War and Land

The Elusive Quest for Land Reform in Colombia

War and Land : The Elusive Quest for Land Reform in Colombia - Pablo Villar


Most scholars agree that an unequal and unproductive allocation of land in Colombia has fueled violence. Less has been said on the effects of violence for reforming land’s allocation and use. This article argues that violence has significantly reduced the possibilities of implementing an effective land reform in three ways. First, by weakening the institutions. The prevalence of violence has restricted the state’s presence across the country’s territory, diminishing its ability to defend (let alone reallocate) property rights. Second, by restricting the supply of reform. Violence has marginalized the left and other promoters of land reform. Third, by cutting the demand for reform. Violence has affected voters’ preferences and their claims to elected politicians. The recent peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC therefore constitutes one of the biggest opportunities for reform since the early twentieth century.


“It is a shame that the country is still debating whether peasants have a soul,” wrote columnist Alejandro Reyes after Colombian voters rejected a peace agreement that the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC reached in 2016.1 Indeed, the agreement intended to implement a comprehensive land reform to address one of the main causes of a bloody, half-century conflict. Its rejection, which was partly fueled by the landowning elites, serves as a reminder of the great obstacles land reform has faced throughout the last century. 

Social scientists agree that an unfair and unproductive distribution of land has fueled rural violence, but little research explores the connections between violence and land reform. In this context, land reform should be understood as “a change and restructuring in the land ownership regime, that results from an attempt to make it compatible with the general necessities of economic development” and with basic equality principles.

This document explores three key channels through which internal violence has restricted the possibilities for effective land reform for the period of 1930 to 2016: capacity, supply, and demand. While the quality of Colombia’s democracy has long been debated, scholars usually agree that it has had (at least) limited democratic institutions throughout its history.  Therefore, this paper argues that the path towards effective reform has been tampered1 by the state’s limitations to control its territory and guarantee property rights (capacity)2 a lack of proposals due to the delegitimization of legal advocates for reform (supply),3 limited public support for reform, especially since the 1990s (demand). The last section concludes and reflects on the implications in the international sphere.

Context: War and Land

Throughout Colombia’s history, land has been poorly distributed and utilized. Colombia’s land Gini coefficient increased from 0.85 in 1960 to 0.89 in 2009, and has consistently been one of the worst in the world.4  In 2003, 0.4% of owners held 62.6% of land while the bottom 86.3% held just 8.8%.5  Additionally, the country has historically been full of unproductive or misused land. Only 3.8 million hectares of the 42.6 million with vocation for agriculture and livestock were used for agriculture in 2002; a staggering 7.3 million hectares were unproductive.6  While in 2012 only 13.3% of land had vocation for livestock, a relatively unproductive activity, over 30% was used for that purpose, mostly in large farmlands.7  Steadily unequal tenure and inefficient use of land could be solved through comprehensive land reform involving redistribution and state support for marginalized owners and rural workers. 

Unlike multiple Latin American countries, Colombia has been unable to successfully implement comprehensive land reform due to another unfortunate thread of the country’s history: violence. Colombia has not lived a day of real peace for at least a half-century. Between 1958 and 2012, more than 220,000 people were killed as a direct consequence of a conflict involving the state and multiple irregular armed groups, during which civilians have been the vast majority of victims.8 Violence has reached every corner of Colombian society. By 2014, more than six million people had been violently displaced from more than 90% of the country’s municipalities.9  From 2006 to 2016, 42 members of Congress were found guilty of being connected with paramilitary groups, while 519 local government officials had been investigated for the same offence.10 Unsurprisingly, land ownership has been inextricably related to violence.

