Current land disputes are an extension of the long history of political violence and inequality. What does the recurrence of land occupations mean for the prospects of peace and development in Colombia today? And will increased public support for redistribution and the new government’s commitment to socio-economic change help marginalized rural communities gain land ownership rights?
Land redistribution was a key objective when the Colombian government and the former guerrilla group FARC-EP negotiated the 2016 peace agreement which ended the longest civil war in the Western Hemisphere. The promised peace deal 7 million hectares for titling programs aimed at small shareholders who have agricultural land but do not have official titles and 3 million hectares for communities without land as a means of subsistence.
Research on past rural mobilization efforts helps explain this final chapter of land occupation in Colombia. In the 1970s, land occupations skyrocketed, and these types of grassroots land claims continued into the 1980s, with peasant and indigenous communities seeing land occupations by large landowners as a way to pressure on the government so that it materializes the agrarian reform. However, the violent reaction of paramilitary groups in collusion with private landowners erased land occupations from the toolbox of rural movements during the civil war.
The land policies of the 1970s failed – and rural residents fought back
Seeking to deter land disputes and the nascent insurgency, President Alberto Lleras-Camargo took a reformist approach by creating national institutions to change land policy through the agrarian law of 1961. Later that decade, the administration of President Carlos Lleras-Restrepo strengthened these institutions and encouraged peasants to participate in the implementation of new land policies. Still wealthy Colombian landowners and cattle ranchers worked with coalitions in Congress to derail these efforts and bribed local officials to obstruct implementation.
Disappointed by broken promises on land redistribution, ANUC — the largest peasant movement of the time — coordinated a land occupation campaign in the early 1970s. In the northern department of Cordoba, for example, dozens of peasant families settled in temporary shacks on land belonging to 30 private owners. haciendas (or estates).
The aim of the peasants was to put pressure on the authorities so that they keep the promises of land redistribution. Similar episodes unfolded across the country. By the end of the year, Colombian officials had recorded 645 occupancy events. Political and economic elites of the 1970s denounced these “land invasions” as a threat to economic development.
In some cases, rural communities have obtained formal titles to occupied land. But elite demands led to a strong shift in land policy, which crystallized into a government-elite deal known as thePacto de Chicoral», signed in January 1972. From now on, land policies have fostered economic growth on a more equitable distribution of rural assets.
Importantly, the Pacto de Chicoral helped legitimize government repression against peasants, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians mobilizing for land rights, while paramilitary groups violently evicted rural communities from recently allocated lands. Unresolved land claims have also fueled political conflict, violence and displacement. The conclusions of Colombian Truth Commission – an institution established by the 2016 peace accord – report that local alliances of paramilitary groups, landed elites and the national army have carried out counter-agrarian efforts, using deadly violence against peasant communities.
Is there political impetus for land redistribution today?
Echoing the mobilizations of the 1970s, indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian movements have taken over vast areas in recent months. For example, in the northern part of Colombia in CaesarPeasant movements are contesting ownership of plots of land purchased by private companies after paramilitary forces drove out local farmers in the mid-2000s.
Similarly, in the south-west of Colombia, in the Cauca, land occupations have brought to light long-standing conflicts between Indigenous peoples and the sugar cane industry. Adding to the conflict, tensions arose between Afro-Colombians claiming their right to work, and peasant and indigenous communities mobilizing to claim land ownership. These disputes are rooted in the widespread inequality of wealth in the Cauca, where the Land Gini The index — a measure of income inequality ranging from 0 (low) to 1 (high) — hit 0.9.
In recent months, cattle ranchers and opposition leaders have reacted to land occupations in a way that surprisingly resemble the actions of vigilante groups – a response that fueled violence against peasant communities during the decades of armed conflict that ended in 2016 Peace agreement. Will the different factions now find ways to compromise? Unlike in the 1970s, Colombia today has institutional frameworks to deal with the atrocities of war and is more capable of implementing redistribution policies, including land redistribution.
Aware of the interplay of land disputes and violence, the national government appears to be taking steps to deliver on its promises to end land disputes and reduce inequalities. The administration of Petro sign a deal this month to buy around 3 million hectares from cattle ranchers to speed up the redistribution of rural land. The government’s plan aims to return land to landless communities by prioritizing negotiation rather than contestation.
Of course, the plans of the Petro administration have drawn some criticism. Some politicians criticized the government’s willingness to negotiate with sectors that collude with paramilitary groups. Others have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of transferring resources to already wealthy land elites through land purchases. However, as long as the agreement prioritizes access to land for landless communities while diminishing the dissenting voices of powerful Colombian big landowners, it can help resolve long-standing inequalities in Colombia and continue on the way to peace.
Laura García-Montoya (@LauraGarciaMo) is an assistant professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and an assistant professor of economics at the Universidad del Rosario.
Isabel Güiza-Gómez (@IsabelGuiza) is a PhD candidate in political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.