By Antonio Paz Cardona/Mongabay Latam

Semana Sostenible, February 19, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

This is the most unequal country in Latin America for distribution of the land. In spite of the government’s optimism, campesinos and academics criticize the new legislation on this subject that is being considered in Congress, because it doesn’t really remedy the problem.

Land has always been a problem in Colombia. In fact, the inequality in its use and ownership is recognized as one of the triggers in the creation of the guerrillas, especially the FARC. It’s such an important theme in this country that it was the first of the points negotiated in the Peace Agreement signed at the end of 2016. In the process of negotiation, they reached the conclusion that, in spite of the fact that it was the principal support for the war, the agriculture problem is not limited just to land access, but rather requires investment in infrastructure, commerce, education, participation, science, and technology. This is very important because Colombia is the most unequal in Latin America in rights to land ownership, since the majority of parcels are concentrated in the hands of a very few.

For decades it has been impossible to achieve successful rural reform that would respond to the needs of the campesinos and bridge the gaps of inequality. The Peace Agreement requires that this reform not be postponed any longer, but its requirements are so specific and complete that it has turned into a big headache for the government, as several of its proposals died in Congress in 2017.

These are the most difficult issues: 1. Integrated development of the countryside: This could best be reached by equilibrium between family agriculture, industrial agriculture, tourism, and large-scale commercial agriculture. 2. Private property: Giving land to the campesinos faces the tremendous challenge of not overlooking private property rights. 3. Competitiveness: The government and the FARC committed themselves to supporting alliances among small, medium, and large producers, as well as among processors, merchants, and exporters.

Carrying out these plans will not be easy. Based on the National Agriculture Census, Oxfam developed a report, X-Ray of Inequality, which cries out a warning about the terrible situation in which people in Colombia’s rural areas are living. In addition, it expressed to the government its concern about the land-related proposals that the administration has sent to Congress.

Aida Pesquera, Director of Oxfam Colombia, talked with Mongabay Latam, and she was very definite in pointing out that in spite of her conversations with the Agriculture Ministry, they seemed to be deaf. “I think the government has felt a lot of pressure from the private sector.  For many years, when he was President, Juan Manuel Santos made strong statements in meetings with business representatives such as the sugar cane growers in the Cauca Valley, promising them legal protection. They aren’t giving any priority to the campesino organizations.”

Alarming statistics

Oxfam’s analysis indicates that Colombia is the Latin American country with the greatest concentration of land ownership, in a continent where the levels of concentration are already very high.

  1. 1% of the largest farms control 81% of Colombia’s land. The remaining 19% of the land is distributed in farms owned by the other 99% of the population.
  2. 0.1 % of the farms larger than 2,000 hectares occupy 60% of the land.
  3. In 1960, 29% of Colombia was occupied by ranches larger than 500 hectares; but in 2002 the figure had increased to 46% and in 2017 it had reached 66%.
  4. 42.7% of the owners of the largest properties say that they don’t know the legal origin of their land.
  5. Only 26% of all the land is owned by women.
  6. Of the 111.5 million hectares counted in the census, 43 million (38.6%) are being used in agriculture, while 63.2 million (56.7%) of the surface is natural forest.
  7. Of the 43 million hectares used in agriculture, 34.4 are dedicated to cattle ranching and only 8.6 to agriculture. That situation ought to be reversed, as it’s recommended that 15 million hectares ought to be used for cattle ranching, but the actual use is more than double that. Another 22 million hectares could be used for farming, but the country is far from arriving at that figure.
  8. The properties measuring more than 1,000 hectares dedicate 87% of the land to cattle ranching and only 13% to agriculture. In the smallest parcels, i.e. those less than 5 hectares, 55% of the land is used for cattle and only 45% for agriculture. In spite of the fact that the situation is less dramatic in this last sector, the tendency to use land for cattle is always higher than any other form of land use.
  9. Monocultures predominate. For example, 30% of the areas planted in Meta Province are planted in palm oil.
  10. One million campesino households occupy less space than a cow uses to graze.

For Pesquera, if this inequality in land ownership is not resolved, it will be impossible to find a solution to poverty, because the highest incidence of poverty exists in rural areas. And in spite of the fact that the country has made significant progress in recent years, rural poverty has increased.

For his part, Jaime Forero Álvarez, Director of the Rural Observatory at La Salle University, points out that the National Agriculture Census is the true reflection of the consequences of the rural conflict “in the midst of which the large landowners have taken over, first of all, the land that was stolen from the campesinos. In the second place, they have usurped the open lands that belong to the government, areas with sensitive ecosystems that by law are supposed to be conserved, as well as land that used to consist of resources for common use,” he commented.

The open land—land that belongs to the government and is not to be employed for productive uses, no planting, no tilling—was part of the few expectations that were left for the campesinos to be able to have some economic sustenance. In fact, Colombia is one of the few countries in Latin America that have the concept of open lands that are government property and can be destined to reduce the gap between the large landholders and small producers.

But the reality is otherwise. Much of what has been proposed in point 1 of the Peace Agreement and which seeks an integrated reform for the countryside has faded with the legislative initiatives aimed at land regulation. “The poorest (rural) people in the countryside depend on the land for their sustenance. A better redistribution is necessary and to do that, point 1 of the Peace Agreement with the FARC is very important. The problem is that a number of legislative initiatives for land regulation have already been considered in Congress, but they have not passed. On the other hand, Decree #902 in 2017 was passed, but it is still being reviewed by the Constitutional Court because it is contrary to that Agreement,” says Pesquera.

