Land Reform in Colombia in the Context of the Peace Process

By: Daoud Bouledroua, Jannis Rustige, Anais Andrä (MA Dual Degree Political Science/Affaires Internationales)

More than 50 years ago, even before the FARC was formally created, Colombian guerrilla fighters gathered in what was then called the First Guerrilla Conference. Already then, the first point of discussion was land reform. Since then, the question of land reform, or the redistribution of agricultural land, was at the heart of demands made by guerrilla forces. In the following years, guerrilla and peasant organizations (and from 1966 on FARC forces), conducted land occupations particularly in regions with an advanced agroindustry, making big land owners their main targets.

In response to the advances made by FARC forces, paramilitary groups emerged and were officially active from 1982 to 2007. Particularly land owners who had most to fear from FARC forces formed and supported paramilitary groups in order to protect themselves and to actively fight the guerrilla. Empowered by the state through specific laws, these counterinsurgent forces grew and more importantly started to take land from the rural population too, justifying their actions with the argument that they would “put the land to better use” by using benefits from this land for fighting guerrillas.

In the Colombian context, the unequal distribution of land has been one of the fundamental elements of the conflict since its beginning. Therefore, it must inevitably be part of the currently ongoing transitional justice process. Transitional justice and land reform are inextricably linked: There are different contexts of transitional justice in which land distribution constituted a central issue. “Land reform is one key area of distributive justice” (Tirrell, 2016) by offering an opportunity to enable a reorganisation of social and economic justice. At the same time, measures of transitional justice contribute to a more just land tenure system (Huggins, 2009).

Over the years of the conflict, 3.6 million farmers were dispossessed and displaced from their lands. The size of the dispossessed land varies according to different sources: the Centro de Memoria estimates that at least 10 million hectares have been forcibly dispossessed between 1994 and 2012 (Gonzalez Posso, 2013). With the dispossession, the concentration of land concomitantly increased. The high concentration and unequal distribution of land has been a characteristic running through and evolving throughout the 20th Century in Colombia. Today, 77,6 % of the land in Colombia is owned by 13,7 % of the land owners (Ibáñez and Muñoz, 2011). Over the past five decades, this concentration of land has even increased: between 1960 and 2009, the Gini coefficient rose from 0,841 to 0,885 – indicating the highest land inequality across Latin America (ibid.).

Various reforms attempted at correcting the imbalance, as well as at to incentivise a more productive exploitation of the land through reform projects and property rights linked to ethnicity (Ibáñez and Muñoz, 2011).  However, they often were unsuccessful, or even had a reverse effect. Law 200 of 1936, for instance, seeking clarity of land titles led to the expulsion of many tenants and an increase in property concentration. The agrarian reform of Law 135 of 1961 was accompanied by public policies favouring big producers. These policies were furthered during the following decades, following a (misled) belief that only large companies can fully develop the land’s productive potential (ibid). Emergent drug trafficking only increased the expulsion of settlers and the concentration of property (ibid). Law 160 of 1994 redistributed only 60% of the planned 1 million ha and, despite provisions forbidding extensive accumulations of land, did not hinder companies from concentrating land by dividing their purchases (Oxfam, 2013). Consequently, inequalities persist.

For the understanding of the dynamics and dimensions of dispossessions and displacements an analysis of the different actors that are involved in different phases of the conflict can have an explanatory value. The processes of dispossession vary with the societal composition and the power relations between paramilitaries, campesino militancy (Ballvé, 2013) and narco traficos across different regions.

Vargas and Uribe identify two phases of extreme violence and dispossession in the municipality of Tibú to illustrate the interaction of the state, paramilitaries and agro-industrial companies. While they observed an alliance between security agencies and armed groups that directly displaced or indirectly made the people leave their lands, the accumulation –  seizure – of the abandoned land happened in a second phase, with different actors involved: state policies encouraged entrepreneurs to buy the empty lands for the sake of agro-industrial projects (Vargas and Uribe, 2017). The actors involved in the first phase of coercion and the second phase of accumulation do not necessarily coincide, as interests and forms of operations of different state agencies do not inevitably converge.  Land accumulation is not taking place in an institutional vacuum.  Through the shaping of property rights and political order in land disputes, the state itself can contribute to balancing the unequal distribution of land. At the same time, Ballvé argues that in regions that are often perceived as stateless, everyday state formation takes place through convergent strategies of “narco-paramilitary strategies, counterinsurgency” and government-driven land reforms that aim to restructure the unequal territorial distribution (Ballvé, 2012). In the region of the Gulf of Urabá, which has been highly affected by dispossession and displacement, paramilitaries have developed state-like functions through the “production of territory” (Ballvé, 2013). The “economies of violence” that developed with the land-grabbing practices, are thus not opposed to the idea of modern liberal statehood but are connected to the aim of “making the spaces governable” (Ballvé, 2012) while being driven by economic interests.

Given the centrality of land reform for the onset of the FARC’s foundation and its disagreement with the government, it is certainly no surprise that the FARC also declared it the most crucial aspect requiring an agreement in the peace negotiations of Havana. To find out to what extent this has been accomplished in the first chapter of the final agreement (titled “Towards a new Colombian Countryside: Comprehensive Rural Reform”), whether this can contribute to a fairer land distribution and how the implementation is going, we have talked to the Sergio Coronado Delgado.


Sergio Coronado Delgado is a PhD candidate and an associate Researcher of the junior research group GLOCON (Global Change – Local Conflicts) at the Freie Universität Berlin. Before, he was vice-director of the Colombian Centre for Research and Popular Education – CINEP and also worked as a part-time professor in the School of Environmental and Rural Studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. He is a lawyer with Masters degrees in Constitutional Law and Rural Development.


Ed. Note: The Gini coefficient indicates the distribution of a good (here: land). A Gini coefficient of 0 indicates perfect equality. The closer the coefficient approaches 1, the more unequal the good is distributed. 1 would mean all land is in the possession of one person.



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González, C. (2013). La Verdad del abandono forzado y el despojo de tierras. Presented at the Panel Diálogo de la Memoria: Territorio y despojos, Bogotá, DC. ( (last consultation 27/01/18)

Huggins, C. (2009). Linking broad constellations of ideas: Transitional justice, land tenure reform, and development. Transitional justice and development: Making connections, 332-374.

Ibáñez, A. M. and J. C. Muñoz (2011). La persistencia de la concentración de la tierra en Colombia: ¿Qué pasó entre 2000 y 2010?, Notas de Politica, No.9

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Vargas, J., and Uribe, S. (2017). State, war, and land dispossession: The multiple paths to land concentration. Journal of Agrarian Change, 17(4), 749-758.