Student Publications

Roberto Mignone
Title: The Colombian Conflict in Historical Perspective: The evolution of the Land Issue
Area: Latin American History
Country: Colombia
Program: Education Doctorate
Available for Download: Yes
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The conflict in Colombia has been ravaging the country for the last four decades
but its roots are traceable for a much longer period.
According to various analysts, the key issue at the core of the conflict originally
was, and for many still is, the extremely unfair distribution of land.
This paper will analyze how land distribution has been a very conflictive issue
within the Colombian society since the beginning of the colonial era. It will focus on the
evolution of the problem and how it remained unsolved and even worsened in spite of
several attempts of land reform. The main events characterizing the development of the
land issue in Colombia contain certain patterns, discussed in this paper, which to a large
extent are still valid today.
The relationship between land distribution and the origin of the current conflict is
still a controversial issue for some analysts.
Most of these analysts identify a clear relationship between land distribution and
conflict: “The basic antagonism between peasants and landlords has nowhere been re-
solved…many contemporary conflicts represent at once a continuation and a transformation
of earlier struggles “.
This is “ … a crisis whose underlying causes, specifically the long standing quest
for land reform by campesinos… “.
Others do not consider the current conflict as being directly related to the historical
inequality in the distribution of land : “… Nor can the uneven distribution of wealth
and income, so typical of Latin America, be cited as the primary cause of the recent violence
… but rather the impact of drug trafficking and the traditional fragmentation of
power… “
The current situation of land distribution will also be focused on as it can be considered
the result of the historical process analyzed more in details.
The role of the illegal armed actors and more recently of the drug lords, will be
analyzed in order to demonstrate how the spiral of violence has become a cycle in which
poor peasants not only fail to improve their precarious situation, but in fact end up losing
everything they owned, in particular the small plots of land, by being forced into displacement.

Various economic and social indicators in Colombia express the serious inequality
of distribution of wealth and other resources: 1 % of the population controls 45 % of
the wealth. The top 10 % of the families owns 56 % of the country resources. In rural areas
86 % of the population is poor and rural poverty is actually increasing in the last
Nevertheless the most impressive indicators of this inequality relate directly to the
distribution of land : 3 % of landowners own more than 70 % of the arable land; 30 percent
of property owners control about 95 % of the best land. In 1996, 0.13 % of the landowners
owned 39.23 % of the land, through estates larger than 1.000 hectares.
As a result of this concentration, 75 % of potential crop land is currently underutilized
as the land is used mainly for pasture.
This situation has its roots in the history of the settlement of the country from colonial
times : before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors all the indigenous groups in
the territory which is now Colombia had a collective ownership of the land, which was
owned by the community.
In the colonial period ( 1492 – 1810 ), when Colombia was known as Nueva Grenada,
the main use of the land was not for agriculture but for extracting minerals and
other resources to ship to motherland Spain. Indigenous people and later African slaves
were forced to work in the mines.
Land however was also regarded as a symbol of political power: one of the elements
which shaped the distribution of land in Colombia was the assignation by the King
of Spain of immense extensions of land, tens of thousands of hectares each, to the Conquistadors.
These concessions were made through a mechanism referred to as “ regla de
morada y labor “, as in theory the owner was supposed to “live ( morada ) and work ( labor
) ” there. In reality it was again African and indigenous slaves who were working the
vast extensions of the best land available.
As of the sixteenth century, marginalized groups such as escaped Afro-Colombian
slaves, mulatos, mestizos and other poor farmers without land began the migration towards
remote areas where land was available. In these regions the State was absent and
basic infrastructure unheard of. This settlement process often occurred at the expense of
the local indigenous groups. Fernán Gonzalez, a researcher of Colombian political history,
defines the process as “an escape route from the tensions created by highly concentrated
rural land ownership “.
Interestingly even today in the most remote regions of Colombia one can find the
descendants of the same actors, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, and poor subsistence
farmers, with similar dynamics (absence of the State and of most infrastructure and
widespread violence). Where the best land and infrastructure is available, often it is the
traditional elite families who own today even larger concentrations of land ( along with
the more recent ownership by drug lords ).
In the following historical phase, the struggle for independence from Spain