Capacity: Historically Weak Institutions

In general, any type of comprehensive land reform requires a strong and capable state, able to implement and sustain changes in the structure of property rights and economic incentives. In the case of Colombia, Berry highlights that the state has played a particularly important role in the distribution of land, since “the largest part of exploited agricultural land was once of public dominion.”11  Any change in the allocation of rural property has not solely required expropriating plots but granting, defending, and keeping track of new property rights. Unfortunately, the state has lacked the capacity to effectively do this. Reyes argues that “resistance, negligence, inability or opposition of the state to recognize, formalize, provide titles and protect the rights of peasant communities” has transversely affected the nature of land possession.12  The internal conflict has significantly affected the state’s capacity, or willingness, to guarantee these rights. 

The prevalence of violence has affected the institutional and physical reach of the state in protecting property rights. Despite some well-intentioned attempts to reform land ownership, the state “has either lacked the capacity and political will to implement the necessary transformations, or has chosen means and strategies that can’t achieve the purposes of the legislation, or both.” Local governments, for instance, have commonly alleged that a lack of resources impedes them from keeping track of ownership records. At the same time, the effectiveness of the judicial system has been tampered by the vast number of cases it receives and the pressure exerted on it by organized criminal actors. Furthermore, the geographical extent of the conflict, tied to Colombia’s harsh terrain, significantly limits the physical presence of the state in many of the areas in which land distribution has been most problematic. 

Each attempt at reform has been plagued by different types of violence and limited institutional capacity. The first effort to reform land ownership in the country was through the well-intentioned Law 200 of 1936 signed by Liberal President Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo (1934-1938 and 1942-1945). As the partisan conflict intensified before its peak in La Violencia (1946-1957), the government proved incapable of simultaneously implementing the reform whilst containing the elites’ pressure against it. Law 200 was particularly ambitious since it aimed to change the notion of private ownership, specifically that of the latifundio.13  Safford and Palacios explain that this very change fueled conservative rage, since they viewed “the social function of property and expropriation for reasons of social utility” as “subversive and communistic.”14  Hence, the same roots of the internal conflict would impede the state to effectively implement a reform which “did not appease the growing conflict of land.”15  Ultimately, a counter-reform was signed in 1944 due to a shift in the government’s priorities for rural development, in the early stages of the import substitution scheme.16 

It was only in 1961, during the era of the National Front (1958-1978), that a new reform to land ownership was attempted by President Alberto Lleras-Camargo (1945-1946 and 1958-1962), through Law 135. The failure to implement this reform again fell on the government’s inability to operate in violent areas. The institution in charge of implementing the reform, INCORA, was unable to effectively function in the areas where conflict was growing. Indeed, “more than half of its projects and 75% of the titles granted during the 60s were in ‘red zones’ of intense peasant conflict, influence of the guerrillas and strict military control.”17 Thus, the number of expropriations was quite low and confined to isolated and poor-quality terrains.18 The provisions of this reform were put to a virtual hold in 1972 with the signing of the Chicoral Accord.

The last attempt at implementing a structural land reform in Colombia came more than thirty years later: Law 160 of 1994, signed by Liberal President César Gaviria (1990-1994). This reform’s reach and effectiveness were once again tarnished by limited state capacity, which was derived from the country’s most violent decade in history. Law 160 was a market-based reform that intended to foster more equitable and productive access to land through enhancing access to ownership by small farmers and strengthening property rights, among others.19  Nevertheless, between 1996 and 2005, “a person was kidnapped every eight hours, and a civilian or a soldier became a victim of a land mine every day,”20 making it hard to envision a state – let alone a judicial system – capable of guaranteeing property rights. The enormous voids of state presence did not allow for the productive transformation that Law 160 promised.

Supply: A Stigmatized Left

It is worth noting that despite continuous land issues and the presence of relatively democratic institutions in Colombia, only three reforms have been attempted during the last century (not counting the partial reform included in the current peace process). In other words, the supply of reforms has been fairly limited. Part of the blame can be attributed to the delegitimization of the legal actors who have promoted reform, which are frequently parties on the left of the political spectrum. Unlike most Latin American countries, leftist political parties have been notably absent from the highest spheres of power in Colombia. The left has faced systematic and frequently violent exclusion by the traditional political and economic elites. 

