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The Failure of Land Reform

In a country where the level of land concentration is extremely high, land has become the most precious right


The history of Colombia is a history of land dispossession, concentration, and fragmentation. Colombia has one of the highest rates of land concentration in the world. Land has been at the heart of Colombia’s violent conflicts for the last two centuries. When the Peace Agreement was signed in 2016, social and peasant organizations finally felt hopeful about remedying the situation. Land reform became the first point of the Peace Agreement, in line with the Tenure Guidelines. However, little has changed since this agreement was signed, mainly due to obstruction enacted by Iván Duque’s government, which serves powerful economic and political interests. In 2022, a leftist coalition was elected so now peasant organizations hope the new administration will prioritize the long-awaited agrarian reform.

The peasants of Sumapaz, the last guardians of the largest paramo in the world

In 2008, the peasant communities of Sumapaz, Colombia, learned that the company Emgesa, which is part of the multinational energy group Enel, was planning to alter the course of the Sumapaz River to build a dam and a hydroelectric plant. The Sumapaz River gives life to the largest paramo in the world, which was declared a national natural park in 1977. Known as one of the “fluvial stars” of the country, it is also a major water source for three main river basins, and for the capital city of Bogotá as well, and for Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela. Thus, the Sumapaz River plays a key role in the rich surrounding ecosystem, which includes the iconic plant frailejón (Espeletia), as well as the peasant and local communities that live there.

This explains why Emgesa’s (now Enel Colombia) development plan, despite promising progress for the region, sparked outrage among local residents. These communities, with over a century of experience in militant social struggles against latifundia, were well aware of what was at stake: further dispossession of land and possible environmental damages. In the 1950s, elders from the community had fought for agrarian reforms that never came into fruition. Meanwhile land concentration became a structural cause of armed conflict in Colombia. When times were turbulent, some peasants fled neighboring towns and sought refuge in the paramo. Then, in the 90s, Sumapaz peasants were caught amidst violence due to military operations against the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), who used the paramo for safe passage to other regions of the country.

Since then, the paramo has been highly militarized and the presence of soldiers has impacted the ecosystem of 3,226 square meters. Social organizations have denounced that even after the 2016 Peace Agreement, the army continues to maintain military bases in the area. Furthermore, there are regular reports of repression and criminalization of peasants. In 2019, Duque’s right-wing government launched the Artemisa Campaign, which was supposedly designed to prosecute those endangering protected areas through their illegal activities. However, the Law of Environmental Crimes (Law 2111) has instead been utilized to harass peasant and indigenous communities who have lived in and protected these areas for decades. These communities claim that the campaign aims to displace them, thus leaving the land empty and ready for exploitation and foreign investment.

As mentioned before, the Colombian company Emgesa is part of the Enel group. This multinational company has its headquarters in Italy and is the largest company in the Italian energy sector: 23.6% is publicly owned, but its major private investors are BlackRock (5%) and Capital Research and Management (5%). The primary investors backing Entel’s American branch are located in the USA (Citibank), Europe, (Santander) and Latin America (Banco de Chile), along with pension funds, which sum up 7.5% of the stakeholders, and one of the largest investment companies in the world (State Street).

Thanks to the social mobilization of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Sumapaz (SINTRAPAZ), an affiliate of FENSUAGRO, the Emgesa was forced to modify the design of the hydroelectric plant to reduce environmental damage. At present, the project is on hold as Emgesa needs to provide an environmental impact report to the National Authority for Environmental Licenses (ANLA).

Nonetheless, for the peasant communities, their social struggle continues. Since 2011, they have been fighting to declare the region of Sumapaz a Peasants Reserve Zone (ZRC). Their first victory was against the National Land Agency (ANT), which was found guilty of delaying the procedure for over a decade. Such ZRCs were declared in the 90s after a long process of peasant mobilization. These groups demanded protected areas, free of violence, for rural development and to prevent land concentration through community management. Established in Law 160 of 1994, ZRCs were unsteadily implemented for 26 years, but peasant communities managed to include them in the 2016 Peace Agreement. Today, it is expected that the new government of Gustavo Petro will prioritize establishing the long pending ZRCs.

When the energy company Emgesa exposed its plan to build an hydroelectric plant in the largest paramo in the world, the peasants of Sumapaz sparked in outrage. They were well aware of what was at stake: further dispossession of land and possible environmental damages.


Sumapaz Paramo, the largest paramo in the world. / Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero

Land concentration: the root cause of Colombian armed conflict

Colombia has one of the highest inequality rates in land distribution (Gini Index was 0.8955 in 2019). To be clear: 1% of the largest land holdings occupy 80% of the land, while the other 99% of land holdings shares the remaining 20% of land. The history of Colombia is a history of land dispossession, concentration, and fragmentation. It began in colonial times with the large-scale dispossession and occupation. This dark past has never been addressed and was a source of major conflict during the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, failed agrarian reforms, policies that continually allocate public land to powerful actors, the impact of armed conflicts in rural territories, and organized crime’s use of these territories as drug routes has led to the violent dispossession of land from peasant, indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities.

