The Rural Debt in Colombia: Missed Opportunity for Redressing Development Flaws?
In speaking recently with Eduardo González (@elfjcgc), a colleague and expert in transitional justice and the Colombian peace process, he was certainly right in mentioning that the agreement brokered between the government and the FARC-EP was extremely ambitious. It included more components in it beyond traditional power-sharing, disarmament and victim reparations dimensions: there was a whole strategy aimed at confronting the root causes of the armed conflict, in particular, the problem of rural land.
This land component (reforma rural integral) was the first element of the agreement discussed when negotiations began in 2012. Putting this ahead of anything else highlights the fact that land has been the most prominent and longstanding issue in the history of Colombia; disputes around it did give rise to the guerrillas and, in turn, paramilitaries. Through the agreement, the government committed to substantial structural reforms in conflict-affected and rural areas, including a series of government investments in public service capacity (about USD$470 million), the formation of a three-million hectare land fund (about 8% of Colombia’s farmland) for farmers with little to no land, the recognition of land ownership to those small farmers without legal title (it is estimated that one of every two small landholders do not have formal rights over land), and the restitution of land to displaced households, among other points. These proposals gave additional hope for peace and prosperity to those Colombians who voted in favor of the agreement –those from the most conflict affected-areas, which are precisely the rural areas that would be covered under the land package of the agreement. And for good reason: there is an interesting empirical link between the abuse of human rights, poverty and social fragility, creating a vicious circle that can be completely applied to the case of Colombia’s rural populations who have endured historical developmental neglect and conflict. These rural areas then carried the “yes” vote in the referendum as compared to urban areas of the country.
In the end, despite the hopes generated by the peace process, the agreement was not endorsed by the Colombian population on October 2, 2016. This loss signifies a potential lost opportunity to redress Colombia’s purposeful development flaws that have wrecked havoc most particularly in the country’s rural periphery. While the Santos government expressed its intention to pursue with the package of rural reforms with or without the peace agreement two weeks after losing the referendum, its application now remains politically uncertain. Within the “no” camp, the group battling most aggressively against the set of rural reforms are the big agrarian landowners and the hacendados. This powerful subset of actors has close ties with both the Uribe and Pastrana backers who are now aiming to renegotiate the agreement –although these have been focusing mainly around the transitional justice components. Thus, while perhaps not the biggest segment against the peace agreement as it is, they are influential and could sway others on this issue.
This group of large landholders has the most to lose if any attempt at redressing the situation in the rural areas goes forward. If the Colombian countryside, whose condition in 2011 was deemed to be “distressing,” is characterized by anything, it is the enormous concentration of land ownership in very few hands. The Gini coefficient for Colombia’s agricultural land –a way to measure inequality– is 0.83, a significantly high value by any standard. Other accounts highlight the fact that 1% of rural households possess 60% of the farmland. This situation is the result of both historical rural structures and institutions (à la Acemoglu & Robinson) and badly planned attempts to colonize virgin lands in the last century, and have been significantly aggravated by civil war and paramilitarism (some available resources in this paper by Laboratorio de Paz and, especially, in this book by Ana María Ibáñez heavily grounded on empirical evidence). Major landowners have largely benefitted from forced displacement as a consequence of violence, as displaced households have abandoned their land or have been forcibly dispossessed from it without much compensation. Ibáñez estimates that only 12% of displaced households still retain land. Extended lack of legal ownership, as pointed out above, also make these small landholders a target of violence. Hence why the land reform package is uprooting some big actors, as reforms would likely prevent land grabbing practices and reverse the situation to some extent.
In parallel, pushing forward these reforms will also require convincing the urban populations who voted against the whole peace agreement or largely abstained that these land reforms are necessary for the good of the country as a whole. In the same way that urban populations seem to have rejected the proposed resolution to a conflict that they did not directly feel in their day-to-day lives, the necessary reforms and investments to bring the Colombian countryside to appropriate standards might be seen as an excessive cost to assume without much for them to gain. This is an understandable conservative position to a problematic largely distant to them, in any case, and further rejection might be generated if reforms go ahead.
Advocacy for the rural transformation package, therefore, will still be required regardless of the status of the peace agreement, if it is to be implemented as the Santos government plans. These messages will be critical for both large landowners and urban populations who do not perceive a peace dividend –at least in the short term! But this is precisely the point that needs to be made clearly: rural development will be beneficial for all in the long run. It can make the agriculture sector more powerful, with better productivity and potential to export, and, especially for city dwellers, it can reduce rural emigration thanks to shrinking the rural-urban divide with regard to livelihood opportunities. Beyond this pragmatism however are the arguments for this land package from a moral point of view, in line with those emerging from the discussions around the questionable goodness of (failed) referendums elsewhere: what was voted on in Colombia at its essence was the right of conflict-affected populations (a minority) to live in peace and have the chance to participate in better livelihoods and inclusive development; the outcome was decided by the majority urban population and rural elites, who voted against such change or felt they had no reason to vote at all. And it makes one wonder if such a vote, of minority rights put at the discretion of the majority, a just one to take forward –and to what extent the country is so divided as to not see the need to support those who have suffered so long. Because, in some way, shouldn’t economic redistribution of this magnitude be seen as legitimate and rightful given the legacy that decades of conflict have left on Colombian territory?