The Liberal Party might have been considered a leftist political party in Colombia’s bipartisan system between 1930 and 1946, but pressures from the elites soon shifted its view to the center. Notably, Lopez’s presidency in the 1930s was marked by multiple progressive policies, such as Law 200. Moreover, his Revolution on the March program was aimed at improving the standards of living of the poorest rural and urban citizens.19 Lopez even held some contacts with the small Colombian Communist Party, quite a rarity in a country eager to keep the United States’ approval. However, President Eduardo Santos paused most of Lopez’s reforms “due to the large opposition he found, not only among Conservatives but within a significant portion of the Liberals themselves, large businessmen and landowners.”22 As such, the Liberal Party started drifting away from the left to a more centrist position in the spectrum – notably regarding land issues.

In the second half of the century, the Liberal Party kept distancing itself from the idea of a comprehensive land reform, leaving the issue in a programmatic void. During La Violencia, the economic and political elite from both parties were increasingly reluctant (or unable) to relate to the public’s concerns on multiple issues. Consequently, a fractionalized and radicalized left began exploiting this void, frequently in the shape of peasant guerrillas. The largest faction, FARC, would become one of the most violent political actors of Colombia’s recent history. Uribe asserts that “La Violencia” was a social process in which the political sectarianism covered up the expulsion of the peasants and the concentration of land.”23 

At the end of La Violencia, social unrest did not end up translating into policy change towards land-reform, but did transform into an elitist accord that perpetuated the dynamics of the past. After the brief intervention of General Rojas Pinilla to appease violence, the National Front (1958-1978) rose as “a system of power sharing between two dominant parties that left no room for the expression of dissent except by insurgency” especially towards land-reform.24  To appease the unrest, the national elite promoted quite moderate social change.25 In the midst of this Cold War period, political leaders of the National Front were incentivized to distance themselves further from any leftist agenda. Berry26  argues that the attempted reform of 1961 by President Lleras-Camargo was in actuality more popular among the US-led Alliance for Progress than among the left.27 Overall, between La Violencia and the Constitution of 1991, there was no serious institutional advocate for land reform. 

Due to the vacuum of a political sponsor for reform in the 1970s and 1980s, land policy remained marginal. Throughout these decades, governments used economic, ideological and security arguments to foster a market-based approach to the land. Agricultural policies focused on restricting imports—part of the larger national development strategy, which was based on the idea of economies of scale  and implying benefits from land concentration.28 Moreover, the threat of a communist takeover of power was underlying the government’s arguments to dismiss redistributive agendas. Rural development policies became more “closely integrated with counterinsurgency initiatives” than with distributive or productive matters.29 As guerrilla warfare increased throughout these decades, land policy was ultimately kept in the margins of the political landscape.

Perhaps one of the most striking moments of violent exclusion of the left was seen during the 1980s and 1990s, with the systematic extermination of Unión Patriótica (UP). The UP was a political movement created by the FARC and the Communist Party in 1985 as an effort to transition into politics—or to explore the legal political scene.30 However, the UP was short-lived: about 4,000 of its members were executed by paramilitary forces in the 1980s and 1990s.31  Aviles sustains that Colombian elites tolerated the existence of these paramilitary structures to contain the rise of leftist movements across the country.32 The extermination of the UP serves as a reminder of the determination of some powerful groups to keep the left out of the national stage—partly to avoid land reform.

Demand: Who’s for Land Reform?

The Constitution of 1991 brought about a diversification of political parties, which finally allowed for breathing room for the left to get involved in the country’s political landscape. However, land reform has lacked the necessary popular support, or demand, to actually influence politics. Violent cohesion and the perceived connection between violent actors and the legal left can clearly be attributed to this very limited demand. Moreover, the rapid and often violent urbanization of the past several decades has diminished voters’ interest in land reform. 

