By Alex Whiting
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Curbing poverty and hunger in rural areas is crucial to building lasting peace in Colombia and in turn will help the nation become a breadbasket for the world, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday.
Rural reforms to address unequal land distribution and boost development are key to the peace agreement signed last month by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reach an accord.
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"We are all aware that there is no peace where hunger exists, and also that conflict creates an environment of scarcity," Santos told government representatives gathered at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"Peace in our country is a peace that will benefit the whole world on many fronts, one of which is that of food security and agricultural development," he said.
More than 220,000 people died in the 52-year war that began as an uprising by the Marxist-inspired FARC rebels over unequal land distribution.
The conflict forced nearly seven million people, many of them poor farmers, from their homes, leaving Colombia with one of the world's largest displaced populations.
"Our fields were also victim of the armed conflict, which stripped our rural sector of its productivity, increased the social gap with urban areas," Santos said.
Just seven million hectares of land are being farmed out of a potential 26 million hectares, Santos said, citing a recent survey.
"We come from a land with immense potential but which is underused precisely because of conflict," he said.
"Now I'm happy to announce that we are going to make the most of our potential and turn Colombia into a supplier of food the world needs to combat nutrition and hunger," he said.
Along with reforms to boost development in neglected, violence-torn areas, the accord entitles landless and displaced farmers to credit and farmland through a land bank that aims to redistribute seven million hectares over the next decade.
The country has begun implementing a plan to address rural poverty, reduce hunger, generate jobs and build infrastructure including irrigation systems, roads and internet coverage, Santos said.
It also has plans for more rural schools, health centers, housing, improved access to drinking water and sanitation, subsidies for agricultural production and credit and incentives for proper land use.
Under the peace agreement, the 7,000-strong FARC has six months to abandon weapons and form a political party.
Law enforcement and military officials have expressed fears some rebels will not demobilize and instead keep control of lucrative coca-growing and cocaine-smuggling operations, joining the ranks of the country's feared criminal gangs.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)