( obtained in 1810 ) contributed to the increasing in the unequal distribution of
land, as vast extensions of public land were assigned by the new government to militaries
who had fought the independence war.
In certain cases, the land was formally property of the State ( baldío ) but had in
fact already been colonized by poor peasants who had no formal legal title for it. The
Liberal Party member Alejandro Lopez I.C. described this situation as “la lucha entre el
hacha y el papel sellado “ ( the struggle between the hoax and the stamped legal papers ).
Several attempts at redressing the inbalance in ownership of land through land
distribution were made throughout the nineteenth century. These attempts were never
successful and often even worsened the situation.
For instance in the period from 1851 to 1881, 1.301.122 hectares of State land
( baldíos ) were adjudicated to companies, private landowners and farmers. However,
only 6.066 hectares ( or 0.46 % ) were assigned to small farmers who would cultivate
it directly.
Another important process relating to land in Colombia in this period was the so-
called “colonization “: in 1850, approximately 75 % of the land was still public land and
open to large migrations and settlement by peasants in frontier lowlands. They created
small family farms but normally failed to obtain any legal title. When, at a later stage,
investors acquired the title from the state, the settlers were turned into tenants.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the high concentration of land and the
conditions of extreme poverty of most peasants led to the creation of organized movements
of protest : the first agrarian trade union was founded in Colombia in 1913 in Colosó,
Bolivar department, by a school teacher.
Then in the 1920s more political movements were created or consolidated to give
voice to the landless peasants who called for land redistribution. Some of these movements
were socialist “currents” which later turned in the Communist Party of Colombia.
Others were sectors of the Liberal Party, like the one led by Jorge Eliecer Gaitán.
Violent confrontations between these movements and the state forces took place
in many regions, particularly in Magdalena, Cundinamarca, Tolima and around the Atlantic
During the period 1930 to 1946 Liberal Party-run administrations made various
attempts at land reform .
For instance in 1936 during the government of Alfonso López Pumarejo, legislation
on the land reform was approved ( Ley 200 de 1936 ). The objective of this legislation
was to regularize land titles and to implement the principle that those who really
work the land should be the legitimate owners. Squatters and tenants could apply for free
grants of land they were living and working on, if the landlords could not prove legal
The landowners, backed by the Conservative Party, reacted by forcing the expulsion
of many peasants from the land that they owned. Landless peasants, again as a cycle,
were forced towards the colonization of unclaimed frontier in remote regions.

These attempts of social, economic and political modernizing reforms by the Liberal
Party and the absolute and fierce opposition by the Conservative Party created a climate
of extreme polarization which exploded in widespread political violence.
In the late 1940s, Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had emerged from the
Liberal and communist led agrarian reform movements, was a popular presidential candidate.
On April 9, 1948 he was assassinated. His murder provoked a popular uprising and
explosions of violence throughout the country
( in the capital, the city looting which took place is remembered as the Bogotazo:
much of the city was destroyed and 2.000 people were killed ).
This event is regarded by many analysts as an important turning point in Colombian
history: the Conservative Party started a wave of terror to repress the popular insurgence,
as well as took the occasion to legitimize the systematic repression against various
kind of social movements.
The next decade is known as “La Violencia “( the Violence ) and claimed the life
of between 200.000 to 300.000 Colombians. Rural violence spread in the country, especially
in rural departments as around 20.000 combatants were fighting in the name of the
Liberals and the Conservatives. Clashes also occurred between Liberal and Communist
guerrillas and the violence strengthened the traditional parties “as the collective identities
derived from membership were all that gave violence a meaning “. Fernan Gonzalez describes
the phenomenon as “atomization of campesinos “.
Meanwhile in 1953 General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took power and this was the
only period of military rule in Colombia in the twentieth century.
In order to end the conflict and the dictatorship, Conservatives and Liberals in
1958 concluded a pact known as the “National Front”: for the next sixteen years they divided
the positions of state power between them. This became a shared monopoly of
power which prevented the political expression of other parties, increased corruption and
impeded the adequate addressing of unresolved key issues, such as the structure of land
ownership and its distribution.
In the meantime, towards the end of the period of “la Violencia “, many Liberal
and Communist peasants had survived the military offensives undertaking long marches
and then establishing themselves in remote new lands, particularly in Meta and Caqueta’
departments. There they declared “Independent Republics “, but new military attacks
forced the peasants deeper into the jungles.
These armed peasants movements dispersed to various regions of the country establishing
several fronts of confrontation with the state army. In particular the “Independent
Republics “ of Marulanda and of Arenas were attacked in 1964 with 16.000 soldiers
by land and by air. Some 43 guerrillas, including Marulanda, who is to this day the leader
of FARC ( known as Tirofijo, Sureshot ), fled to the mountains of Cauca department.
On 20 July 1964, the various fronts issued a joint agrarian reform program. In
1966, they officially became the FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
(Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces).