The rise of right-wing paramilitary structures and their cohesive power has significantly limited both the demand and the supply of land reform. As land’s value grew exponentially because of drug-trafficking, paramilitaries rose in the 1980s as both guardians of large landowners and robbers of mostly poor peasants. These criminal structures systematically used intimidation, civilian massacres and targeted killings as coercive tools to impede changes in the distribution of land against their interests. The Colombian Center for Historic Memory found, for example, that paramilitary structures committed more than 1,100 massacres between 1980 and 2012 (close to 60% of the total).33 Although some of these actions were committed for mainly strategic objectives, a great many had political motives, such as countering the guerrillas’ leftist influence. 

The mix of economic and political interests, which fueled unprecedented paramilitary violence against rural citizens, ultimately ended up transforming the structure of political power in the regions and in Bogotá, particularly during the 1990s and the 2000s. A study by Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris concludes that by 2004 the paramilitaries “achieved to substantially modify the political map of 12 departments [states], partially transform that of others, establish a parliamentary caucus, influence presidential elections, capture local power in multiple regions of the country and enter a negotiation process with the state.”34  The interests behind this partial takeover of power were clearly economic and political, with the use of land center stage. The paramilitaries defended the interests of local and national elites with stakes in drug-trafficking, large agro-industrial projects, cattle raising or simple usurpation of land. Thus, between the 1980s and the mid-2000s, paramilitary groups managed to coerce voters and the state at multiple levels against any attempt for land-reform. 

The decades of the 1990s and 2000s were particularly violent not only because of paramilitary actions; guerrilla groups—namely FARC and, to a lesser extent, ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) significantly increased their military power as well. All these groups exerted violence against civilians and the state in a systematic and brutal manner. Just as the paramilitaries did, both FARC and ELN began exploiting drug-trafficking as a major source of revenue to fund their political actions. In 2000, at least 163,000 hectares were cultivated with coca, and many more were used for processing and transportation.35  Thus, violent actions by the guerrillas to maintain strategic control over cocaine routes and crops, rather than to defend an ideological agenda, became common. Between 1996 and 2005 “intimidation and aggression, death and exile, were installed” as profits from cocaine grew.36  Between 1970 and 2010, almost 25,000 people were kidnapped by the guerrillas alone; between 1996 and 2002, 16,040 people fell victim of this crime.37  The nature and scale of guerrilla violence during these years, along with a failed peace process by President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), made Colombians’ political demands gravitate towards security and away from the ideological spheres the guerrillas once defended. 

Colombians’ demands for improved national security were clearly heard by President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who focused on eliminating guerrilla groups both militarily and ideologically. Uribe was effective in cultivating an image of guerrillas as narco-terrorist groups, deprived of any ideological stance. A post-9-11 international context helped him create this image. Through his rhetoric, Uribe polarized an urban society against any sign of leftist ideology for the sake of improving the country’s national security. The success of this policy earned Uribe an average popularity of 72% throughout his eight years of power, an enviable statistic by any standard, though an especially revealing one considering the multiple scandals that hit his office.38 As the most popular president in Colombian history, Uribe led a government in which the official security services effectively spied on opposition members.39  There is no doubt that, beyond strong economic indicators, the key behind Uribe’s popularity was his effectiveness in combating the guerrillas; the support for land reform, however, was a casualty of that war.

The rapid urbanization of Colombia negatively affected the demand for reform, too. While all developing countries have experienced this demographic trend, it has often been violent and involuntary in Colombia. Ibañez argues that in “internal conflicts armed groups attack the population to reach their war objectives” and therefore internal displacement was a natural outcome in such a lasting conflict.40 Given its long history of violence, Colombia is, after Sudan, the country with the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world.41  One statistic shows, for example, that on average, a staggering 34 people were displaced every hour in 2008.42   Displaced people face multiple hardships when they reach their destinations, which naturally impacts their voting and partisanship.

