In HECHOS DE PAZ No. 57: Land and human development

By Absalón Machado C.
Technical Director of the 2011 Human Development Report for Colombia
 (Translated by Peter Lenny, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, a CSN volunteer editor.)
The issue of land and rural development has been thrown open again in Colombia, after agrarian problems have spent over 20 years sidelined from public debate.
The debate has grown out of the struggles of rural workers’ organizations and recent government moves towards restitution of lands and is advancing very quickly towards taking up the broader problem of overall land and rural development policy.
The agrarian issue is a national problem once again, as it was in the 1930s and 60s, pointing to the fact that it continues to be “unfinished business.” Accordingly it has to be asked: “How important is solving the land problem to human development?”, “what underlies such a solution?” and “what is the gamble behind it?”.
The National Human Development Report for Colombia that the UNDP is preparing addresses the issue of land and rural development. It builds on the hypothesis that the agrarian structure built up in Colombia through a diversity of historical processes has become an obstacle to development. What is more, it considers that there is extreme vulnerability in the rural sector, which has continually been left exposed by markets, public policy, drug trafficking, and illegal armed groups. These circumstances represent enormous constraints on the possibilities for human development in rural life and have opened up gaps and imbalances between rural and urban living and even within rural contexts.
Various factors and processes hinder human development in the countryside. The most notorious include: high concentration of rural properties; land use conflicts; widespread (40%) informal land tenure; improper use and continuous destruction of natural resources; spread of smallholdings (poverty and extreme poverty); the presence of armed groups, criminals and drug traffickers who restrict freedoms and violate human rights; the precarious State presence in rural areas and public policies that, by failing to consider issues of equity, become discriminatory and exclusionary.
These factors are expressed in rural workers’ inability to generate income and in restrictions on their opportunities to express and develop their skills and engage in new activities or to diversify existing ones in order to discover new sources of income and decent employment; they also constrain the freedom and social movement of rural individuals and groups, undermine trust in public institutions and the State, limit the development of participatory processes and democracy in the countryside and do not facilitate the development and proper use of public goods. In other words, they obstruct human development and leave rural society highly vulnerable to its own dynamics and to exogenous factors.
If not just the rural sector, but society as a whole, is to develop, it is imperative to remove these elements. There can be no doubt that the scope for human development will expand if Colombia really decides to confront these factors systematically and with an overall understanding of the rural problem. Accordingly, there is a need to move towards rural development that is inclusive and sustainable, and affords rural society the basic components necessary for growth with efficiency, appropriate food and development with democracy. 
Meanwhile, bear in mind the argument that is gaining ground in the United Nations: the right to land that derives from the right to food. Given that land is the key factor in food production and that poor communities lack other income generation options, guaranteeing the right to food entails access to land. In rural societies like Colombia’s, the poor have never been offered significant options to ensure their food security.
The political decision to remove the factors in agrarian structure that prevent development is a step towards modernization that must encompass the factors constitutive of human development.
The big gamble
It would be a very limited gamble if lands were restituted and property rights assured without addressing the factors that stimulate the concentration of land in so few hands, that make land a factor for market speculation, and give rise to political powers that consolidate to hinder progress so as to defend personal and group interests. The gamble would be even more limited if it left the present structure of land tenure untouched; that is to say, the coefficients of land concentration – which according to the official statistics agency, Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi (IGAC), stand at 0.86[2] – are among the highest in the world, along with Brazil, Paraguay and Peru. These rates reflect great inequity in a sector with high rates of poverty and extreme poverty and have no place in the challenge of modernizing such an unequal society.
There are economic, social and political reasons for reconfiguring the agrarian structure, and there are powerful reasons of equity and policy to sustain that process. The reasons of equity include poverty – standing at 65% of the rural population – and extreme poverty – affecting around one third of rural people – which can be overcome not by subsidies, but by access to factors of production (land, capital and technology) and by developing the capabilities and freedoms of rural populations. The reasons of policy are associated with the model of democracy that the society wants and needs in order to develop and live together in peace.