Other guerrillas groups, such the ELN ( Ejercito de Liberación Nacional , National
Liberation Army ), of Cuban inspiration, and the EPL ( Ejercito Popular de Liberación
Popular, Popular Liberation Army ), of Maoist tendencies also emerged in the
mid sixties.
These groups are still active today and are among the main actors of the four decade
- long civil conflict in Colombia.
The other main actor of the current conflict emerged as a reaction to the advances
of the FARC: the paramilitary groups, also known as Self Defence Groups ( AUC, Autodefensas
Unidas de Colombia ) since the early nineties are the fastest growing illegal
armed actor in Colombia. Among the main promoters and financiers of these groups are
rich landowners that feel threatened by FARC.
General Analysis and Discussion
The situation described above through the main events characterizing the evolution
of the land issue in Colombia contains certain patterns which to a large extent are
still valid today, after more than five hundred years.
Certain groups of people have been marginalized since the dawn of the colonial
times: for instance indigenous peoples whose land, owned collectively, was confiscated
first by authorities of Nueva Grenada, the colony, then by the government arising out of
independence. Their land was assigned by these authorities to rich landowners in certain
In other more remote areas, the colonization process above described as an indirect
effect ( “escape route for poor farmers” ) of the vast concentration of the best land in
the hands of few elite families, also victimized the indigenous peoples who originally
lived on those “colonized “ land.
Similarly the black slaves and their descendents, when escaping from the plantations
in coffee growing regions, hid and then settled in indigenous areas, such as Chocó
department, which today has a predominance of Afro-colombians.
These traditional inequalities and conflicts were aggravated, as described above,
during the period known as “La Violencia “. Some analysts have interpreted these events
as violence deliberately intended by large landowners to force peasants to abandon their
lands thereby creating a cheap land market.
Others regard the phenomenon as an effort by the political and social elite to reinforce
the control over the campesinos in order to eliminate land reform movements.
One of the masterpieces of Colombian literature, “Siervo sin Tierra “ ( Siervo
without land ), composed by Eduardo Caballero Calderón, describes the odyssey of a
family of poor peasants in the Boyacá department during this period. The deep aspiration
of this family for a piece of land; the polarization between the two parties, Conservatives
and Liberals at the local level; and the disorientation of Siervo the peasant, dragged into
the spiral of violence with the hope ( then completely frustrated, as he ends up loosing the
little he owned ) of finally obtaining a small plot of land on his own, are the main themes
of this powerful book, which is still studied in Colombian schools.

The origins of the two main parties which have dominated the political landscape
in Colombia for many decades, show that the Liberal Party started as a heterogeneous
coalition of golgotas ( merchants supporting free trade ), draconianos ( artisans and
manufacturers supporting protectionism ) and smaller landowners.
The Conservative Party on the other hand expressed the interests of large landowners
and of the Catholic clergy ( the Church has traditionally been a very large landowner
itself in most of Latin America).
Interestingly, peasants traditionally tended to support the party for which their
landowners ( patróns ) sympathized, rather than the one which may have expressed more
closely their interests. The above mentioned book, “Siervo sin Tierra “, describes impressively
this phenomenon, which helps to explain the intensity of rural political conflict.
Following the pattern mentioned above, the same marginalized groups today remain
vulnerable, are manipulated by different actors or are caught in rural conflicts. Most
of their plight appears to be still related to the issue of land.
For instance indigenous peoples, in spite of the legal protection given by the Colombian
Constitution of 1991 and by international human rights instruments, remain a
proportionally high number among the groups most affected by forced displacement. So
today, their land is still threatened as some analysts estimate that nearly 80 % of the mineral
and energy resources of the country are located in the 27 % of the territory which is
collectively and inalienably owned by indigenous communities.
Similar considerations are valid also for Afro-Colombians and other poor farmers,
who to this day live in remote regions where the state is absent, where infrastructure is
lacking or is inadequate, and where they have no access to the markets for outputs and no
access to credit .
In these regions the illegal actors of the armed conflict have de facto control of
the territory. Peasants are often displaced by the violence of these actors, who often are (
in particular the paramilitaries ) interested in their lands.
The origins of these illegal actors involved in the current internal conflict appear
to be rooted directly in ( FARC ), or are indirectly ( AUC ) related to, the unresolved issue
of land distribution.
While some analysts regard the origins of ELN and EPL in movements led by urban
intellectuals, in contrast the peasants’ roots of FARC are generally acknowledged.
Alfredo Molano considers that FARC “is deeply rooted in a legacy of class conflict …
seeing that it would be impossible to break through the rigid political and agrarian structures
using legal means, the opposition declared an armed rebellion “.
The subsequent evolution of the FARC during these last decades, including its
more recent links with narco-traffic and its violent actions in disregard of basic principles
of International Humanitarian Law, have led many analysts, both Colombians and foreigners,
to question FARC’s current real objectives, priorities and strategies.
AUC, like their mortal enemy FARC, have also shown a total disregard for International
Humanitarian Law and are considered the main actor provoking internal forced
displacement, which in fact results in an even higher concentration of land ( defined by

