Under Petro, Hope for Rural Reform in Colombia

Building on longstanding struggles for land, organized campesinos are demanding an active role in the new administration’s agricultural policies.

August 9, 2022

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On August 7, Gustavo Petro was sworn in as the President of Colombia, with Francia Márquez as his vice president. Theirs was an unprecedented victory: Petro is a leftist in a country in which the Left has been systematically persecuted and stigmatized, and Márquez is an Afro-feminist and environmentalist from the Cauca, a region that has historically been both the target of violence and underserved. This is the first left-wing government in the history of Colombia. For many, this election was a vote for change.

Even before the inauguration, 60 campesino organizations began pushing for change, launching the “Declaración de Agenda Nacional Campesina de Colombia” in July. The platform urges the upcoming administration to incorporate and implement the campesino agenda into the new governance plan. The Declaración Campesina proposes a political, economic, and legislative package for the new government which includes the creation of an agrarian jurisdiction, the elimination of contracts for exploration and exploitation of mining and energy resources in strategic ecosystems, the design of a comprehensive public policy on food sovereignty, and the enforcement of previous legislations that protect campesino rights. But above all, the Declaración demands the meaningful political participation of campesinos in all stages of policymaking. This effort to incorporate campesino voices into Colombia’s government is part of a longstanding trajectory of agrarian mobilization. In a country with one of the highest rates of land inequality in the world, campesinos over the course of the last century have actively protested land accumulation and violence in order to improve the conditions of the countryside.

Given this long history of social mobilization, the crucial role played by organized campesinos in electing Petro and Márquez, and the hopes generated by the victory of the progressive Pacto Histórico coalition, campesinos expect to play an active role in designing and implementing the agrarian policies of the new administration. As the new government assumes power this week and the expectations grow around Petro and Márquez’s commitment to implement the rural reform agreed to in the 2016 Peace Accords with the FARC guerillas, the incoming administration should and must be prepared for frictions to emerge between a hungry rural base and a governing administration with limited political capital.

Looking Back at Campesino History

Popular struggles from below have propelled Colombia’s 20th century experiments with agrarian reform. Indeed, in the absence of popular pressure—or when the state was hostile to that pressure—reforms often did more harm than good, codifying existing inequalities by legalizing ownership of lands seized by large landowners or allowing rural elites to instrumentalize the language of reform to dispossess campesinos of their land.

Law 200, passed in 1936 and setting a crucial precedent by establishing the “social function of property,” was the result of pressure from 103 ligas campesinas (agrarian unions) that organized throughout the national territory, especially within the coffee haciendas and Caribbean latifundios (large estates). While generating high hopes, the law ended up doing little to stop rural elites from seizing land that campesinos had made productive.

Colombia’s early 1960s experiment with agrarian reform was initially a top-down effort seeking to combat communism in Colombia's countryside by modernizing and making the uncultivated land of large landowners more productive. The reforms of the early sixties failed to make a serious dent in the massive inequality of land ownership, but its failure paved the way for the creation of the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC in Spanish), a bottom-up campesino organization.

Created by President Carlos Lleras Restrepo by decree in 1967 and inaugurated at a massive 1970 National Peasant Congress, ANUC consisted of over a million mobilized peasants from different regions of Colombia. For campesinos, the creation of ANUC, coupled with the passing of laws that empowered state actors to acquire and actively redistribute land, created a political climate in which real change seemed on the horizon. Through ANUC, campesinos pressured the government to more actively redistribute land and articulated a clear policy agenda to challenge the predominance of large estates once and for all.

ANUC Atlántico delegation in the third National Campesino Congress, Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá. (Edelmira Pérez, Archivo de Derechos Humanos Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica)

In 1971, for example, ANUC launched a massive wave of land occupations. Involving more than 15,000 families in 350 estates spread out across 13 different departments, these occupations put land in the hands of campesinos, thrust a strongly redistributive agenda back into the spotlight, and put the state on notice that there would be consequences for its inaction. Radicals within and alongside ANUC also led massive marches on the capital, experimented with the non-commodified uses of land in cooperatives, or baluartes, and fought for a world in which land would be “for those who work it.

President Misael Pastrana Borrero’s conservative government responded to these land occupations with repression and a further retreat from land redistribution. The 1972 Chicoral Pact between the government, congressmen, and elite landowners struck the final nail in the coffin of the wider reform process. Diana Güiza, a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame investigating rural-poor mobilization for agrarian reform, says the legacy of the pact is still with us today. Güiza notes that the Chicoral Pact not only repressed campesino organization but also displaced redistribution from the reform agenda. Attempts at agrarian reform that have come after ANUC’s defeat, including those today, have thus operated within a context of narrower political demands.

The story of ANUC’s militancy in the early 1970s and the subsequent repression of campesino activism serves as a cautionary tale as the Colombian state forfeited a golden opportunity to finally challenge the unequal ownership of land that has caused so much devastation in the countryside. The Chicoral Pact alerts us to the damaging consequences of targeting campesinos as enemies of the state, thus reinforcing patterns of high concentration of land in the countryside and heightening indiscriminate violence against land defenders.

