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New tensions unleashed by Colombia’s peace process

Ana María Ibáñez Londoño

On 4 September 2012 the Colombian Government initiated peace talks with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the oldest guerilla group in the country. The agenda, negotiated before the official launch of the process, covers five topics: access to land and rural development; the political participation of guerrilla members; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration; the illicit drug trade; and truth and compensation for the victims of the conflict. Recent events suggest that Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the other large guerrilla group, will join the peace negotiations in a parallel process. However, the possibility of peace has created new tensions and unleashed pressure from interest groups.

In addition to the peace talks (read the agenda, PDF), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón pushed for an ambitious law to compensate victims of violence. The Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was enacted in 2011, aims to compensate the four million victims of the conflict by restoring land that had previously been seized by illegal armed groups from small peasants, indemnifying direct victims of conflict, providing a monthly stipend until households reach economic stability, and giving preferential access to social programs. 

The peace talks and the new law have forced Colombia to pay attention to its forgotten rural regions. According to a recent report (in Spanish) by Colombia’s Centro de Memoria Histórica (Centre for Historical Memory), in the period 1985–2013 more than 166,000 people died due to conflict, 1,982 massacres were perpetrated by non-state armed actors, and 8.3 million hectares of land were illegally seized. Today, 3.9 million people—equivalent to 8.4 percent of the Colombian population—have been forced to migrate internally. Most of the victims of conflict in Colombia are from rural areas. 

Over the past two decades the Colombian Government’s interventions in rural areas have concentrated on combating guerrilla and paramilitary groups, and curtailing coca production. Rural development efforts have been scant, ill-conceived and short lived. Therefore, economic development in rural areas is lagging, and the rural–urban gap has widened significantly. While 28.4 percent of the urban population is poor, this figure increases to 46.8 percent in rural areas. 

Poor peasants’ inability to access land, the high concentration of land ownership, and the  informal nature of property rights are just three of the many causes of poverty in rural areas. While 41 percent of rural households have access to land, only half (52.3 percent) of these households have legal property titles. In 2012 land inequality in Colombia, as measured by the land GINI coefficient, was 0.87—one of the highest in Latin America. The unequal distribution of land in the country was caused by historical dynamics and several internal wars that ensued after Colombia’s independence (on this topic see Thomas Edward Flores’ blog post in this series)

Insufficient public spending and a weak state presence in rural areas, paired with poor rural development and agricultural policies, are also responsible for these conditions. Access to state social services is much lower in rural areas in Colombia. For example, coverage of water sewerage in 2012 was 92.2 percent in urban areas and 15.6 percent in rural areas, and gross school enrolment in primary education for 2009 was 110 percent and 90 percent in urban and rural areas respectively. As a result, people between the ages of 15 and 24 have an average of 10.1 years of education in urban areas but only 7.8 years of education in rural areas. 

The feeling of hopelessness in rural areas is high. The 2012 living standards measurement survey (in Spanish), which collected information on subjective poverty, showed that 67.7 percent of rural households consider themselves poor, while the figure for urban households is 42.4 percent.

The possibility of peace in Colombia has unleashed pressure from a number of interest groups. The peace process and the Victims and Land Restitution Law, if fully implemented, will redefine property rights in some regions, reduce land concentration and promote greater public and private investment in rural areas. The increased possibility of comprehensive land reform has led a number of interest groups to seek leverage in this new climate. 

The first groups to react were the former paramilitary groups that mutated into criminal groups after their demobilization in 2006. These groups have killed more than 50 community leaders advocating for land restitution. In addition, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his political allies, whose popular support relies on their strong stance against the guerrillas, have voiced their opposition to the peace process and launched a new political party to contest the May 2014 presidential and senate elections. If Uribe’s party successfully elects a large group of senators, they would be able to block any reform that emerges from the peace process. 

Most recently, peasant movements—which had previously been dormant for decades—have organized large social protests across Colombia. In August 2013 farmers blockaded 72 roads, leading to a sharp decrease in food supplies, and were able to muster the support of the urban Colombians who joined the protests by marching in several urban centers, including the capital, Bogotá. If properly led, this reinvigorated peasant movement is good news for democracy in Colombia. 

The short-term loser after two weeks of farmers’ protests is President Santos. Opinion polls conducted in August 2013 showed his popularity plummeting from 44 percent in February 2013 to 21 percent. In the long run, this clash of interest groups may harm the peace process by weakening the support of the population at large, and strengthening the political hawks. The peace talks need to speed up to avoid interest groups placing additional pressure on the government. 

Reaching a negotiated peace could become an unprecedented opportunity for rural regions and its disadvantaged population. Our research shows that conflict created a poverty trap for the internally displaced population (IDP) by slacking asset ownership, particularly land, depreciating their human capital, and debilitating social networks that are instrumental for mitigating shocks. Small peasants who stayed in conflict regions modified their behavior in order to reduce the risk of victimization. These changes in behavior cause a reduction in agricultural income and investment because households cultivate crops that provide short-term earnings, but with lower profits, and invest in assets that are easily transferable to urban areas.  Labor markets are not sufficiently dynamic and strong to provide income generation opportunities for these households.  

President Santos needs to be politically savvy to navigate among all the pressures of the emerging interest groups. The government has to devise and implement ambitious policies and investments to improve the conditions of rural areas and victims of conflict. These policies will not only improve the conditions in rural areas, but will contribute to reduce inequality in Colombia and foster economic development.  


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