Rural Reform: Colombia’s Long Lost Promise Begins to Move Forward

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Authors: Valentina Zuluaga, Ana Pereyra Baron

Access to land is a human right. Yet when it comes to land distribution, Colombia holds one of the most dismal track records in Latin America. In Colombia, 0.4% of the population owns 46% of rural land, making it one of the most unequal countries in the world with regard to land distribution. This inequality has led to vast problems in the country, such as rural poverty and food insecurity. Moreover, land inequality is one of the principal drivers of the conflict in the country. While the conflict was sparked partially by land inequality and the need for reform, the Colombian armed conflict also dramatically and tragically worsened the land situation for many campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and Indigenous communities. The Colombian armed conflict left over 7,752,964 victims of forced displacement between 1985-2019, many of whom were violently forced to flee from their rural lands, largely into urban areas, leaving their entire lives behind. From one day to the next, Colombians were ripped away from the land they always knew and cared for.

Rural reform is crucial in providing restorative justice for millions of victims. In enacting rural reform, the Colombian government has the power to return land to victims who had land stolen from them. More than this, however, the government may also formalize ownership of land for campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and Indigenous groups who do not have land titles and broaden access to land from state owned land, including vacant “baldios,” land confiscated as asset forfeiture from drug traffickers, and land purchased for distribution. Rural reform is imperative in moving the country forward, and as such, it lies at the core of the 2016 peace accords.

Recent Rural Reform Efforts

Despite appearing radical to political opponents, Colombia is no stranger to the promise of rural reform. In fact, rural reform was introduced much earlier. To give just a couple of examples, Law 70, which was passed in 1993, provided a basis for recognizing Afro-Colombian territorial land rights. More recently, the return of land to internally displaced persons is a major element of the Victim’s Law, introduced in 2012 and still in the process of being implemented. Most prominently, rural reform is a major part of the 2016 peace accords which were advanced by President Juan Manuel Santos. Yet despite its roots in Colombian history, some political opponents of reform continue to consider rural reform too radical, with concerns that in order to achieve reform, the government would have to overreach its power and steal land from wealthy landowners.

As a result, the process to achieve rural reform has been slow going and uneven. The first breakthrough was the passage of the Victim’s Law, which began the return of land to internally displaced persons. Yet what the law was able to return was insignificant compared to the vast amounts of illegally stolen land in the country. By the fifth year of the peace accords, only 618,000 acres were distributed, or about 8 percent of the total goal.

Hope for Land for Small Farmers, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous Persons

The Petro Administration has so far aimed to address rural reform by fulfilling the promises made under the 2016 peace accords, which largely have not been met. The 2016 peace accords promised to formalize ownership titles to over 7 million hectares (approximately 17 million acres) of rural land, as well as distribute 3 million hectares (approximately 7.4 million acres) of rural land to small and medium-sized farmers.

Although progress is slow moving, there is hope, and the Petro Administration is taking steps towards restoring stolen land and broadening access to land. His government has laid a three-step approach towards his rural reform, which does not involve expropriation of large landowners’ property, with the exception of those involved in drug trafficking crimes.

  • In the first phase, the government is providing proper land titles to over 681,000 hectares (approximately 1.6 million acres) of land to campesinos, Indigenous communities, and Afro-Colombians.
  • In phase two, the government leased out 150,000 hectares (approximately 300,000 acres) of land which were confiscated illegally by drug traffickers to different campesino communities.
  • The final phase includes a combination of efforts from the public and private sectors, in which the government will sell 5 million hectares (approximately 12 million acres), bought from large landowners, at a lower price to farmers and small/medium enterprises.

Petro’s government has worked towards step three under a deal reached with the Colombian Federation of Livestock Farmers (FEDEGÁN). In October 2022, the government signed an agreement that would allow the purchase of over 3 million hectares (approx. 7 million acres) of land from cattle ranchers at a fair price. These ranchers are willing to sell their land, combining the efforts of the government with that of the private sector. In doing so, thousands of farmers and their families will be given the opportunity to buy land at a fair price.

This deal with FEDEGÁN is also critical in advancing rural reform since FEDEGÁN historically has been one of the main groups opposing land reform. By selling their land at a fair value, without the fear of land expropriation, for the first time in Colombian history, this group will be making a contribution towards rural reform.

These reforms that the Petro Administration laid out are just the beginning of moving Colombia toward a more equitable peace. However, rural reform is one of the government’s most important projects. Land security would give landowners stability and justice. Proper land titling also helps small farmers resist the lure of the drug trade. Proper land titling helps prevent violent conflict. Without rural reform, Colombia cannot overcome its history of conflict and total peace cannot be achieved.

The Long Road Ahead

The work has just begun. The Petro Administration has taken on many ambitious goals with the hope of bringing restorative justice to those most affected by the violence in Colombia. In a country with as much economic inequality as Colombia, addressing land inequality and fulfilling the reform promises which have been long ignored is a vital step for enabling Indigenous, Afro-descendants, and campesinos to return home or to remain securely on their lands. For some Afro-descendants and Indigenous persons, properly titled collective lands can help preserve their traditional way of life. These communities have the right to security and ownership of their lands. They have the right to live a peaceful life following decades of violence, persecution, and death by different armed actors. Rural reform in Colombia is a chance for transformative justice for the victims of the internal armed conflict and greater inclusion and equality across the country.

The United States must play a crucial role in advancing the peace accords and land titling in Colombia. Since 2011, USAID has been playing a positive role by helping the Colombian government in pilot projects to return land to displaced persons, formalize land titles, and support the construction of a more modern framework for land titling, such as the creation of a multi-purpose cadaster (land registry). In October 2022, the U.S. government said it would be an international accompanier of the Ethnic Chapter of Colombia’s 2016 peace accords. To urge the Biden Administration to continue this path towards supporting inclusive peace efforts, LAWG, along with other civil society organizations, sent a letter to to Secretary of State Blinken recommending concrete steps to advance the implementation of the Ethnic Chapter. Carefully carried out rural reforms and return of land to internally displaced persons are key to constructing a more sustainable peace in Colombia.