In short, the following figure attest to the impact of armed conflict on peasant communities:
→ 8,748,957 people have been displaced since 1961, according to the Single Registry of Victims (RUV).
→ More than 5 million were displaced between 1995-2010, during the peak of the violence.
→ 58% of these victims were from rural areas.

The Truth Commission attributes this wave of displacements primarily to people fleeing violent conflicts. Other causes include aerial glyphosate fumigations to eradicate illicit coca crops, criminalization of peasants through mass arrests, and forced recruitment of the youth by armed groups. A range of actors have used displacements to grab land and satisfy their legal or illegal capitalist interests. The result has been an increase in land concentration: the percentage of landlords with holdings of more than 500 hectares has grown from 25% in 1997 to 66% in 2014.

In Colombia, 1% of the largest land holdings occupy 80% of the land, while the other 99% of land holdings shares the remaining 20% of land


National meeting of the Peasant Reserve Zones. / Agencia Prensa Rural

How can we tackle land concentration?

Within this context, it is clear why the Peace Agreement between the national government and FARC began with the Comprehensive Rural Reform (RRI for its acronym in Spanish) to restitute land that had been stolen from communities for centuries, and to redistribute and democratize access to land across the country. The objectives of the RRI, in line with the Tenure Guidelines, included restitution and redistribution of land to benefit the most vulnerable groups, as well as to promote rural development in order to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce inequalities.

According to Nury Martínez, president of the National Federation of Farmers Union (FENSUAGRO), one of the positive outcomes of the RRI was the continuous dialogue between the FAO, social movements, and peasant communities on the topic of implementing the Tenure Guidelines within the RRI. Nonetheless, 6 years after signing the Peace Agreement, only 4% of the RRI has been implemented, compared to 37% achieved in the other areas of the Peace Agreement, according to a 2021 report by Krog Institute.

The result of this low implementation is that from 2013 to 2019, there was no change in land distribution. While the number of peasants with small fields of less than 10 hectares has slightly increased; the number of landlords (3%) and the amount of land that they own (78%) remains the same.

The poor implementation of the Peace Agreement and the RRI is mainly due to the obstruction carried out by the right-wing government of Iván Duque (2018-2022), an Uribe successor who came to power after an intense campaign against the Peace Agreement. During his term in office, 957 human rights defenders and social leaders have been killed, along with 261 signatories of the Peace Agreement. According to Global Witness, in 2020 Colombia was the most dangerous country for human-rights defenders, for the second consecutive year.

Moreover, Duque has militarized protected areas to gain control over key ecological territories and has used the Areas of Interest for Rural, Economic, and Social Development (ZIDRES) approved by Juan Manuel Santos to give unproductive or vacant land to private companies, thus increasing land concentration.

In 2022, a leftist coalition led by Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez won the presidential elections in Colombia. The implementation of the Peace Agreements, particularly the first point and its RRI are among the top priorities of this administration. However, democratizing deeply entrenched and inequitable patterns of land ownership in Colombia will not be a small feat. Peasant organizations hope that the long-pending establishment of ZRCs, peasant agro-food territories, and other forms of shaping territories for food production and ecological rehabilitation will be among this government’s first steps towards the long-awaited agrarian reform.

Although the Peace Agreement began with the Comprehensive Rural Reform (RRI), 6 years after there has been no change in land distribution


Objectives of the Rural Reform  Achievements after 6 years
Land Restitution Fund 3 million ha 251,122 (8.4%)
Formalization of Land 7 million ha 2.24 million (32%)
Multipurpose Land Registry 31.5% of territory 15.39% of territory
Subsidies for Land Access Create the Comprehensive Subsidy for Land Access (SIAT) Not created.

Subsidies to 926 families through old mechanisms

Special Agrarian Jurisdiction Create to accelerate the judicial process of land restitution Not approved by Parliament, (some senators are large-scale landowners)
PDET 16 Road Maps for 8 Pilars 15.74% of the projects are finished

63.93% in execution

Lowest rates of implementation in projects for the right to food and formalization of land tenure

Peasant Reserved Zones (ZRC) Demands from social movements as part of 2021 national strike Not assigned

(See case of Sumapaz)

16 Sectorial National Plans Eliminate extreme poverty and reduce rural poverty by 50% over the next 15 years 11 plans adopted

4 plans closed

1 plan in formulation

This article has been possible thanks to the information and support provided by FENSUAGRO.