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News Analysis: Post-conflict Colombia to face challenges, opportunities

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by Sylvia B. Zarate

BOGOTA, Aug. 2 (Xinhua) -- As Colombia's government and largest guerrilla force prepare to put an end to five decades of civil war with a definitive peace

deal, the challenges and opportunities of a post-conflict era are coming into greater focus.

Colombia is preparing to reap the benefits of peace, and to take on the complex tasks of dismantling the war machine and rebuilding not just communities, but also lives.

The end of fighting between government troops and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) should bring peace. Unfortunately, landmines, one of the legacies of the conflict, threaten to continue to inflict death and destruction in many parts of Colombia for years to come.

A demining campaign agreed to by both sides has already begun in what is considered to be Colombia's most heavily mined location, the El Orejon trail in the department of Antioquia. Members of the FARC's 36th front are believed to have planted some 3,000 mines in this area.

According to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), "Colombia suffers from widespread suspected landmine and explosive remnant of war contamination."

"There have been reports of mine and UXO (unexploded ordnance) incidents in over 60 percent of Colombia's municipalities, and in 31 out of 32 administrative departments," UNMAS said.

While the number of people killed or injured from stepping on a mine is on the decline, "Colombia still has the second highest number of new victims registered each year, with 219 new victims reported in 2015," including many children, the UN agency said.

Ending the conflict will also put an end to the rebels' recruitment of minors to join the armed leftist movement. It should free some 8,000 Colombian youth, who today form part of the guerrilla group, to rejoin their families and pursue education.

For those children and others living in rebel strongholds, the Colombian government needs to invest to provide free or affordable quality education if it wants to counter the influence of still active guerrilla groups, like the smaller National Liberation Army, or the lure of criminal organizations.

In addition, the government will need to spur the creation of jobs for the nearly 10,000 FARC fighters who will be laying down arms to rejoin society.

Providing opportunities for decent employment will ensure the fighters and their families to make a smooth transition to normal life, and prevent them from falling victim to criminal bands.

Some 50 percent of Colombia's criminal gangs involved in extortion and drug trafficking are believed to be former members of paramilitary groups that were disbanded, but were left without alternative livelihood.

The peace accords between the government and the rebels carry their own price tag. Observers estimate that to implement the agreements, including a government pledge to develop the countryside, will require between 5 and 18 billion U.S. dollars a year.

Colombia is partly banking on financial cooperation with the international community, with countries such as China, Canada, the United States and the European Union pledging aid.

But the country also expects to see industry and production thrive in the post-conflict era, as death and destruction give way to building and creation.

Three economic sectors hold particular promise, namely agriculture, tourism and foreign investment.

Perhaps the sector most devastated by the conflict has been agriculture, as fighting forced thousands of families to flee the countryside and take refuge in the cities.

The Agriculture Ministry has already announced a series of reforms to spur development, though the big challenge lies in drawing the younger generation back to the countryside.

How effectively Colombia fights drug trafficking and production is another factor. The government will have to convince about 70,000 families who currently make a living from planting illicit crops to switch to alternative plants.

UN statistics show coca production has doubled in recent years, amounting to 96,000 hectares, mainly in the departments of Cauca, Narino, Putumayo, Norte de Santander and Guaviare.

Colombia is expected to see a rise in tourism, especially in parts of the country that were off limits due to the fighting.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said recently that the end of the conflict will allow national and foreign visitors to travel to regions with abundant wildlife that were formerly "red zones."

The United States has warned its citizens about traveling to Colombia because of the conflict, but that will change once a peace deal is signed, said Santos.

To prepare for a larger influx of visitors, Santos plans to beef up the country's tourism police force from the current 900 officers to 1,300 by 2017.

Investment flows are also expected to increase.

According to Santos, the government plans to earmark 25 billion dollars to develop infrastructure, competitiveness and technology in the coming years via projects that will attract foreign investors.