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. 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.
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%. Landless peasants were locked into “unfair” sharecropping contracts with wealthy landowners and the church, who had all the control in the arrangement.
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 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 said. The scholar explained 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 holding. 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.”
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.
According to some estimates, some 15% of Colombia’s land proper ties 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. 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.