Colombia's challenge: addressing land inequality and consolidating peace

Blog post by Stephanie Burgos

Oxfam America, Government Affairs Associate Director for Latin America, Land Rights and Trade
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Colombia has the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America, yet equitable access to land is a decisive factor for consolidating peace in Colombia.

Last week brought good news for the peace process, as FARC guerilla soldiers handed over the last of their weapons to the UN mission in Colombia, marking the symbolic end to over 50 years of armed conflict. But progress on other key aspects of the peace agreement is behind schedule, and there is a risk that the process of implementation fails to address the structural causes that gave rise to the conflict, particularly with regard to access to land.

Government land reforms

To move forward implementation of the peace agreement, the Colombian government is undertaking two legislative initiatives related to agrarian issues. First, in May, the government issued draft legislation on territorial planning, which was revised after receiving strong criticism from civil society organizations, academics, human rights defenders and some government entities, who revealed key gaps in its compliance with the first chapter of the peace agreement on Comprehensive Rural Reform.

Secondly, the government announced that on July 20 it will present a new Land Law to Congress. Many groups have been insisting that this measure must contribute to solve the structural causes of conflict in the country rather than serve to deepen rural inequality.

Shocking inequality in land ownership

In order to highlight the challenges that Colombia faces with regard to access to land, Oxfam released a new report, “Snapshot of Inequality: what the latest agricultural census reveals about land distribution in Colombia” (en español). This new analysis of microdata from the 2014 census, the first agricultural census carried out in Colombia in 45 years, confirms that Colombia has the highest concentration of landholdings in Latin America. The data analysis shows that the largest one percent of landholdings concentrate 81 percent of land, leaving only 19 percent of land distributed among the remaining 99 percent of farms.

This inequality has become more extreme over time. In 1970, the largest landholdings (over 500 hectares) occupied a total of 5 million hectares but grew to cover 47 million hectares in 2014, and their average size grew from 1,000 to 5,000 hectares. At the same time, the number of holdings of less than 10 hectares increased, while the area they occupy was reduced.

The latest census data show that 0.1 percent of farms are now over 2,000 hectares in size and control 60 percent of land, while 81 percent of farms have an average of only 2 hectares and occupy less than 5 percent of land. If the total land area covered by the census, 111.5 million hectares, is divided in half, the largest 704 landholdings cover one half while 2,046,536 occupy the other half. In fact, nearly one million small farms have less land that that available on average to each cow raised on the country’s large cattle ranches.

Colombian woman farming. Credit: Oxfam

Women own the least

Moreover, women’s essential contribution to agriculture is not matched by their more limited access to land. Only 26 percent of landholdings are run by women, and these tend to be smaller – most are less than 5 hectares -- and have less access to machinery, credit and technical assistance.

These data are shocking. But it can be difficult for many of us to understand what these numbers mean in reality for rural women and communities. Put simply by Edilia Mendoza, leader of the Colombian Rural Women’s Platform for Policy Advocacy, “If we do not have land, we do not have peace.” Therefore, in the context of implementation of the peace agreement, this national platform of organized women in Colombia has put forward proposals to ensure women have greater access to land and to rural development.

Redistribution of land is key

Carrying through with the commitments on comprehensive rural reform under the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC is essential to address the structural causes of the conflict. It is also necessary to ensure that the existing concentration of land in large, unproductive holdings is not simply replaced by accumulation in large holdings for what are considered to be more productive uses, to generate more foreign exchange revenue. Restitution and redistribution of land must be at the core of agrarian and rural development policy in Colombia.

With this new analysis on land inequality, Oxfam hopes to contribute to the important debate on the urgent transformations needed in rural areas in Colombia, particularly with regard to land tenure and land use, which are essential for the effective implementation of the peace agreement and for construction of lasting and sustainable peace

This entry posted by Laura Gómez, Right to Equality Program Manager, Oxfam in Colombia, and Stephanie Burgos, Government Affairs Associate Director for Latin America, Land Rights and Trade, Oxfam America, on 6 July 2017.