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200 years of landlessness? Land inequality and the search for peace in Colombia

Thomas Edward Flores

Representatives of the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue to negotiate in the sweltering Havana summer to end a civil war that has taken 220 000 lives. May 2013 brought word of a dramatic breakthrough—after six months of talks, the two sides agreed to a land reform that they described in a joint statement as ‘the start of a radical transformation of rural Colombia’. However, to paraphrase the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s famous book, the question remains as to whether the reforms can end 200 years of landlessness in Colombia.

The mechanism of land reform may well be economic but social and political obstacles stand in its way. Land inequality has long been at the heart of rural conflict in Colombia. Between 1823 and 1931, the Colombian Government frequently sold off large tracts of public land to pay its debts. The result was a remarkably concentrated system of landownership: in 1960, the largest 0.2 per cent of farms comprised roughly 30 per cent of all farm land in Colombia.

Nor was this inequality merely economic in scope, but a part of a more complex socio-political structure of exclusion that locked peasants into unfair labor contracts and unequal standing before the law. Peasants’ struggles for land rights often turned violent, as large landowners in concert with local authorities used force to expropriate squatters from disputed land. These struggles metastasized, as peasants created armed groups to defend their land rights, which in turn yielded ‘independent republics’ which, after battles with the Colombian army, yielded the nucleus of FARC. Mark Chernick goes so far as to call FARC ‘an armed peasant movement in search of an ideology’, emphasizing the peasant origins of the insurgency.

Colombia’s long civil war has only exacerbated this political economic inequality. The Norwegian Council estimates that as many as 1 in 8 Colombians are internally displaced, with the rate even higher for Afro-Colombians. USAID estimates (PDF) that 0.4 per cent of Colombians own 62 per cent of the country’s best farmland; on the Gini measurement of inequality in land ownership (which ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 being most unequal) Colombia scores 0.77. Social instability in the countryside thus remains a constant of Colombian political life. An ongoing national strike by miners and agricultural labourers has erupted in rural areas and small towns, involving tens of thousands of workers and injuring scores of protestors and police.

The land reform promised by negotiators in Havana is therefore a good place to start and its provisions for rural investment, land redistribution and compensation of victims who have lost property during the war are certainly needed. The centrality of land reform exemplifies the importance of economic steps to the future of peace and justice in Colombia. The Colombian Government’s commitment also signals that Juan Manuel Santos’ administration understands that FARC exists because of rural frustration, not the other way around.

However, there are good reasons to temper our optimism. As in Márquez’s 100 Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombian history tends to repeat itself. The Colombian Government has attempted land reform no fewer than 14 times since 1917, an average of one land reform every seven years. In each case, particularly in 1936 and 1961, the government recognized the importance of addressing inequality but failed to implement reforms that meaningfully redistributed land.

A constant in Colombia’s frustrating experience with land reform is the ability of landed Colombians to halt reforms through violent coercion and exert influence in local government. Nor has such harassment ended. Paramilitary groups—initially created by large landowners and businessmen as a counter to insurgent groups—are by one estimate responsible for over 80 per cent of political murders. Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights activists, and leaders of peasant groups are their most frequent targets.

Land reform may very well be sound economic policy that, if implemented, can bring stability and development to the Colombian countryside. Yet its success depends on the political question of how Colombia’s landed class will react to attempts to democratize land ownership. The reaction of former president Álvaro Uribe, himself the scion of a wealthy landowning family known for weakening FARC militarily between 2002 and 2010, is not encouraging. Uribe took to Twitter to criticize the land reform, following a pattern of public condemnations of negotiating with the FARC.

Whether or not Colombia experiences another 100 years of landlessness, then, depends crucially on President’s Santos’ ability to not only negotiate with FARC, but also reconcile his peers among the landed elites to the idea of meaningful land reform.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).