The Colombian Peace Process: Rural Development and Land Reform

The Colombian Peace Process: Rural Development and Land Reform

Grace Livingstone

Centre of Latin American Studies

University of Cambridge

Summary of a presentation delivered at the conference on “The Santos-FARC peace talks: A Colombian liberal peace?”, University of Sussex, 12 April 2013

Land is the root of the Colombia conflict.  The Colombian government and the FARC may be able to sign a formal peace deal, but ending the violence in the countryside will be more difficult.  That would entail challenging the privileges of a landed elite, which for decades has restored to paramilitary violence to defend its interests.

Colombia has the most unequal land structure in Latin America; 0.4% of landowners own 62% of the land.  Colombia has seen increased land concentration over the past decade as millions of small farmers have been displaced and large scale agro-export crops and mining projects have expanded.

Landlessness and poverty is fuelling the conflict as there is always a ready supply of recruits for armed groups.  The FARC’s social base is peasants with little or no land in southern and south-eastern Colombia.

The FARC and the government began talks in October last year.  Rural issues and land reform have been the first item on the agenda.  When the FARC submitted its ten proposals on land, it became apparent that its prescriptions were not so very different from the government’s: both sides agreed on the need to tackle large, unproductive estates; to reduce the scale of cattle ranching and the need for more rural infrastructure and financing for small farmers.

In principle, both the government and the FARC support also ‘peasant reserve zones’, but the FARC’s proposal in mid-march to expand these dramatically has caused a rift between the two sides.  Peasant reserve zones were first conceived by the government of Ernesto Samper in 1994.  They aim to protect small-scale agriculture: farmers can sell their plots of land but cannot acquire more land within the zone.  There are currently six peasant reserve zones in Colombia, covering 831,000 hectares.  The FARC proposes to increase this area by 11 times, raising the number of zones to 50, covering an area of 9.5m hectares (8% of Colombian territory).  Although this sounds like an enormous amount of land, when one compares it to the area used for cattle ranching – 40m hectares (35%) of Colombian territory, – it becomes clear that land is available, it is simply a question of political will as to how it is distributed.

The demand for expanding the zones has come from peasants’ organisations, participating in an Agrarian Forum in Bogotá in December 2012 and a conference in San Vicente de Caguán in March 2013.  The FARC has simply brought a demand that has emerged from the grassroots to the negotiating table.  And it is not necessarily a revolutionary demand: the government supports the idea in principle and some of the existing zones are funded by the World Bank.  The problem is that the FARC has said the peasant zones should have political, economic and administrative autonomy, as well as their own systems of justice.  The Colombian government has ruled that out.  The two sides meet again in the third week of April and will try to hammer out a compromise.

Even if the FARC and Colombian government reach a deal, one still has to question whether Santos can persuade enough of the rural elite to accept change.  President Santos understands the need for social reform to achieve peace and undercut the appeal of the armed groups.  Since he has been elected president, he has embarked on a series of reforms – the most notable being the victims and land restitution law, which aims to give land back to displaced people.  But the response to this legislation – an upsurge of violence against peasant activists  – shows that many regional landowners take a more hardline view than the Bogotá elite and are prepared to defend their privileges with violence.