By Humberto de la Calle, EL ESPECTADOR, June 22, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Among the arguments against the Peace Agreement was the one that said we are “turning the country over” to the FARC. Today that’s still a bogeyman used to frighten the middle classes and to defend an antiquated rural structure. I am going to maintain that that structure is not just harmful to social justice in Colombia, but also it’s particularly harmful to the economy, and that reform would be in Colombia’s best interest.
At the dawn of the last century the thrust of agricultural policy was the distribution of uninhabited wasteland. The government turned over enormous expanses to members of the military, politicians, financiers, and others. Sixty million hectares between 1903 and 2012. The question is not just the size of the properties, but also the economic structure that this turned into. They expelled the remaining inhabitants to the periphery, as Chucho Bejarano described in his essay “Origines del problema agrario” (Origins of the Agricultural Problem). The system of exploitation was based on serfdom. Settlers coming out of the jungle, who after a time returned the land to the owner as pasture for cattle ranching. In some coffee-growing areas, they used sharecropping, a strange partnership in which the worker assumes most of the losses in case of disaster. A structure based on salaries was never created, squandering the possibility of generating a formal mass of campesino consumers that could open the door to industrialization. Some of the “Asiatic tigers” (successful Asian economies) grew after there was a modernizing agricultural reform. Our system created rentier wealth, but it never created capital.
The big estates were not productive. Of the total area used for agriculture, 80% was used for pastures and straw. Only 19% is for agricultural use. A use like that is pathological.
Add to that a local political system that hindered the taxation of the land, thus gambling on vegetative valuation and minimal mobility in the market for land. If anything else was needed, along came the drug trafficking that aborted an incipient process for land distribution. Even with its dysfunctionality, the Lleras reform opened a door. That reform died at the hands of radicalism. The extreme left wrecked the campesino movement.
Adventurism. And the influence of the big landowners forced the Chicoral Agreement signed by López Michelsen and Misael Pastrana that emasculated the reform. And if that wasn’t enough, the actions of the owners who hated any change and the new drug barons, coordinated in some areas, generated the brutal counter-reform. “The big owners were controlling 47% of all the surveyed land in 1984, but by 2000 they controlled 65%, and (…) the small owners passed from owning 15% in 1984 to owning 9% in 2000.” (Kalmanovitz, New Economic History of Colombia). We are the country with the second highest displacement in the world, so that, as one paramilitary said, “While some of us were killing, others were buying, and others were formalizing titles.”
I admit that there are some conscientious landowners. I know that the whole economy requires some profitable land. The Peace Agreement leaves space for that. But what will not function is an agrarian economy that continues to be based on serfdom. We also can and we must modernize the campesino economy. I know of successful experiences where, along with modern private property, cooperative systems take on important tasks of post-harvest and marketing. The government does well to reincorporate the former combatants, and in land restitution. But the real reform is still waiting. It’s not for the FARC. It’s for Colombia.