A few days ago Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos declared in Barranquilla that his government was committed to implementing the recently passed Victims’ Law (Law 1448), which calls for the restitution of lands that were usurped during the last two decades to their legitimate owners. Santos asked for support from Colombia’s campesinos to make this a reality. He also claimed that by adopting this law his government is seeking to undermine the historic demand of the insurgency, chiefly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for a meaningful land reform.
There are two main problems with Santos’s claim. First, the roughly 6 million hectares of land that was usurped over the last two to three decades ended up predominantly in the hands of large cattle ranchers, the narco-bourgeoisie, multinational corporations, and other investors. Unfortunately, the land titles to much of this territory are in dispute, because over half of the original owners did not have official titles to their land. The new owners have, by now, covered their legal backs by registering land titles through corrupt officials. In other words, establishing ownership is a very questionable and arduous process.
Second, and most importantly, Santos and his government have conveniently ignored the high concentration of land ownership in Colombia. The taking of peasant lands over the last two to three decades by the elite has only exacerbated the issue. The land concentration, alongside the model of the country’s development, is the central problem of Colombia and its on-going civil war. The redistribution of land ownership was a central factor in the insurgency’s decision to take up arms in the first place, as Santos is surely aware. This historic problem has never been resolved. Colombia’s GINI index for land concentration, alongside Brazil and Guatemala, is one of the highest in Latin America, equaling 86 (on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is perfect equality and 100 is complete inequality).
Colombia’s sustainable economic development and social peace depend on resolving the problem of land concentration and liberating the country from the dogma of an obsolete economic model that promotes economic growth at the expense of campesinos, the cornerstones of food production. The agricultural production of small farmers is not an element of the past as most so-called “development studies” claim. This misconception should be revisited, challenged, and revised.
President Santos, Colombia deserves better that half-measures. This is your chance to tackle, for once and for all, what your predecessors have failed to do since the ill-fated Land Act (Law 200) of 1936: to stand up to the large land owners that have caused so much pain to Colombia by hindering the country's peace and sustainable development.
For more from Nazih Richani's blog, Colombian Cuadernos, visit nacla.org/blog/cuadernos-colombianos, or see the NACLA Report July/August 2009, "Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia." See also "Colombia's Catch 22: Undermining the Victims' Law," by Nazih Richani, June 13, 2011.