The vast majority of internally displaced persons go to urban areas and face deep economic deprivations, which influences their political priorities. Ibañez finds that the capacity to generate income, due to difficulties to access labor markets and poor access to housing, significantly affect the economic wellbeing of the displaced.43  Further, considering the weak and informal property rights in rural areas, the low-income rural citizens who are subject to displacement may fear supporting a reform that reallocates property rights. Thus, the apathy of the urban population, increased by the laments of more than six million displaced people, has certainly negatively affected the probability of comprehensive land reform.

Conclusions: Celebrate Cautiously

It is impossible to trace any single massacre, homicide, sexual assault, or kidnapping to a single cause. A combination of economic interests, political power, revenge, or plain savagery may be behind each of these. But certainly, land has been behind many of these such atrocities in Colombia. The country’s lands have allowed a few to grow aberrantly rich, whilst restraining a many struggle with meager means. The struggle to achieve a more equitable distribution has taken many lives and has simultaneously made it even less likely. Throughout most of the last century, Colombia has perpetuated a vicious and violent cycle in which the causes remain unresolved and which is marked by a lack of state capacity, a scarce supply of solutions, and a dearth demand for them. 

An unparalleled opportunity to interrupt this cycle has arrived in recent years which the country should pursue. The military campaign led by President Uribe, which was accompanied by an increased state presence, allowed the country to become more peaceful. President Juan Manuel Santos took the opportunity to begin serious peace talks with the FARC, which means that the chances for effective reform are higher now than ever. The deal, signed on November 24, included a land reform program that should encourage Colombians to believe that the causes of the conflict may be uprooted. However, an initial rejection of the deal in the polls on October 2, 2016—driven by the population’s resentment to the FARC and landowners’ interests44—signals that the path forward will be paved with resistance. The State will need to guarantee and determine property rights for land previously stained by the conflict, and will need to implement incentives for poor peasants in an increasingly restrained fiscal context. Political parties and elected officials need to push forth the provisions of the reform without ceding to elites’ interests. Perhaps most importantly, citizens need to actively claim and oversee the implementation of the accord.

The international community has been key for the peace process to earn legitimacy. Cuba, Norway, Venezuela and Chile helped build trust and accountability during the years of talks. The decision to award the Nobel Peace prize to President Santos after the plebiscite for the initial accord failed attests for a call to re-negotiations by the Committee. Further, a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council to back the demobilization of guerrilla members provides much needed legitimacy to a complex post-conflict stage. Many governments have promised resources to help the government honor its side of the deal. Thus, the Colombian state – even after the current government transitions out in 2018 – will be pressured to implement the accord, and its rural reform.

However, a changing international setting may reduce the government’s accountability and the support it receives in the coming months and years. As American foreign policy becomes more reactive and less concerned about Latin America, aid and diplomatic support may be compromised. Growing nationalism in Europe might incentivize politicians to cut non-strategic international assistance. Moreover, increasing tensions in East Asia and the Middle East will possibly shift resources and attention away from Colombia. Thereafter, the quest for land reform will remain, as it has always been, the sole responsibility of Colombians.

While drug-trafficking and illegal mining remain profitable businesses and whilst unproductive land persists to be a rational economic decision, the resources that empower violence will continue to flow. The emergence of violent criminal gangs and the recent murder of social activists are only part of the evidence of the challenges ahead. But hopefully the state is now strong enough to overcome them. The state will only do so, however, if society demands it. 

Pablo Villar is a Colombian MA student at SAIS concentrating in International Development. Prior to joining SAIS, Pablo worked as a Research Coordinator and Research Manager at Innovations for Poverty Action, Colombia, where he led evaluations on SMEs, financial inclusion, and security, among other topics. Previously, he worked as a Junior Consultant for Oportunidad Estratégica, a development-oriented firm. Pablo holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Economics from Universidad de los Andes in Colombia.