How Colombia's President Santos aims to tackle decades of violent land disputes
Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos's new attempt at land reform will begin with the restitution of 5 million acres over four years – an area about the size of Massachusetts.
San Onofre, Colombia
Colombia has tried this before.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1968, the government encouraged peasants to take over fallow land. This spurred Manuel Aguas, once a stableboy who grew weary of taking orders from his boss's children, to join 19 other families in invading a large ranch, which was eventually expropriated and awarded to them by the government. The peasant movement was short-lived as its leaders were labeled leftist guerrillas and either killed or scared away.
"I fulfilled my dream but so many others died before they could," says Mr. Aguas, now in his 70s.
Today, the government is again attempting land reform in the face of violent opposition. Newly instated President Juan Manuel Santos launched a bold new policy in September that aims not only to offer land to the landless, but to formalize land tenure, rationalize land use, and reverse the violent accumulation of land by illegal forces over the past two decades. In his inaugural speech in August, Mr. Santos, a centrist, vowed to give land to "those who work it with vocation and the sweat of their brow."
The unequal distribution of land is both a root cause and a prime consequence of political conflicts that have plagued Colombia for the better part of a century. The new bill "is the only way to end the cycle of conflicts," says Alejandro Reyes, an adviser to the government on land policy.
Opposition is coming from ranchers and landowners, as well as former paramilitary fighters who have taken up arms to form criminal gangs. At least 42 leaders of organizations fighting to regain lost land have been murdered in the past five years. Hernando Pérez was the latest victim. He was beaten to death Sept. 20, one day after participating in a government event in the northern Uraba region where Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo had given land titles to 34 families.
"We cannot rule out violent reactions," says Mr. Restrepo.
The new attempt at land reform will begin with the restitution of 5 million acres over four years – an area about the size of Massachusetts. That's the low estimate of land illegally obtained by drug traffickers and paramilitaries or their frontmen in the 1980s and '90s. In some areas, farmers were forced to sell, being told that "either you sell to me, or your widow will."
Reforming an informal sector
Of Colombia's 3.3 million registered displaced people – the world's second-biggest population of internally displaced persons after Sudan – two-thirds say they lost land to leftist guerrillas and paramilitary forces. The Constitutional Court estimates the amount of illegally obtained land at 13.6 million acres. In theory, under the terms of their 2005 demobilization, paramilitaries committed to handing over their lands to a victim reparation fund; only 42,000 acres have actually been returned.
Why It Matters: The unequal distribution of land in Colombia has been a root cause and consequence of conflict – political and actual – for most of a century. The newly instated centrist president's bold land reform policy seems genuine, not window dressing, and is meeting stiff and violent resistance.