Latin America Advisor

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What Would Land Redistribution Mean for Colombia?

Photo of coffee plants in Colombia Colombia’s government is planning an agrarian reform that would include land redistribution. Coffee plants near Manizales, Colombia are pictured. // File Photo: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Colombian government plans to address agrarian land redistribution by buying parcels of land and delivering them to rural communities. Land ownership in Colombia is disproportionate and among the most concentrated in the world. It has often been at the root of longstanding conflicts in the country, and the government’s plan is part of a promised agricultural reform that will develop gradually, Agriculture Minister Cecilia López said on Dec. 13. The pace of the land purchases will depend on the president, as well as on the availability of state finances, she added. How significant is the move in addressing land redistribution in the country, and what will it take for the plan to succeed? What further reforms should President Gustavo Petro implement to tackle the issue?

Juan Sebastián Galán Guerrero, associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of the Andes in Colombia: “I’m a bit skeptical about President Gustavo Petro’s land reform. His idea is very similar to President Carlos Lleras’ failed reform in the late 1960s, when the government tried to buy inefficient land and redistribute it to landless farmers. Petro has bargained a very vague deal with Fedegán–the cattle ranchers’ national association–to reduce political opposition from the landowning elite, even including its president in the ELN peace negotiations. Yet, apart from some symbolic announcements, Petro has no major concrete policies or plans to overcome the historical institutional and legal constraints that frustrated previous reforms. Today, Colombia doesn’t have an updated cadaster, a proper land tax, robust public finances to buy inefficient land or secure rural property rights, which are important conditions for his plan to succeed. Importantly, although rarely discussed, there is also the issue of how to redistribute land in a way that expands economic opportunity rather than tying rural families to the president or the countryside, such as in the cases of Mexico or Bolivia’s land reforms. Land reform is by nature conflictual, particularly if property rights are badly defined as they are in Colombia. So this policy must be complemented with a state-building project that secures rural property rights. Moreover, a parcel of land won’t necessarily help rural families climb out of poverty or improve agricultural productivity unless they are provided other rural public goods to exploit it: roads, education, technology, markets and so forth.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, chief strategy officer at RTG-Red Team Group Inc.: “Among other factors and perpetrators, land ownership, tenancy and usufruct contributed to the assassination of 162 civic and ethnic leaders in Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo Caquetá, North Santander, Antioquia, and Córdoba in 2022. These assassinations show that current landowners will not allow their lands to be redistributed without a fight to the death. Consequently, the government’s gradual reform is likely to fail, turning deadlier more than controversial. However, the government could facilitate the creation of agrarian/land-based cooperatives in which illegal growers are allowed to plant legal crops alongside illegal crops toward eventual ‘crop incrementalism’ whereby legal agrarian activity eventually overtakes illegality and criminality. Since the farmgate price of coca is now estimated to be as low as that of most legal crops, the relative safety of agrarian legality would become a difficult-to-ignore incentive to ‘crop incrementalism.’ Synchronously with Gustavo Petro’s reform, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) claims fentanyl has surpassed cocaine in pricing on street availability, potency and income to trafficking cartels. It might be that, perversely, Petro finds his land reform turning Colombia’s cocaine laboratories into centers of fentanyl production and distribution, given the growing presence and influence of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, claimed to be the world’s largest producer and exporter of fentanyl, and the biggest foreign cartel operating in Colombia.”

Kenneth Jameson, professor of economics at the University of Utah: “The small steps that President Gustavo Petro’s administration has taken exemplify his political maturity as well as the constraints that he and other Latin American progressives face. This is a stark contrast with the optimism and euphoria that greeted the ‘pink tide’ of the late 1990s to 2010s. Petro’s success with land reform and tax reform contrast with the difficulties faced by Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru. That said, how significant is the land reform? In size, it is minuscule. However, in process it is quite significant. Previous land reform efforts in the 1930s and 1960s were ambitious but ultimately failed because of the opposition they mobilized. But Petro has been able to move ahead by acting within the 2016 peace accord and by incorporating additional resources, for example, land confiscated from drug lords. Whether this will result in significant land reform will depend on finding added resources for land reform by dealing with the wealth and income inequality of Colombia. It also depends on the promised increased productivity of the distributed lands, such as moving them from cattle grazing to food crop production and improved ecological management. The success or failure of the agrarian redistribution will only be seen over a long period of time. And the likelihood of success will depend on Petro’s ability to continue fulfilling the promise of the peace accord and to negotiate the very difficult macroeconomic conditions that he has inherited. The peso depreciated by close to 20 percent last year, and inflation is running at over 12 percent. Offsetting these problems was relatively rapid growth. If Petro can avoid a macro ‘crisis’ and increase resources to the land reform, his gradual agrarian redistribution program can indeed transform Colombian agriculture.” 

