At the very heart of violence and armed conflict in Colombia is land. This has been the case since before Colombia was a republic and continues to divide the country.
Colombia’s land ownership is extremely disproportionate and one of the most highly concentrated in the world. The causes of this can be traced back to the Spanish conquest of South America.
Causes of armed conflict in Colombia
Spain’s siege on the south
If you compare the colonization of Colombia to the United States, you can see how Spain’s takeover of the south was vastly different to that of Britain’s conquest of the north.
The British began a devolution program that would see new settlers be granted land and a vote after an initial period of free labor. This combination of land ownership and political representation would be the bedrock for American prosperity and democracy.
Spanish conquerors had a diametrically opposed way of dividing the land. Put simply, they didn’t.
Conquered land came in possession of the Spanish crown. What was given out was the labor force on the land, that being indigenous slaves, to the small percentage of conquerors.
Spain’s aim in South America didn’t begin so much as a settling expedition but more of an extraction mission, namely to mine the abundance of gold and silver.
While Britain’s north was indiscriminately handing out land, Spain’s aristocratic south maintained it for themselves and a pocket of chosen elites.
Revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar led forces to liberate South America from the Spanish empire in the 18th century.
“The Liberator,” however saw no merit in a democratic system as was experimented with in the United States. Before his death in 1830, he wrote a letter summarizing his south as simply ungovernable.
The territories that were liberated by Bolivar would not be shared among the population, but remained in the hands of the elites that had previously managed the land for the Spanish crown.
Societies like Colombia, Venezuela and Peru “that began with extreme inequality evolved highly unstable political institutions that reinforced that inequality and provoked constant conflict,” British historian Niall Ferguson said in his 2011 documentary Civilisation.
The Spanish foundation had been set. Colombia would be the country to embody Spain’s legacy the most, for land ownership here is the most disproportionate in the whole of South America.
Land reforms vs counter reforms
Between 1823 and 1931, the state offloaded vast chunks of land in order to pay off debts accrued during the independence war. The result, nearly 30% of all farm land in Colombia was owned by the top 0.2%, according to conflict investigators, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Landless peasants were locked into “unfair” sharecropping contracts with wealthy landowners and the church, who had all the control in the arrangement.
The first attempt to redistribute land was in the 1930s when the Liberal Party assumed political control and founded the so-called “Liberal Republic of Colombia.”
On the back of tensions between peasants and landowners, the government responded with a land reform in 1936 when the state vowed to legalize property, clarify property titles and incentivize productive land use.
However, the push-back from the political and wealthy elite far outweighed the impotence of the country’s peasants and this reform was undone in 1944.
In 1961, the government of dictator Gustavo Rojas introduced a law that was intended to become the “true agrarian” reform in a bid to completely restructure land tenure. The government pledged to redistribute large, mainly unused plots of land to the country’s poor farmers.
But this attempt also failed. The 1972 Chicoral Pact squashed any chance of a ‘true agrarian’ change to land concentration.
Both these ‘counter reforms’ stemmed from the collective effort of cattle ranchers, the industrial bourgeoisie and even drug traffickers to neutralize land redistribution attempts, and concentrate land ownership even further.
According to Anthony Dest, PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and founder of the Colombia Land Rights Monitor, this is mainly due to Colombia’s reactionary rural elites, some of whom have had their estates since Spanish rule.
“The elites are completely committed to preserving the privilege and wealth they’ve accumulated over the years,” Dest told Colombia Reports.
The scholar said that the failed land reforms in the 1930s and 1960s, effectively resulted in the concentration of land that pushed small farmers either to the cities or into uncharted territory.
“The accumulation of land … has actually been the tendency,” according to Dest.
The latest counter-reform paved the way for multinational corporations and international investors to take over Colombian land holdings, but also organized crime that had obtained wealth through contraband and cocaine trafficking.
As a result, multinational corporations and wealthy businesspeople streamed into resource-rich Colombia and took up vast amounts of land for mining, and agro-industrial enterprises producing sugar or palm oil.
“In Uraba (a region in the north-west of Colombia) in the mid ‘90s, you saw the first paramilitary groups really clearing a lot of land through the threat and use of force, literally going into rural communities and murdering people … leaving these places to be vacated in large part”, said Dest.
“When [the farmers] came back five years later, what did they find? They found the forest or jungle completely burned down and in its place were African palm oil plantations.”
According to some estimates, some 15% of Colombia’s land properties changed hands during the conflict, mainly to the benefit of elites and paramilitary groups.
This agricultural squeeze has played a major part in Colombia having the largest internally displaced population in the world. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 7.3 million Colombians have been forcibly displaced from their homes, 70% of those belonging to rural communities.
Will the FARC’s exit reverse land concentration?
At the core of the FARC’s existence is land distribution. The communist group was conceived in a time when peasants were enraged with land concentration but their voices weren’t loud enough to be heard from Bogota.
In areas under control by the guerrillas, peasants could settle and grow their crops. Instead of paying to estates, farmers in guerrilla territory paid tribute to the guerrillas.
This, however, created a unique problem; the cultivation of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine and one of the FARC’s primary sources of income.
Because the state was not present in FARC-controlled territory, an alternative economy formed that did not require road infrastructure connecting the countryside to consumption markets in the urban areas.
Conflict resolution professor Mark Chernick goes as far as calling the recently demobilized guerrilla group, ‘an armed peasant movement in search of an ideology,’ relaying just how deep the roots of the group are tied with poor farmers.
The major concerns for the former Marxist rebels when negotiating peace were the access and use of land, the development of programs with a territorial focus and the formalization of property.
According to director of the National Land Agency, Miguel Samper, 60% of Colombia’s farmers do not formally own their land. This translates to 30 to 50 million hectares, an area comparable to Sweden.
The government announced in late March that 2.5 million Colombian farmers would be officially recognised as owners of their land in a decree that could be seen as the peace deal’s first genuine step in addressing land concentration since the 1960s.
Although, further redistribution efforts presented in the peace terms will take years to materialize and are potentially explosive because the rural elite and drug trafficker’s often illegal concentration of farmland of the past centuries.
So-called “anti-restitution armies” and regional armed groups have taken to attacking peasants trying to reclaim stolen land. Alvaro Uribe’s hard-right Democratic Center party, which is supported by the ranchers, even seeks the formalization of ownership of stolen land property.
So far, the national government has failed to effectively control the countryside that has long been controlled by elites, guerrillas and narcos. So, the key question remains, how can the state redistribute land in places that it has since long abandoned?