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Colombians are occupying land to protest inequality. Here’s the history.

Indigenous and other marginalized Colombians are putting pressure on the new government to follow through on land redistribution promises

In Colombia, Indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendant groups have escalated land occupations in recent months, seeking to ensure the government carries out long-standing land redistribution promises. President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez, sworn in as the leaders of Colombia’s first leftist government in history in August, campaigned on a political agenda that included land redistribution.

Current land conflicts are an extension of Colombia’s long history of political violence and inequality. What does the recurrence of land occupations mean for the prospects for peace and development in Colombia today? And will increased public support for redistribution and the new government’s commitment to socio-economic change help marginalized rural communities gain land ownership rights?

Land redistribution was a key goal when the Colombian government and the former guerrilla group FARC-EP negotiated the 2016 peace accord that ended the longest-running civil war in the Western Hemisphere. The peace deal pledged 7 million hectares for titling programs directed toward small shareholders who have farmed land but lack formal titles and 3 million hectares for landless communities as means for subsistence.

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Research on past rural mobilization efforts helps explain this latest chapter in Colombia’s land occupations. In the 1970s, land occupations skyrocketed, and these types of popular land claims continued into the 1980s as peasant and Indigenous communities saw land occupations from large landowners as the way to pressure the government into implementing new land policies. However, the violent backlash from paramilitary groups colluding with private landowners erased land occupations from the tool kit of rural movements during the civil war.

Land policies in the 1970s fell short — and rural residents fought back

Seeking to dissuade land conflict and the nascent insurgency, President Alberto Lleras-Camargo created national-level institutions tasked with land policy changes through the 1961 Agrarian Law. Later that decade, the administration of President Carlos Lleras-Restrepo enhanced these institutions and encouraged peasants to participate in implementing new land policies. Yet wealthy Colombian landowners and cattle ranchers worked with coalitions in Congress to derail these efforts and bribed local-level officials to hamper implementation.

Disappointed by the broken promises on land redistribution, ANUC — the largest peasant movement at the time — coordinated a campaign of land occupations in the early 1970s. In the northern department of Cordoba, for example, dozens of peasant families settled in temporary shacks on land owned by 30 private haciendas (or estates).

The peasants’ aim was to pressure authorities to fulfill land redistribution promises. Similar episodes unfolded around the country. By year’s end, Colombian officials had recorded 645 occupation events. Political and economic elites in the 1970s denounced these “land invasions” as a threat to economic development.

In some instances, rural communities attained formal titles over occupied land. But elites’ demands led to a strong shift in land policy, which crystallized in a government-elite agreement known as the “Pacto de Chicoral,” signed in January 1972. Henceforth, land policies favored economic growth over a fairer distribution of rural assets.

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Importantly, the Pacto de Chicoral helped legitimize government repression of peasants, Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians mobilizing for land rights, while paramilitary groups violently evicted rural communities from recently allocated land. Unaddressed land claims also deepened political conflict, violence and displacement. The findings from Colombia’s Truth Commission — an institution established by the 2016 peace accord — report local alliances of paramilitary groups, landed elites and the National Army had carried out counter-agrarian efforts, using lethal violence against peasant communities.

Is there political momentum for land redistribution today?

Echoing the mobilizations of the 1970s, Indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian movements have taken over large land plots in recent months. For instance, in the northern part of Colombia in Cesar, peasant movements are contesting the ownership of plots of land purchased by private companies after paramilitary forces forced out local farmers in the mid-2000s.

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Similarly, in southwestern Colombia in Cauca, land occupations have unearthed long-running conflicts between Indigenous peoples and the sugar cane industry. Adding to the conflict, tensions have emerged between Afro-Colombians demanding their right to work, and peasant and Indigenous communities mobilizing to claim land ownership. These disputes are rooted in widespread wealth inequality in Cauca, where the land Gini index — a measure of income inequality ranging from 0 (low) to 1 (high) — has reached 0.9.

In recent months, cattle ranchers and opposition leaders have responded to the land occupations in ways that strikingly resemble the actions of self-defense groups — a response that fueled violence against peasant communities during the decades of armed conflict ended by the 2016 peace agreement. Will the various factions now find ways to compromise? In sharp contrast to the 1970s, Colombia today has institutional frameworks to address war atrocities and is more capable of implementing redistributive policies, including land redistribution.

Aware of the interplay of land conflicts and violence, the national government seems to be taking steps toward fulfilling promises to end land conflicts and alleviate inequalities. Petro’s administration signed an agreement this month to buy about 3 million hectares from cattle ranchers to expedite rural land redistribution. The government’s plan seeks to give land back to landless communities by favoring negotiation over contention.

Of course, the Petro administration’s plans have produced some criticism. Some politicians have criticized the government’s willingness to negotiate with sectors that have colluded with paramilitary groups. Others have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of transferring resources to already wealthy landed elites through land purchase. However, as long as the agreement prioritizes land access to landless communities while diminishing dissenting voices from Colombia’s powerful large landowners, it may work toward solving long-standing inequalities in Colombia and continue the path to peace.

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Laura García-Montoya (@LauraGarciaMo) is an assistant professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and adjunct professor of economics at the Universidad del Rosario.

Isabel Güiza-Gómez (@IsabelGuiza) is a doctoral student in political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.