BOGOTÁ — Decades of civil conflict and the formation of the communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could be attributed in part to the struggle for land in this Latin American nation. That's why land was one of the most important issues in FARC's peace negotiations with the government. [A historic deal was signed on Aug. 24 in La Havana, Cuba. It will now need to be approved by voters in a plebiscite on Oct. 2.]
Why is land so important?
In Colombia, this precious resource is concentrated in the hands of a few. Reforms in the past have repeatedly failed. That was the case with President Carlos Lleras Restrepo's 1936 land law. Same goes for the 1961 measure. That latter law allowed the issue of 123,000 land ownership deeds, which may seem significant except for the fact that land was supposed to be given to about 923,000 families. In 1972, under a pact signed by the administration of President Misael Pastrana, land reforms from the time of Lleras were finally shelved. Instead, land ownership became concentrated into even fewer hands.
The numbers are astounding: 77% of private land belongs to 13% of the population. And 1.5% of landowners own 52% of all privately-owned land. Out of 114 million hectares of productive land in Colombia, 40 million is used for extensive livestock farming. Only 6.3% is used for cultivation.
Celebrating the Aug. 24 peace deal in Bogota, Colombia — Photo: John Paz/Xinhua/ZUMA
The rebel group FARC, which has peasant origins, had asked the government for Peasant Reservation Zones known by the Spanish acronym ZRC, restricted indigenous enclaves and collective lands owned by black communities. Other key issues in FARC's political agenda include land distribution to demobilized fighters and the economic development of certain marginalized territories.
ZRC isn't FARC's brainchild. These zones were created in 1994 to extend land ownership to indigenous, black and peasant communities in order to give them more autonomy, making thousands of rural families land owners. The World Bank backed the ZRC initiative as part of its poverty reduction measures. It's a victory for the Colombian peasantry's fight for better land distribution in the 20th century.
The most vigorous opposition to ZRCs comes from cattle farming landowners and the extreme right-wing. A part of the right-wing rejects any land reform that benefits the peasantry. FARC rebels consider ZRCs the perfect legal instrument to hand over land to demobilized fighters. The group has proposed expanding the existing six ZRC zones that covers 830,000 hectares to 59 zones that's spread over 9.5 million hectares.
The government's negotiator Humberto de la Calle insists nothing agreed on so far affects the property rights of landowners. He says unused government land could be given to create ZRCs for the poor. Regarding the possibility of creating more territories with an autonomous status similar to those of black or native community lands, the right-wing is up in arms.