Part one of the interview with Yenly Méndez, a human rights defender who works with the Peasant Farmers’ Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC)
PBI: What is a Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone?
YENLY: A Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone (ZRC) is a legal concept that has the aim of recognizing the territory of peasant farmers, these are territories that in the majority of cases the communities have settled as a result of a colonization process. This is where families arrive that have been expelled from their land, either by political violence or because the economic model does not allow for the conditions in which peasant farmers can carry out agricultural activities in order to achieve dignified living standards.
They settle in these territories and develop distinct styles of living based on cooperation and generating alternative models of development associated with the conservation of environmental resources. This is an initiative that the ACVC has encouraged throughout the last ten years.
PBI: The ZRC is a concept that the ACVC defends; can you tell us more about this and tell us why working on this issue is so risky?
YENLY: A Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone is designed to be participatory development plan constructed between the Colombian state and the communities that live within the zone, this plan will dictate how the territory will be organized. The zone will be coordinated on the basis of different methods of production, management of the environment and population development. It is such a risky activity because it involves a process of territorial autonomy on behalf of the community.
Even though the ZRC is a legal concept contemplated in national legislation, the Colombian authorities have said that these territories are meant for guerrillas.
This stigmatization means that the organizations and communities that are leading the process of defending the concept of the ZRC are persecuted. In the context of the Peace Negotiations, the issue of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform are the first points on the agenda because they are the main causes of the armed conflict.
The agrarian problem is due to the fact that there exists an enormous concentration of land in this country. Colombia is one of the countries in the world that has the highest concentration of land in the hands of a few people.
PBI: In Colombia there are nearly six million internally displaced people, how can the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones help protect peasant farmers against forced displacement.
YENLY: In these territories the communities, faced with systematic abandonment by the state, have had to develop their own lives based on being autonomous, without any type of institutional support, as well as mutual cooperation between peasant farmer families. For example, in the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone of the Cimitarra River Valley, we have managed to establish the peasant farmer communities in the territory.
It is true that in our region there was an important forced displacement, but the majority of the communities stayed despite the bloody armed conflict. This is because they were bound by means of this process of appropriation. Furthermore, through the sustainable development plan, it was guaranteed that the communities would have a shared future objective.
Currently in Colombia a Land Restitution Law is being endorsed, but the law has many weaknesses. It is not very effective because, in the majority of cases, what is being handed over to peasant farmers is the restitution of the Property Title, but not the actual territory that the title refers to. For what reason? Because the land is restituted in an isolated way and not restituted in a form that it is linked to a greater territory with conditions that allow a peasant farmer family to remain there.
And I think that the ZRC can, in a scenario of the peace process, fulfil these functions and be an instrument to support the construction of peace in rural areas. Because of this we, together with the Association of Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone (ANZORC), say: that the ZRC are an initiative and an agricultural instrument for peace.