As the state looks today to partner with existing social movements and create new rural institutions, the impulse that guided agrarian reform in the early years under President Lleras Restrepo should serve as a guide. Though rooted in a deep anti-communism and eventually retreating from its promise, the creation of ANUC was the product of a state that recognized that it needed both a mobilized base and concrete land redistribution to attack the countryside’s structural inequality. For Catalina Pérez, a former leader of ANUC, this moment was a turning point in campesino history. It was through organizing that many campesinos learned that poverty was not a natural condition, and came to develop hope in the future.

Petro’s Rural Reform

During his time as a senator and as president-elect, Petro’s comments reveal that he is knowledgeable about and deeply aware of the importance of past attempts at agrarian reform. Petro has explicitly referred to both the 1936 agrarian reform law’s recognition of the “social function” of property as well as the 1991 Constitution’s inscription of land’s “ecological function.” 

Nevertheless, a key member of Petro’s transition team clearly stated that the government’s reform will not “be those of the 60s, but rather those of the Peace Accords.” To that end, the plan is based upon the Reforma Rural Integral (Comprehensive Rural Reform), which formed the first point of the 2016 agreement signed between the FARC and the Colombian government. The incoming government has promised to implement policies from which the previous government has retreated or slow-walked. These include the purchasing of and subsequent redistribution of land to the poor through a national Fondo de Tierras (Land Fund), rural land-titling, zoning which foregrounds environmental considerations, and the explicit restitution of land to victims of the violent conflicts between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the state.

The creation of a productive agricultural economy, however, cannot come at the expense of the sustainable development of the country’s resources. To achieve this, Petro has promised that land redistribution will not arise from the expansion of the agrarian frontier. This, coupled with his vow to end fracking, make clear that the environment is a central concern of the incoming government.

The productive use of land is central to the creation of an economy that works for all. Petro wants to “democratize” land use, end Colombian foreign dependence, and turn it into a global leader of agricultural production. By raising taxes to disincentivize the unproductive use of lands by latifundistas in key areas, Petro hopes to use the state to eventually purchase and redistribute land to rural communities.

According to Güiza, the rural reform proposed in the Peace Accords may fall short of fulfilling campesinos’ demands for redistribution and for a more comprehensive agrarian reform, since disincentivizing accumulation through taxation does not necessarily challenge the large estate structure nor address the demands of some campesino sectors for more radical change. If a flashpoint is to emerge between organized campesinos demanding that land be actively taken from large landowners and the government’s focus on disincentivizing land accumulation, experienced campesino movements may play a key role in the outcomes of the struggles ahead.

Centering Campesina Women

Campesino movements have played a key role in more than just fighting for land redistribution. For campesina women, ANUC was a space of collective creation in which they took the lead in crafting their own terms to discuss agrarian justice and gender equality. Women actively participated in ANUC by taking care of protesters, creating their own agenda in favor of campesina women’s rights, and putting their bodies on the line to protect the gains made by land occupations. In so doing, women like Perez thrust into the spotlight the reality that campesina women sustain life in the countryside by taking care of the daily needs of their families and communities, even as their work remained highly undervalued by their communities and by the state’s policies which “only gave titles to men.”

The undervaluing of campesina labor continues today. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), rural women in Colombia perform the bulk of non-paid domestic work in campesino families. They also experience major obstacles in accessing education, health, basic rights, and political participation. Drawing on data from the 2014 Agricultural Census, OXFAM reports that rural women in Colombia hold barely 26 percent of all land titles assigned to campesino families.

Cecilia López’s nomination as Petro’s Agricultural Minister is a good sign for those hoping that the current government will center women’s rights—she has said that the elevation of the role of women in the rural economy is an “obsession of hers.” If the structures of land inequality are to be effectively attacked, campesina women must be key actors, their experience must be respected, and their activism and protest cannot be repressed.

Petro and Márquez’s proposed rural reform is expansive, highlighting the relationship of land to a variety of issues like violence, the environment, poverty, and gender inequality. Past experiences of campesino mobilization demonstrate that campesino demands have also gone beyond just “land,” including a deep questioning of agrarian regimes based on land accumulation, extractivist economies, and loss of food sovereignty. These discussions are crucial to the development of a rural agenda based on equality and justice. The creation of Zonas de Reserva Campesina,” which emerged out of the campesino coca growers marches of 1996 as a way to protect campesinos’ ways of life and disincentivize land accumulation, the emergence of legislation protecting women’s rights to land and wellbeing, and the agrarian reform plan proposed in the Peace Accords of 2016 are just a few salient examples of how organizing and mobilization have allowed campesinos and campesinas to force the government to listen to their demands and adjust their policies accordingly.

Though devastated by paramilitary violence and dispossession, organized campesinos are drawing on the legacies of past struggles to demand a larger role in the upcoming administration. For Pérez, Petro and Márquez’s administration is both a window of opportunity for campesinos across the country, and also “only the beginning of the struggle.”

Gabe Levine-Drizin is a PhD student in History at New York University focusing on Colombian agrarian reform and land occupations in the 1960s and 70s.

Margarita Martínez-Osorio is a PhD candidate in Latin American History at Indiana University, Bloomington, studying the role of campesina women in the traditions of protest in the 20th century Colombian Caribbean.

The authors extend their special gratitude to Catalina Pérez and Diana Güiza for their contributions to this article.

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