When FARC’s insurgency started, their political manifesto was focused on promoting a radical agrarian reform that would have redistributed lands to small peasants and abolish large landholdings.
The historical ceasefire, signed in La Habana on June 23th 2016, was the first step to bring peace in Colombia after fifty-two years of conflict. In February 2017, the FARC and the Colombian government have begun a long and controversial process of national pacification. During the peace talks, land reform was the critical topic and remains the crucial challenge to ensure FARC’s demobilization.
Present and future challenges in the peace process
Land reform has always been the main political flag of the FARC. Since the 1960s, when FARC’s rebellion began, the ownership structure of land has not evolved. Colombia still has one of the highest levels of unequal distribution of land. The peace agreement attempts to deal with the land issue and to transform rural Colombia. It tries to re-build the property structure of land to avoid the repetition of the existent socio-economic conditions which have facilitated the persistence of the conflict.
Between the 1950s and today, no agrarian reforms have been able to mitigate the issue of land concentration and the poor living conditions of small peasants and landless people. In the peace deal, the FARC and Colombian government agreed on a plan that will attempt to reduce rural poverty by 50% in the Colombian countryside over the next ten to fifteen years. In the document, there is not a threat against the constitutional right of private property. The land reform does not reflect the radical political view of the FARC. It is the result of a compromise, in which the Colombian government will improve the access of land to small and middle farmers to foster rural development.
First, a special entity called Fondo de Tierras will be created, which will have 3 million hectares of land to distribute to landless people or small peasants. It will also provide peasants with technical assistance and financial help.
Second, Colombian authorities will protect the rights of small and middle-sized farmers to own their property against the violence and intimidation used to resolve land disputes. It will enforce the process of land restitution, as guaranteed by the Victims and Restitution Land Law.
Third, the Colombian government will invest to improve infrastructures and public utilities in the countryside in order to guarantee social and economic development to rural communities.
The path to the country’s pacification is still long. The key to consolidate FARC’s demobilization is to actually implement the land reform and its targets. But Colombian authorities should not forget to protect the most vulnerable social classes and ethnical communities during the peace transition.
Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders have already expressed their concerns on losing their constitutional right to own collective land. During the conflicts, private multinationals could not access unexplored frontiers and jungles due to FARC’s presence.
Now, Indigenous communities fear that the economic interests of big companies will be directed to their land. Arias, Head of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, said to Reuters: “Companies operating in Latin America’s fourth-largest oil producer have often failed to consult properly with them about projects on their lands, which threaten their water resources and the environment.”
The historical roots of rural inequality
In the country, the origins of rural problems can be found in the unequal distribution of land. In a recent report, Oxfam argues that Colombia is the country with the highest level of land concentration in Latin America. In the 2000s, farms of more than 500 hectares, which represented only 0.4% of all farmers, occupied 67.7% of all productive land. In addition, in 2012 only 22% of potential arable land was cultivated in the country, a clear under exploitation of the Colombian countryside.
Rural inequality has historical roots in Colombia. In 1954 31.05% of the arable land was owned by 0.88% of Colombian landholders with property of more than 500 hectares. 55% of farmers owned land for less than 10 hectares. Furthermore, while small plots were cultivated for 83% of their land, only 10% of land was utilised in landownership of more than 2.500 hectares, In 1961, landowners with more than 1000 hectares, who were 1.2% of the total farmers, owned 45% of the total arable land in the country. In the same year, 64.1% of Colombian farmers lived in poverty and 30.2% of them lived at subsistence level.
Even though the total cultivated land rocketed up from 35.801 hectares in 1984 to 72.627 hectares in 1994, the level of land concentration did not improve. Paradoxically, despite the number of small landowners increased by 756.600 units, the largest landowners were the ones who gained most from the extension of exploited land (the category of property with more than 2.000 hectares). The oligopoly of landlords increased the extension of its property by 457,8%, which was a gain of more than 31.415 hectares. At the same time, 2.210.000 Colombian peasants owned land comprised of less than 5 hectares.
In 1994, 82.4% of Colombian farmers owned a minifundo, which was a plot classified as a property that could provide at least three basic salaries to its owner. But the products of a minifundo did not feed a whole family. In practice it meant living at a subsistence level.
Land reform was a structural issue in Colombia when the FARC started their violent struggle and it remains the crucial challenge to ensuring a peace agreement.
The issue of displaced people
Colombian countryside has also experienced a historical issue of displaced farmers. During the conflict, around 6 million people moved away from their homes and land. It is estimated that the abandoned and dispossessed land account for more than 6.8 million hectares. The forced displacement mostly hit Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians who lived in remote parts of rural Colombia. The context of general violence worsened the socio-economic conditions of the poorer rural people and of specific ethnic groups.
In 2011, the Colombian government approved the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aims to return abandoned or stolen land to displaced people. However, the application of the law has been a challenge for Colombian authorities. There is a real danger that most of the misappropriated land will remain property of who has stolen it.
According to Amnesty International, the Victims and Land Restitution Law will affect only the 2 million hectares of land which are considered illegally appropriated. Thousands and thousands of people will not match the requirements of the law and they will not have their land back. For example, victims who were forced to leave their property before 1 January 1991, are not eligible for land restitution.
In addition to the technical troubles of legally demonstrating the ownership over land, humanitarian organizations have already denounced acts of violence committed by right-wing criminal bands, which are targeting land advocates and families who return to their land. During the conflicts, a few large landowners who allied with paramilitary groups have accumulated lands that have been stolen through violence and intimidation. Stolen land was also sold in the market. Several unaware peasants acquired land which was previously stolen, leaving the Colombian authority with a dilemma. Who owns the property? Who left the land or who legally acquired stolen land?
If Colombia fails to reform its structural access to land and to secure the rights of former FARC’s fighters and peasants, it will miss the chance to consolidate FARC’s demobilization.