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Colombia’s land reform under a new president

An ambitious new land reform bill, if it is passed, could have a profound impact on Colombia’s prospects for peace
Olof Blomqvist
26 September 2010

When Juan Manuel Santos in his inauguration speech said that, "all the land of those displaced by violence, regardless of whose hands it might be in today, will be returned to its rightful owner", many assumed it was mostly rhetoric. But Colombia's new president confirmed something of his intention on September 7 when he presented a sweeping and ambitious new land reform bill. If implemented, the Ley de Tierras could have a profound impact on Colombia's peace prospects. 

The land issue has been at the heart of Colombia's decades-long conflict. The first manifestos of the left-wing guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) focused almost exclusively on land reforms, mainly in response to the government's failure to adequately curb large-scale landowners (latifundios) that had come to dominate agriculture at the expense of traditional subsistence farmers. As FARC and other guerrilla movements became more influential and active, landowners set up armed self-defense groups in the early 1980s to protect their holdings. The groups were initially legalised by the government and supported by the army, but they soon merged into paramilitary factions and became embroiled in drug trafficking.

Organised under the umbrella group, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitaries started a bloody campaign to expand their land holdings, mostly at the expense of the small-holding poor and indigenous farmers. The result was a displacement crisis that has left Colombia with one of the largest IDP populations in the world, second only to Sudan's. Rights groups estimate that more than three million people lost their homes in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority from paramilitary violence, and more than 5.5 million hectares of land was seized. The vast majority of the displaced moved to urban areas where most continue to live in desperate conditions, often without access to basic services. 

The AUC demobilised between 2003 and 2006 after lengthy negotiations with the administration of then-president Alvaro Uribe, but very little of the seized land has been returned to victims. Many paramilitaries have divested land to dummy companies and front men to prevent it from ending up in the victims' compensation fund established by the government. So far, only some 6,600 hectares have been returned to the fund, a fraction of the total.

The Uribe presidency, while successful in its military push against the guerrillas, was widely criticised for not giving higher priority to the land issue. Laws guaranteeing both support for the displaced and the return of land were poorly implemented, and redistribution efforts were often marred by allegations of corruption. A major scandal broke out in late 2009, when it was revealed that a government programme meant to subsidise small-holding farmers, Agro Ingreso Seguro, had in fact mainly benefited a few of the country's wealthiest land-owning families. Land inequality in Colombia remains the worst in Latin America, with 45 per cent of Colombians still living below the poverty line.

Santos, however, seems determined to move away from Uribe's approach and make his administration the first to seriously tackle land reforms. Among his initial moves was to appoint an Uribe-critic, Juan Camilo Restrepo, as Minister of Agriculture, and bring in as advisor the respected intellectual Alejandro Reyes, who has written extensively on the systematic plundering (despojo) of rural areas.

In early September, Santos presented his proposed land reform bill in a symbolic visit to Barrancabermeja in Santander department, a region that has been particularly affected by paramilitary violence.

The proposal, co-sponsored by the government-allied Partido Liberal, is hugely ambitious in scope. The core issue is returning some two million hectares of seized land to its original tenants. To accomplish this, new legal mechanisms will be created to speed up the process of land return, and the Ministry of Agriculture will set up a complex new system for identifying victims of paramilitary violence and determining original ownership in occupied areas.

There is no shortage of obstacles. The process is complicated by the fact that complete titles are missing for much of the land under questionable tenure, which means the government is likely to face lengthy legal battles. Much of it is controlled by large-scale agro-businesses and others equally unlikely to relinquish control easily. However, the proposed reform shifts the burden of proof from the displaced to those currently in possession of the land, a crucial difference from previous redistribution attempts. The government has also said that in particularly difficult cases where land origin is impossible to determine, victims could instead be compensated financially by the state.

Another challenge is that much of the seized land has ended up in the arms of so-called New Illegal Armed Groups (NIAGs), or paramilitary successor groups that have emerged in place of the AUC. While the government tends to downplay the threat of NIAGs, most estimates put their number at 6,000-10,000, and as much as a third of the land in question could be under their control. The groups operate in areas where a state presence is historically weak, and they are likely to violently resist government incursion. Campaigns to harass, threaten and even murder victims' rights activists are already under way.

Other aspects of the law include the seizure and redistribution of 800,000 hectares of land from narcotraffickers, and an effort to modernise the collection of property taxes in the countryside. Santos also wants to formalise the ownership of more than 1.2 million small-scale farms that are currently not titled. This would protect farmers from extortion by violent groups, but is an enormous undertaking – not least since, as the Colombian weekly Semana recently pointed out, many of the registry offices in remote rural areas still lack computers.

The bill is to be voted on in Congress later this month, but an easy passage is far from guaranteed, despite Santos' comfortable majority and the left-wing opposition's general support for land reform. Many members of the government majority have strong ties to groups that now own much of the seized land and arguably have an interest in seeing the bill fail.

Almost two months into his presidency, Santos has already made several high-profile attempts to distinguish himself from his predecessor. While the land reform effort has not received much international media attention, it could end up being the most important. Successful implementation could reap rewards not just in terms of security and economic development, but also go some way towards providing reconciliation for the millions of Colombians affected by paramilitary and guerrilla violence.

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