No peace without a piece of the land

Mike Mora discusses challenges of land reform in Colombia

Looking out toward the Andes in northern Colombia. Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum
15 May 2019

This topic will be explored at the Global Landscapes Forum Bonn 2019 on 2223 June. Register to attend or tune-in digitally here.

After more than half a century of conflict, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas in 2016, taking a massive step toward ending a conflict that has claimed the lives of some 220,000 Colombians and displaced around 5 million.

Through a comprehensive rural reform (CCR), the agreement crucially addresses the country’s highly skewed land ownership: two-thirds of land in Colombia is concentrated in just 0.4 percent of farmland holdings, while 84 percent of farms control a mere 4 percent. Under Law 902, the reform promises to provide 3 million hectares of land to landless or land-poor peasants and to formalize property title on another 7 million hectares.

But only 8.8 percent of applications for access to land have been effectively met so far, according to the country’s National Planning Department. As such, many rights organizations agree that there has been practically no government compliance with that goal.

At a recent World Bank conference in Washington D.C., Mike Mora, a specialist with the Organization of American States, spoke to Landscape News about these issues.

Andean farmlands near Medellín. Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum

What is the current state of land reform in post-conflict Colombia?

Other Latin American countries are surprised at what Colombia has accomplished, but we know it’s not enough. Land reform hasn’t been dealt with at the depth it needs to be. The institutional arrangements and the political take on it are what block progress.

What is the impact of the new government under President Iván Duque on the land reform process?

My personal view of it is that the agreement will continue, but it might not continue as it was.

The new government has the political will to make this happen, and while the new political landscape might not contribute to that as much as before, the will is still there. So implementation will be affected to some degree, but it will continue to happen.

The president might not be focused on really scrutinizing land issues per se but will probably be more focused on making government work – and that means simplifying land administration bureaucracy. This government is definitely addressing the fact that it needs to work better, more efficiently and transparently. That’s good because it gives a platform for land issues to be addressed in a more expedited way.

What are some of the challenges to implementation?

Colombia is very large and very diverse. The process of land ownership is very different in urban areas from in rural ones. A lot of the people displaced by the conflict have landed on the outskirts of cities, especially the big cities, and are building informal settlements.  

The rural areas have a very fractured geography. So the CCR will not be fully implemented in some areas, whereas in others, people will be more keen to implement it, and that has to do with the problems rooted in those specific areas. There are areas on the Pacific coast where there has been illegal mining, which represents a different problem from those of the valleys, where there could be illicit crops, for example. What’s more, the guerrilla and paramilitary corridors still exist.

Another issue is the trend, which was highlighted at the session, of people taking advantage of the displaced, claiming land or buying up their land, benefiting from a crisis. People left, people are afraid to go back to the land – yet for any buyer, it’s a good scenario. As the research shows, there’s a pattern of people massively buying either big or small chunks of land, and a lot of them are the same buyers.

So the government has to make a decision. It probably wants to get results now, so it has to work in areas where it’s more likely to get results and larger numbers regularized.

Driving through smallholder banana farms near the northwest town of Jardín. Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum

Along with the CCR, the Accord also calls for the creation of development programs with a territorial focus (PDETs). How do you see the role of local governments in this process?

When you talk about institutions, the role that local governments will play is important. The plan has to trickle down from the national government to the municipalities. But only about 12 percent of Colombia’s municipalities have their cadasters up to date.

The CCR project will help them get up to speed, to update the cadasters and keep them updated, and make sure they are an agent for change within the communities, because the municipality is right in front of the citizens. They will directly see how this is working for their communities.

Colombia has the most unequal land distribution in Latin America. Could the inertia on implementation be rooted in the same massive inequality that led to conflict in the first place?

I think it’s changing, but it’s changing very slowly. It has to do with the history and how stratified the society is. We have to address that fact. Even how to access public services is tied to that.

We need to focus on implementation now. The World Bank has approved a loan, so the government will have money for implementation as well as from international cooperation to support that.


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