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Land Reform, a Top Priority of New Colombian Government

BOGOTA, Oct 4 2010 (IPS) - Although many believe it’s a mission impossible, the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos is prepared to use all necessary resources to return their land to some four million peasants displaced by the war, and guarantee intensive use of the country’s arable land, as part of an ambitious agricultural policy.

Despite the enormous difficulties it faces, there are two reasons that make this policy one of the top priorities of the administration of conservative President Santos, who took office in August.

In first place, “it is an essential factor for growth and development,” as columnist León Valencia wrote in the El Espectador newspaper.

And secondly, it is a sine qua non for the success of any peace programme, in a country caught in the grip of civil war for nearly five decades. “The international community, United Nations agencies, the Organisation of American States — all are fully aware that this issue will decide the future of the country,” said Christian Salazar, head of the United Nations human rights office in Colombia.

Both economic development and peace become impossible dreams when they run up against the long-standing problems of land dispossession and heavy concentration of rural property in Colombia.

The resulting situation is clearly illustrated by the statistics: in 1984, 32 percent of the land was in the hands of just 0.55 percent of landowners, while 85 percent of the country’s farmers had less than 15 percent of the land.

And over the following 19 years, the imbalance grew. The number of large landowners shrunk while the land in their possession expanded. By 2003, 0.4 percent of landholders had 63.6 percent of the country’s farmland, while the proportion of small farmers rose to 86.3 percent, and their share of land plunged to 8.8 percent.

The new government’s proposals are aimed at redressing injustices. A bill on “land restitution” would require the current landowners to prove ownership by showing legal documents, and under another bill, the state would acquire land to be used immediately in the land restitution programme.

The coordination of these programmes with operations of territorial control is to guarantee the safety of peasant farmers. In recent years, 41 rural leaders involved in the struggle to reclaim seized land have been murdered.

But this is an old war. It appeared to be over when President Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938 and 1942-1945) passed an agrarian reform law in 1936, which stated that private property had a social function to fulfill, and authorised the state to expropriate idle land. The law did not, however, actually manage to modify the structure of rural property.

Decades of violence stimulated a 1961 land reform, and in 1968 President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) pushed through an agrarian reform programme that was cut short in 1973, under the government of Misael Pastrana (1970-1974), by the Chicoral Pact, an agreement between the traditional parties and landowners’ associations that put an end to land redistribution efforts.

Since then, government policies have failed to modify the land ownership structure. And the mass displacement of peasant farmers over the past two decades, as they have been forced off their farms by far-right paramilitary militias and drug trafficking groups, has further aggravated the situation.

The power of the “terrateniente” or wealthy landowner has been respected by the authorities, but will now be confronted by Santos and Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo.

The bill on land restitution has one novel aspect that is key to removing one of the biggest obstacles facing peasants in their struggle to reclaim their land: up to now, the burden of proof of demonstrating land ownership fell on the farmers who were forced off their land by violence, threats or deception.

But most poor campesinos do not hold legal title to their land, which has been passed down for generations.

The new law, by contrast, would require the current owners to prove that they legally acquired the land.

The second bill would speed up slow legal cases to allow the government to gain possession of some 130,000 hectares of land in the hands of drug traffickers who are currently facing prosecution or are in jail.

But the most difficult part of this complex, obstacle-strewn process is guaranteeing the safety of campesinos who dare to return despite the threats from new “owners” who back their shady claims to ownership with weapons.

Those who predict that the process will fail do so based on past and present events that show that any attempt at modifying the land ownership structure in Colombia leads to violence.

Salazar, the UN representative, is not optimistic: “It will be a very tough fight, and we can expect strong reactions.

“Above and beyond the political agreements reached and the specifics, we see implementation as the most complex aspect,” he said. “There will be a difficult phase of negotiations, characteristic of a democracy. But afterwards the law must be enforced, and from the experience of years we know that in the places where the greatest efforts are made to restore property (to the original owners), there is more violence, and the threats are constant.”

But Valencia wrote that “it is a condition for reconciliation. An agrarian programme was the banner waved by Manuel Marulanda (the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, who died in 2008) to win thousands of campesinos over to the armed uprising of the 1960s.

“It was also the call to campesinos voiced by Father Camilo Torres, at the emergence of the ELN,” the National Liberation Army, the second-biggest rebel group, to which the columnist himself used to belong.

Santos’s agrarian reform policy has another aim: reduce the land dedicated to cattle ranching, which currently amounts to 38 million hectares. By the end of his four-year term, only 20 million hectares should be used for that purpose, according to Agriculture Minister Restrepo.

The other 18 million hectares should be under crop cultivation, which currently only takes place on 3.7 million hectares of land.

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