Johanna Amaya-Panche, associate lecturer at University College London and Malte Jauch, postdoctoral researcher at Nova University Lisbon: “Colombia is characterized by extreme inequality in land ownership. This inequality is concerning, among other things, because it contributes to Colombia’s armed, as well as social, conflict. The government’s planned land reform promises to reduce grievances that give rise to conflict and is thus an important aspect of efforts to promote peace. Apart from promoting peace, redistributing land also promises to deliver various other benefits, such as gender equality, ethnic equality and poverty reduction. If successful, the measures announced by the government to buy land parcels and to deliver them to rural communities would be a milestone in the fight against structural inequality. Efforts to redistribute land started almost a century ago with the liberal reforms of President Alfonso López Pumajero. However, the success of these efforts has been very limited. One reason for this is that efforts to redistribute land are met with fierce resistance from social groups that benefit from these inequalities. One of the challenges that the government faces is thus to implement these reforms against the resistance of wealthy and well-organized social groups, as well as against violent non-state actors. To achieve the goal of tackling structural inequality through land reform, the government should: 1.) Guarantee security for social leaders and civilians that promote rural reform. 2.) Monitor more closely and strengthen the implementation of the multi-purpose cadastre. 3.) Comply with the aims of the first point of the peace agreement that demands comprehensive rural reform. In particular, it is vital to ensure that women, peasants, Indigenous groups and Afro-Colombian communities are included fairly in the benefits of land reform. 4.) Implement a range of policies that generate food security and that provide peasants with viable alternatives to illegal crops. 5.) Strengthen ties with the international community and donors to monitor and implement the comprehensive rural reform transparently.”

Esteban García-Jimeno, associate at Holland & Knight: “Colombia’s high rate of land concentration is one of the main reasons for the armed conflict that the country has suffered for almost a century. Countless laws and agrarian reforms have attempted to solve the persistent land concentration problem, but the conflict, drug trafficking, informality and the lack of clarity in the allocation of property rights over rural land have impeded the achievement of a true redistribution that would promote development and implement beneficial agriculture and agro-industry projects. With the execution of the peace accord with the FARC, certain settlements were reached with the FARC to achieve a redistribution and awarding of lands to peasants and ex-combatants, as regulated in Decree-Law 902 of 2017. However, little progress has been achieved so far given the problems related to the lack of public information on available lands and the so-called ‘baldíos.’ Effective administrative management and legal certainty will be necessary to move forward. Fortunately, the government and the high courts seem to recognize the importance of a multipurpose cadastre implementation in which the disposable lands and ‘baldíos’ are fully identified and delimited, and clear legal and jurisprudential rules must be set and applied to provide legal certainty to the acquirers of rural lands for the development of productive projects.”

Felipe Roa-Clavijo, professor at the School of Government at the University of the Andes in Colombia: “The Colombian government’s efforts to implement a comprehensive agrarian reform started with a critical political agreement with the Cattle Ranchers Association (Fedegán). The deal to buy three million hectares from this association constitutes a significant milestone for two main reasons: first, Fedegán has been the main group opposed to the land reform. It includes large landowners who have historically been against any land reform that threatens to legally expropriate their lands without any compensation. Being able to sell their lands at market prices and without the fear of expropriation, this group of stakeholders will now be supporting, for the first time, the land reform efforts. Second, President Gustavo Petro and Fedegán’s president, Félix Lafaurie, have been fierce enemies over the past years, as they represent contrasting leftist and rightist political views. What seemed an unlikely land-purchasing agreement now makes them close allies. This new political scenario paves the way for the implementation of President Petro’s land reform objectives. Yet, many challenges lie ahead. At this point it is not clear who will be the main beneficiaries of the land redistribution program or what type of support the government will offer to landless rural people after land distribution. Previous attempts at agrarian reform have failed due to lack of state support for agriculture, infrastructure and public goods provision at large. The government can use lessons learned in the past to finally implement the long-awaited agrarian reform in Colombia.”

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