. When the Peace Agreement was signed in 2016, social and peasant organizations finally felt hopeful about remedying the situation. Land reform became the first point of the Peace Agreement, in line with the Tenure Guidelines. However, little has changed since this agreement was signed, mainly due to obstruction enacted by Iván Duque’s government, which serves powerful economic and political interests. In 2022, a leftist coalition was elected so now peasant organizations hope the new administration will prioritize the long-awaited agrarian reform.
The peasants of Sumapaz, the last guardians of the largest paramo in the world
In 2008, the peasant communities of Sumapaz, Colombia, learned that the company Emgesa, which is part of the multinational energy group Enel, was planning to alter the course of the Sumapaz River to build a dam and a hydroelectric plant. The Sumapaz River gives life to the largest paramo in the world, which was declared a national natural park in 1977. Known as one of the “fluvial stars” of the country, it is also a major water source for three main river basins, and for the capital city of Bogotá as well, and for Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela. Thus, the Sumapaz River plays a key role in the rich surrounding ecosystem, which includes the iconic plant frailejón (Espeletia), as well as the peasant and local communities that live there.
This explains why Emgesa’s (now Enel Colombia) development plan, despite promising progress for the region, sparked outrage among local residents. These communities, with over a century of experience in militant social struggles against latifundia, were well aware of what was at stake: further dispossession of land and possible environmental damages. In the 1950s, elders from the community had fought for agrarian reforms that never came into fruition. Meanwhile land concentration became a structural cause of armed conflict in Colombia. When times were turbulent, some peasants fled neighboring towns and sought refuge in the paramo. Then, in the 90s, Sumapaz peasants were caught amidst violence due to military operations against the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), who used the paramo for safe passage to other regions of the country.
Since then, the paramo has been highly militarized and the presence of soldiers has impacted the ecosystem of 3,226 square meters. Social organizations have denounced that even after the 2016 Peace Agreement, the army continues to maintain military bases in the area. Furthermore, there are regular reports of repression and criminalization of peasants. In 2019, Duque’s right-wing government launched the Artemisa Campaign, which was supposedly designed to prosecute those endangering protected areas through their illegal activities. However, the Law of Environmental Crimes (Law 2111) has instead been utilized to harass peasant and indigenous communities who have lived in and protected these areas for decades. These communities claim that the campaign aims to displace them, thus leaving the land empty and ready for exploitation and foreign investment.
As mentioned before, the Colombian company Emgesa is part of the Enel group. This multinational company has its headquarters in Italy and is the largest company in the Italian energy sector: 23.6% is publicly owned, but its major private investors are BlackRock (5%) and Capital Research and Management (5%). The primary investors backing Entel’s American branch are located in the USA (Citibank), Europe, (Santander) and Latin America (Banco de Chile), along with pension funds, which sum up 7.5% of the stakeholders, and one of the largest investment companies in the world (State Street).
Thanks to the social mobilization of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Sumapaz (SINTRAPAZ), an affiliate of FENSUAGRO, the Emgesa was forced to modify the design of the hydroelectric plant to reduce environmental damage. At present, the project is on hold as Emgesa needs to provide an environmental impact report to the National Authority for Environmental Licenses (ANLA).
Nonetheless, for the peasant communities, their social struggle continues. Since 2011, they have been fighting to declare the region of Sumapaz a Peasants Reserve Zone (ZRC). Their first victory was against the National Land Agency (ANT), which was found guilty of delaying the procedure for over a decade. Such ZRCs were declared in the 90s after a long process of peasant mobilization. These groups demanded protected areas, free of violence, for rural development and to prevent land concentration through community management. Established in Law 160 of 1994, ZRCs were unsteadily implemented for 26 years, but peasant communities managed to include them in the 2016 Peace Agreement. Today, it is expected that the new government of Gustavo Petro will prioritize establishing the long pending ZRCs.
When the energy company Emgesa exposed its plan to build an hydroelectric plant in the largest paramo in the world, the peasants of Sumapaz sparked in outrage. They were well aware of what was at stake: further dispossession of land and possible environmental damages.