some as “contrareforma agraria”, agrarian counter-reform ). They also have clear links
with narco-traffic.
These are legitimate questions regarding both groups, however their modus operandi
or current real main objectives are not the focus of this paper.
It may be interesting to have a closer look at the current situation of land distribution
in Colombia as the result of the historical process the paper has focused on.
The agriculture sector today is not as important as it was in the past. Nevertheless
it still accounts for 21 percent of national income, 20 percent of employment and 36 percent
of merchandise export revenues , especially through coffee.
The State organization currently in charge of redistribution of land is INCORA,
Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria ( Colombian Agrarian Reform Institute).
INCORA was created in 1961 through Law 135. Some regarded its creation and
its potential role in land redistribution as an effective counterinsurgency tool , as it may
have contributed to defuse social and political tensions related to the inequality in land
Although INCORA’s resources were significant ( for instance 140 million USD
was the average annual budget in the late 80s ), most was spent on bureaucracy ( the administrative
cost of transferring land was about 50 % of the total land reform budget in
the early 90s ) and it had very little impact on the ground.
Nor were these resources allocated in an equitable way to really target rural poverty:
the World Bank reports that in 1994 the lowest quintile and the highest quintile of
the rural population benefited to the same extent from these programs.
In this period, an estimated 200.000 families had no farm land, while 750.000
families did not have enough land for an adequate living.
The structure of the land ownership remains highly concentrated and as a result
also underutilized : low productivity livestock production covers 35 % of land in Colombia
( while only 13 % is considered suitable for this use ). By contrast, crop farming, with
higher productivity rates only takes place in 4 % of land ( while 16 % of Colombian land
would be suitable ).
Small land is also often of poor quality and peasants have difficulties getting access
to credit and as a consequence to seeds, fertilizers and other assets which could improve
the production. Most peasants are caught in a poverty trap, a cycle where the small
size of the land limits profits, but they cannot buy more land because of the same too limited
Other more recent phenomena have contributed to an even higher concentration
of land: on the one side the use of land to launder money that was acquired by drug lords;
on the other the massive forced displacement of peasants due to the conflict. Moreover
the two processes are often related.

According to some estimates, drug lords have purchased more than a million hectares
of the best land , but most of it is underutilized as pasture or are not utilized at all.
On the other hand, reports show that 70 % of the forcibly displaced people ( more
than three millions persons in total , over 1.000 per day in 2002 ) have lost their land,
which is often occupied or bought cheaply by drug traffickers or other estate land owners.
Displacement is also significantly more pronounced in areas where political violence
coincides with violence associated with land ownership.
So the conflict has its roots in the unequal distribution of the land, and in turn the
conflict itself, through the displacement of peasants, contributes to the aggravation of
such a phenomenon.
General recommendations
When analyzing the current conflict, and when trying to prevent one of its worse
manifestations, which is internal displacement , it is important to keep the historical perspective
into account.
This paper focuses on some of the main events characterizing Colombian history
since the colonization period and it highlights how the issue of the land has very often
been the main reason for tensions and conflicts.
Even today, some illegal armed groups, such as the guerillas, claim to fight
mainly for a more equal distribution of land while others, such as the paramilitaries, do in
turn mainly protect the interest of landowners.
The conflicts at the local level which produce displacement may not always be directly
related to strategic military reasons, but more often to an economic interest in
evicting by force peasants from the land.
Understanding these dynamics can help predict the strategic moves of the illegal
armed actors and therefore design a more effective prevention and protection strategy.
The main recommendation of this paper is that all the actors involved in Colombia
in preventing or mitigating the impact of the armed conflict ( be them state actors or
non governmental organizations ; national or international ), must be constantly aware of
the root causes of the conflict and of how these can influence its current dynamics and
prospects for solutions.
The Colombian conflict has deep and complex roots which are mainly related to
the land issue. Since the time when the system of collective property of land by indigenous
peoples was destroyed by the colonization process, the phenomenon of concentration
of land in the hands of a limited number of elite families has only increased.
Most attempts to address the issue, either by the authorities through limited land
reforms, or by peasants movements through political and social pressure, have generally