Decree 902 of 2017 is approved but being reviewed and a new proposed land law is being considered in Congress and is awaiting approval. Oxfam states that both documents have many flaws and do not represent the campesino communities in the best way.

The extractive model is being reinforced

According to Aida Pesquera, Director of Oxfam, the new land law aims to favor and enable land use for mining development, and this affects redistribution among the campesinos. For her and a team of experts at Oxfam, the law would privilege extractive activities over agriculture because it declares lands that are being used for permitted exploitation of natural resources cannot be subject to private appropriation. “That means that there will be less land for agriculture. The agriculture sector sustains food production in the country, while the mining sector generates fewer jobs and causes greater environmental impact,” she says.

In Chocó Province, 99% of mining is done without mining titles or environmental permits.

In spite of that, when Mongabay Latam asked the National Land Agency, the agency in charge of the proposed bill that is before Congress, about the concession of open land for mining and energy projects, they answered that the proposed land bill doesn’t mention that point.

Asking them why land being used for permitted exploitation of natural resources cannot be subject to private appropriation, the agency said that “land not being subject to private appropriation is not determined by the fact that it’s used for the exploitation of natural resources, but rather by its location and physical characteristics, things that make it strategic for preserving the environment or for the development of projects of general interest.”

But Professor Jaime Forero has an opinion that is contrary to the government’s and closer to Oxfam’s opinion. “This law would enormously and unnecessarily increase the area to be used for mining and hydrocarbon exploitation, with serious prejudice to the assignment and formalization of parcels for campesinos.”

Privileging industrial agriculture over the campesinos

Pesquera thinks it’s very serious that there is a possibility of turning open land over to people who are not part of agrarian reform, i.e., people who are not campesinos. Giving these parcels to big companies would accentuate the land concentration phenomenon. In spite of the fact that this point was covered in Decree #902 of 2017 and is not part of the land law bill in Congress, the National Agency staff are convinced that that Decree, in spite of the fact that it is being reviewed by the Constitutional Court, contemplates measures that would permit the delivery of property titles to persons who have informal land relations.

What worries many people is that it could also have other beneficiaries besides the campesinos, because, as the National Land Agency responded, “the system of categorization and prioritization guarantees that the measures undertaken by the government will principally affect the rural population that complies with the conditions promised in the Peace Agreement.” The foregoing means that such measures could affect other actors, and that worries some organizations and also some academics. Professor Forero says that making these large concessions to the large landowners, in some cases puts the campesinos at a disadvantage in assignment of titles to open land.

This law was quite controversial, and it was passed in 2016. The Areas of Interest for Rural, Economic, and Social Development (ZIDRES in Spanish) in theory were territories appropriate for farming, livestock, forestry and fishing and would be a new model for integrated rural development. They would be managed by the Unit for Rural Agriculture Planning (UPRA in Spanish), an agency attached to the Colombian Agriculture Ministry.

Felipe Fonseca, Director General of UPRA, told Mongabay Latam that the objective of the ZIDRES is to contribute to food security; to planning and organizing rural agricultural land; to promoting access to productive elements, properties and public services for agricultural competitiveness; to advance sustainable land development through productive projects that respect the environment and promote public-private partnerships in a competitive setting with clear rules for agribusiness investment.

All of the criticisms are falling just on this last point. According to Pesquera, in the new land law they would extend the ZIDRES model; it would provide land use rights to people who were not intended to be beneficiaries of land reform, and it would promote producer alliances that are not fair to the campesinos. “What worries me is that that model already exists. The palm oil sector uses it frequently and we know that it’s very disadvantageous for the campesinos. They end up with all the risks at harvest time, having taken on microloans that they later can’t repay, and it turns the land over for periods of 20 or even 30 years; a period during which they can’t use it for any other activity,” she argues.

Another criticism that has been made of the ZIDRES model is that it could turn over properties from the Land Fund, created by the Peace Agreement, to agro-industry-campesino partnerships that could attack the social and economic stability of the countryside. Nevertheless, Felipe Fonseca states, “on the contrary, the ZIDRES supply resources to this Fund for the acquisition of properties that would guarantee benefits to those outside the areas that constitute the ZIDRES.”  He also was emphatic in affirming that the properties that enter the Land Fund for the Integrated Rural Reform are part of the government’s social investment for the implementation of the policy of social organization of rural property and its destination could not be changed.

There can be no doubt that all of the social and political drama that lies behind the high degree of land inequality in Colombia is broad and complex. The Decree and the Land Law, expected to be passed soon, are full of articles that the campesino organizations are unhappy with. If these aspects are not remedied, many believe that nothing in the proposed bills will change the sad situation of inequality in the countryside of Colombia, the most unequal nation in Latin America.

Professor Jaime Forero, Director of the Rural Observatory at La Salle University, sums up very well the great challenge confronting Colombia: “it’s urgent that we formalize and redistribute the land for productive uses. Forty-five percent of the agricultural area is in extensive cattle ranching with very low productivity, while more than 75% of campesinos don’t have enough land, even though they have been shown to be much more efficient in economic and productivity terms.”

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