Building peace in Colombia


After more than 60 years of internal conflict, at the outset of 2014 Colombia’s government and the FARC appear to be on the road to a peace agreement.

President Juan Manuel Santos and Enrique Peñalosa, his closest rival in the country's upcoming presidential elections in May, have both expressed their willingness to continue negotiations. Many observers are now focusing on how an eventual agreement is going to be implemented rather than what is, in fact, being negotiated.

Throughout the conflict’s history, most of Colombia’s major urban centers remained relatively isolated from the violence that affected rural areas. In fact, the original grievances of the FARC — the insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — were predominantly rural in nature. An eventual peace accord will inevitably have to deal with a context of significant economic imbalances between Colombian urban and rural sectors, exacerbated in recent years by the nation's newly-found mineral wealth and the resulting domestic currency appreciation.

It is clear that the successful implementation of any peace agreement will depend, in large part, on the ability of Colombia´s institutions to substantially improve conditions in the country's vast, undeveloped or under-developed rural areas. In this context, the country is certainly not starting from scratch; rather, it has models that will provide valuable templates for progress in this new phase of Colombia´s history.

Specifically, I’m referring to the model that coffee farmers built under the auspices of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), better known overseas for its Juan Valdez brand and its Colombian coffee campaigns, which have been and should continue to be crucial actors in establishing and maintaining peace in many areas of rural Colombia.

While the FNC continues to be a major actor in financing and constructing a vital infrastructure in modern Colombia, even a cursory review of its latest sustainability report shows that perhaps its most important contribution to Colombian rural development and well-being lies in the social capital it has helped to build in more than half of Colombia’s rural towns.

The FNC’s 1,500 extensionists undoubtedly represent the most valued contacts the country's hundreds of thousands of coffee growers, their families and their communities have with any institution in the nation. These professionals provide state programs and the ability to access capital markets to improve their plantation’s yields.

The FNC’s local and regional coffee growers’ committees and networks of elected representatives provide an opportunity for the coffee growers to participate on collective action objectives to improve their futures.

Among academics such as Mancur Olson, the FNC has repeatedly been held up as a powerful example of collective action success.

A recent paper, jointly published by Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and the Université Libre of Brussels in Belgium, has demonstrated empirically that there tends to be significantly lower levels of violence in those areas where FNC extensionists are present.

In fact, despite historically volatile coffee prices and the difficulties of growing and exporting coffee against the backdrop of a very strong peso, many of Colombia’s coffee areas have continued to produce coffee instead of cultivating less desirable and mostly illegal crops such as coca.

Learning from the FNC’s past successes and recognizing the value of this type of institution is critical to the future implementation of any effective peace process in Colombia. Indeed, Colombians must strive harder to learn from their own past institutional successes and to use those positive experiences to build a better, more prosperous and more peaceful future for the country's rural areas — “ al estilo colombiano.”

Bruce M. Bagley is professor of international studies at the University of Miami.

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