Underlying this discussion of the options and scope of public policy for the rural sector is the model of democracy for the sector, over and beyond even the model of development. What is at stake is how to turn rural people into full citizens, recognize their values and contributions to development, enable them to participate in the decisions that affect their wellbeing and their future possibilities, enable them to exercise their political rights and duties freely, integrate them into the life of the nation, acknowledge that they are a potential for the Colombia of the future, and that Colombia has to share with them on equitable terms. They, moreover, also need the State and it needs them in order to exercise sovereignty and peace, to manage natural resources appropriately, for localities and regions to be governable and for them to achieve forms of organization with sufficient autonomy to decide how to suit their ways of life to modernity. In short, what is at stake is whether country people can and should become allies and partners of the State and of the rest of society in their gamble for the rural sector. The Human Development Report considers this indispensable and that progress has to be made in that direction.
The reason for modifying the agrarian structure derives from the questions “what kind of rural society does Colombia want?”, “is it to be what exists at present, shot through with multiple conflicts, with control of land and natural resources in the hands of a few, inequitable, exclusionary, resource destructive, with vast expanses of land in uses unsuited to the true potential of their soils and with local populations driven out towards areas of crops for illicit use and the periphery of the agricultural frontier?”, “is it to be a society where people feel they are non-citizens or second-class citizens and where others use violence to subjugate rural people and deprive them of their possessions violently or by using legal artifices?”, “is it to be a society where young people have no hope for their future and prefer to migrate, where women are treated with discrimination and the State is a precarious presence?”, “is it to be a society with no social or political sustainability, a rural society where democracy is still neither solid nor established?”.
A historical disjunction
We face the historical dilemma of deciding between a democracy with rural workers or rural workers without democracy. Not the dilemma of a rural society with or without rural workers, because it is inconceivable that rural society in Colombia can progress without the participation of rural workers. The State is still unable to offer them options outside the rural sector or even in non-agricultural rural activities. What it must do now and in the future is to organize decent conditions of life for them within the framework of the present rural context. That rural context now accounts for more than 25% of the population, a figure that derives from the census as the population that lives in “the rest of Colombia”. The Human Development Report has established that today the rural population in Colombia may represent 32% of the total population – yet another reason why the rural sector has become strategic to development.
Colombia is not on its way to becoming an industrializing economy that will absorb mass labor. On the contrary, it is moving into “reprimarization” processes, which generates little employment, but causes major damage to natural resources. [“Primarización” is a regression to rural structures where exclusion and poverty are maintained without major changes. The social situation returns to what it previously was or has always been. In these situations development is not occurring.] That is one clear reason for the present agrarian structure to undergo substantial modification and be turned into a source of employment and income for rural people, leverage their specialization in food production and other rural activities, and deploy its full potential, with the State providing public goods and access to factors of production.
One UNDP axiom is that human development requires certain minimum conditions. There can be no doubt that, in Colombia, one of those conditions is a rural sector with established democracy and equity and relations of mutual convenience and reciprocity between town and countryside. No-one is more interested than the urban sector in having a rural society in peace and in a position to progress. This gamble is by all and for all, not by a few for a few. That is the issue the UNDP Human Development Report would like to clarify.
In Colombia, the possibilities for human development are linked to what happens in the agrarian structure. They are directly bound up with the proposals for an overall land and rural development policy, but also with macroeconomic policies that regulate the markets and define the scope of the public sphere. The measure of how backward Colombia is in its development lies in the almost incredible fact that here we are, trying to solve problems of land tenure and recognition for property rights in a society that has already made significant progress in modernization processes. That states quite simply that opportunities to solve structural problems that prevent development have been wasted in the past. It also means that the powers that bind the future to conservation of privileges and exclusion are still with us.
This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.

[2] On a scale of 0 to 1: the closer the indicator is to 1, the greater the concentration of land ownership.

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.