Understanding the causes of Colombia’s conflict: Inequality

Inequality is a widely-cited cause of Colombia’s armed conflict, from economists and academics in international institutions to the average Colombian.

One aspect of extreme inequality experienced in the country is that of income.

According to most sources, including the World Bank and CIA rankings, Colombia is on the top ten most unequal countries in the world in terms of family income. And most of its citizens are aware.

While the decades-long conflict in Colombia has many roots, most observers agree that the perception of inequality is an important factor.

Former senior World Bank country economist Lars Christian Moller

How unequal is Colombia?

As World Bank economist Moller noted in 2012, a University of Vanderbilt survey found that nearly 85% of the population finds the income distribution to be unfair. More than 70% of the population believes that policies should be implemented by the government to reduce income inequality.

Closely linked to income inequality, and arguably playing an even more central role in Colombia’s conflict, is the level of land concentration and inequality.

According to the United States Development Agency (USAID), just 0.4% of the population owns 62% of the country’s best land. Well under half of the arable land (22-40%) is cultivated, with most lying fallow or used for cattle grazing.

NGO Oxfam says that 80% of land in Colombia is in the hands of just 14% of owners and that this concentration has actually increased over the last 50+ years. In 1960, the Gini index (a number between 0 and 1 which measures inequality) was 0.841, rising to 0.885 in 2009.

Causes of armed conflict in Colombia

Inequality | Political exclusion | Weak and corrupt state | Land ownership


Rural inequality

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says that “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 farmland in Colombia.”Land inequality has resulted in part from explicit government policy, as the state used to sell public land to improve its finances.

The link between land ownership and the armed conflict appears to be beyond doubt. Access to land has been a fundamental component of the various social conflicts which have swept Colombia from the end of the 19th century to the present day.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Another way the state concentrated land was through “tax incentives and government subsidies that encourage the well-off to retain agricultural land even if they do not utilize it efficiently,” according to USAID. Thus, these policies not only affect land inequality, but also hinder economic activity by promoting inefficient land cultivation.

The US agency goes on to describe how land is either over- or underexploited by its owners: “Nearly one-quarter of land used for grazing is prime agricultural land that could be better used for growing crops, while land that ideally would be conserved or left as forest is over-utilized for crops or grazing, resulting in erosion and destruction of forest and water resources.”

More directly related to the conflict is the concentration of land through violent expropriation and the expelling of the peasant populations. This process began centuries ago, according to the widely respected academics and conflict analysts Fernan Gonzalez and Teolifo Vasquez. They have written that “since Spanish colonial times, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the highly concentrated structure of property expelled the growing peasant population to peripheral areas of the country,” areas of the country from which much of the insurgency has its roots.

During perhaps the most intense period of the conflict – the early 1980s to 2000, USAID says that “armed groups acquired approximately 4.5 million hectares of land, or roughly 50% of the country’s most fertile land.”

The Economist cites a statistic from Colombia’s agriculture ministry that says that “around 6.5m hectares (16m acres) of land, including some of the most fertile, was stolen, abandoned or forcibly changed hands in other ways between 1985 and 2008 as a result of the conflict.”

Inequality violently promoted

“The most explosive situations arise,” he writes, “when peasants believe that have been ‘unjustly’ dispossessed of land.” As millions of Colombians have been dispossessed of lands in such a manner, the potential for political violence has been present throughout much of Colombian history.

“The most explosive situations arise when peasants believe that have been ‘unjustly’ dispossessed of land.”

Political scientist Charles D. Brockett

Recognizing that much of the land in Colombia has been acquired through violent means is essential to understanding the role of inequality in the conflict. While the existence of unequal social and economic relations themselves can be linked to violence, political scientist Charles D. Brockett has pointed out in a study on political violence and land inequality in Central America that the source of such inequality it important.

Large landowners used the practice of violent expulsion of peasants following during the years of “La Violencia” following the assassination of charismatic political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948.

Economic interests, both of the landowners and international entities, were often closely tied to the expulsions. According to a report by Fidel Mingorance for the organization Human Rights Everywhere, “between 1946 and 1958, with the war between Conservatives and Liberals as a pretext, 2 million campesinos were displaced from their land, 200,000 were murdered, while sugar cane plantations expanded, cotton production increased fivefold and the coffee economy boomed.”

Mingorance goes on to say that “the possession of land and its subsequent ‘legalisation’ by developing it agriculturally is often as important as the profits which are then made through various agricultural projects, and so this relationship between violence, the appropriation of land and agro-industry is not an unusual one.”

The displaced and their property

Millions have also been internally displaced since the start of the current conflict with the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups in the 1960s. The majority of these people, according to Mingorance, owned land at the time of their displacement. Some estimates place the total number of Colombians displaced by the armed conflict at 5.5 million (among the highest rates in the world), meaning that several million people have been unjustly dispossessed of their land. As historian Charles Bergquist once wrote, this resulted in an “agrarian counterreform of unprecedented proportions.”

Much of the land theft that has occurred in Colombia is connected to landowners and multinationals seeking to acquire and/or expand their landholdings. Oxfam believes that some 40% of Colombian land in under some type of contract with multinational corporations. But, without question, the FARC, created in response to the land inequality and expulsion experienced by marginalized peasants, has itself been involved in land theft.

Landowners accuse the rebels of expropriating some 800,000 hectares. It has been reported that the FARC will displace rural communities to ensure reliable escape routes. Regardless of the specific actor responsible, many displaced families refuse to return to their land over fears of more violence.

Hope for restitution

In 2011, hopes were raised as the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos passed the Victims and Land Restitution Law. The legislation was intended to provide reparations to the millions of victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, in particular by returning land to those who have lost it. While welcomed by human rights groups and international organizations, many have been quick to point out its shortcomings and the lack of results since its implementation.

Amnesty International in November 2014 issued a scathing report in which they said that less than 1% of displaced Colombians have received titles to their land under the law, while even fewer have been able to return.  The results led one senior researcher to say that “implementation of the law is so poor, they should be ashamed. They are putting the whole thing at risk.”

According to Esteban Beltran, director of Amnesty International in Spain, the fault lies in the failure to carry out the restitution law from beginning to end, and the absence of one governing body responsible for the process. Beltran told Colombia Reports last year that while violence remains an enormous obstacle, there has curiously been no effort to prosecute those responsible for the forced evictions.

The peace talks between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government are now in their third year. A preliminary agreement on rural reform, much of which attempted to address the problem of land inequality, has already been signed. However, the two sides were unable to agree on the specifics of land redistribution or how to finance agricultural investments in the event of a final peace deal.

The last note in the document clearly states that, “the government has to fully commit to financing all of the compromises reached in this accord, which will be discussed at the sixth point of the agenda.” It remains to be seen how the financing of the rural development plans will be carried.

If the final agreement fails to fully adequately address the problem of land access and inequality, political violence in Colombia is likely to continue, even if the FARC demobilizes.


Property rights and resource management (USAID)

Breaking with history: Why Colombia needs a more progressive tax system (World Bank/Colombia Reports)

Acceso a tierras y desplazamiento forzado en Colombia (Universidad de Los Andes)

Peace, Land, and Bread (The Economist)

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

The World Factbook (CIA)

The flow of palm oil – Colombia- Belgium:EuropeA study from a human rights perspective (HREV)

Colombia: The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Amnesty International)

An old war in a new context: The interaction between the agrarian problem and armed conflict in Colombia on the national and sub-national levels (Fernan Gonzalez and Teofilo Vasquez)

Hispanic American Historical Review, p. 723 – book review by Charles Bergquist of Violencia Publica en Colombia, 1958 – 2010.  

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