backlashed through the reaction of landowners which often generated in turn an even
stronger concentration of land.
In the current context, the situation of land concentration has been further complicated
and worsened by the role played by drug lords, who purchase vast extension of
land, in many cases land which had to be abandoned by peasants forcibly displaced
through the violence of the illegal armed groups involved in the conflict.
The spiral of violence has become a cycle in which poor peasants not only do not
improve their precarious situation, but in fact end up losing everything they owned, in
particular the small plots of land, by being forced into displacement.
The odyssey of the poor farmer Siervo, described in the masterpiece of Colombian
literature “Siervo sin Tierra “ , is still reproduced daily in today’s rural Colombia…
1 ) Alfredo Molano ( October 2000 )
“The evolution of the FARC “
NACLA Report on the Americas
North America Congress on Latin America
New York, United States of America
2) Apolinar Díaz – Callejas ( November 1997 )
“ Colombia : la cuestión agraria parte 1. Estructura de la tenencia de la
tierra en Colombia “
( Colombia : the agrarian question part 1 : The structure of land ownership
in Colombia )
Bogotá, Colombia
3) Apolinar Díaz – Callejas ( May 1998 )
“ Colombia : la cuestión agraria parte 2. Propuestas e intentos de reforma
agraria “
( Colombia : the agrarian question part 2 : Proposals and attempts of land
reform )
Bogotá, Colombia
4) Catherine Legrand ( November 1986 )
“Frontier Expansion and Peasant Protest in Colombia “
University of New Mexico Press
Albuquerque, United States of America
5) Felix Posada ( 1 July 2001 )
“CEPALC ‘s Colombia Backgrounder “
Comisión Economica para Latino America y el Caribe
Santiago, Chile

6) Fernán E. Gonzalez ( March 2003 )
“The Colombian conflict in historical perspective “
Conciliation Resources, Accord
Bogotá, Colombia
7) Garry Leech ( May 1999 )
“ Fifty years of violence “
Colombia Journal on Line
Bogotá, Colombia
8) Hilary Book ( August 2002 )
“ Land distribution in Colombia “
University of Calgary
Calgary, Canada
9) Infoamericas ( May 2001 )
“ Economic outlook : Colombia “
Latin American Market Report
10) Jan Bauman ( April 4, 2001 )
“Colombia : the origin of the FARC “
MITF Report
Marin Interfaith Task Force on Central America
Mill Valley, California, United States of America
11) Jean Jackson ( March 2003 )
“The crisis in Colombia : consequences for Indigenous Peoples “
American Anthropological Association
Arlington, United States of America
12) Jorge Orlando Melo ( November 1992 )
“Gaitán : el impacto y el sindrome del 9 de Abril “
Biblioteca Virtual Luis Angel Arango
Banco de la Republica
Bogotá, Colombia
13) Jose Antonio Ocampo ( 3 March 2003 )
“Economic development and violence in the twentieth century Colombia “
ReVista Colombia : Beyond armed actors : a look at civil society.
Harvard Review of Latin America
Boston, United States of America
14 ) Juan Forero ( 21 January 2004 )
“Colombia’s landed gentry : coca lords and other bullies “
Letter from the Americas

New York Times, United States of America
15 ) Klaus Deininger ( January 1999 )
“Making negotiated land reforms work : initial experiences from Colombia,
Brazil and South Africa “
World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 2040
Washington, United States of America
16 ) Leon Zamosc ( 1986 )
“The agrarian question and the peasant movement in Colombia :
struggles of the National Peasants Association “
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge, United Kingdom
17 ) Marion Maendel ( May 2001 )
“No to Plan Colombia: Land Reform Essential for Desperate Campesinos“
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI
Latin American Economics and Catholic Social Teaching
Houston, United States of America
18 ) Norwegian Refugee Council ( 2003 )
“ Indigenous people and Afrocolombians are the groups most affected
by displacement “
Global IDPs Database
Geneva , Switzerland
19 ) Ricardo Arias ( December 1998 )
“Los sucesos del 9 de abril de 1948 como legitimadores de la
violencia oficial “
( The events of 9 April 1948 to legitimize the official violence )
Historia Critica No. 17
University of Los Andes,
Bogotá, Colombia
20 ) Rosemary E. Galli ( 1981 )
“Colombia : Rural Development as Social and Economic Control “
SUNY Press
Albany, New York, United States of America
21) Timothy Wickham-Crowley ( 1992 )
“ Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America : a Comparative Study of
Insurgents and Regimes since 1956 “
Princeton University Press,
Princeton, United States of America
22) World Bank ( 1996 )

“Review of Colombia’s agriculture and Rural Development Strategy”
World Bank
Washington DC, United States of America
23) World Bank ( 1994 )
“Poverty in Colombia “
World Bank
Washington DC, United States of America

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