The Land Question in the South African and Colombian Peace Processes

By Published On: 18th December 2018

By Jonathan Cannard

In November 2016 the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos signed an agreement with the largest Colombian left-wing guerrilla organisation, ending a fifty-four year civil conflict. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army, known by its Spanish acronym FARC-EP, had waged the longest guerrilla struggle in the Western Hemisphere. The conflict killed at least 220,000 people and displaced seven million more. There are eight million officially recognised victims of offenses such as murder, sexual assault, forced displacement, torture, and kidnapping. Despite its success in ending hostilities with FARC-EP, the peace agreement is not popular among the Colombian public. A national referendum on the peace agreement was held in the South American country in October 2016, through which the agreement was rejected by 50.2% of voters, many of who preferred a military solution to the conflict. Nonetheless, then President Santos pushed a slightly revised peace agreement through Congress.

Although the official FARC-EP movement is now disarmed and demobilised, thousands of fighters have created dissident groups that continue to fight under the FARC-EP name. Other groups, such as the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and petty gangs also continue to fight each other and the state, mainly for control over land that is used for drug production and trafficking.

At the core of the FARC-EP’s struggle is land inequality. Colombia has one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world. Today 1% of farmers own 81% of all productive land. This extreme inequality in land ownership is comparable to South Africa’s land and wealth inequality, as black South Africans own only 4% of the country’s agricultural land.

From the 1980’s into the 2000’s, right-wing paramilitaries and other armed groups are thought to have acquired roughly 50% of Colombia’s most fertile land, much of which is either unused or exploited for palm oil and hydrocarbon extraction.

In South Africa, the Natives Land Act of 1913 confined the black majority to owning or hiring only 7% of the country’s area, whereas the remaining 93% was reserved for the white minority. In 1936 this was updated to allow the black majority access to 13.6% of the land.

In order to address the land-based inequalities of the past, South Africa has attempted market-led agrarian reform (MLAR), mostly on a ‘willing-buyer willing-seller’ basis. This has failed, as only a small fraction of land has been redistributed and migratory wage labour remains a reality for many South Africans.

According to the South African Reconciliation Barometer, in 2017, 70% of South Africans believed that further national reconciliation was necessary, and 62% believed that land reform was necessary for reconciliation, whereas only 9% did not believe further land reform was necessary.

The Colombian transition is similarly committed to rural development through a system called Comprehensive Rural Reform (RRI by its Spanish acronym). This programme will also attempt to redistribute land through MLAR. Colombia’s 1991 Constitution dictates strong property rights, and a legislative decree in 1999 prohibited expropriation without compensation. MLAR programmes have previously been used to attempt land redistribution in Colombia, but land inequality has steadily increased since the 1980’s. The number of small land holdings is increasing, whereas the land area they occupy is decreasing.

The Gini Index is the most commonly used measure of wealth inequality, with a coefficient of 0 meaning perfect equality, and a coefficient of 1 meaning that all wealth is in the hands of one person. Twenty-four years after the end of apartheid South Africa is the most unequal society on Earth, with a Gini coefficient of .63.

In 1996 the South African state created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to give victims a voice, create an official historical record, and uncover the truth behind crimes against humanity committed during apartheid. The TRC was given the power to provide amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for their truthful testimony.

However the negotiated transition focused on crimes committed by individuals, eliding the collective political and economic injustices that functioned to concentrate land into the hands of a small minority and perpetuate the world’s worst wealth inequality.

The post-apartheid search for a ‘Rainbow Nation’ identity has failed to address the legacies of the Natives Land Act, Group Areas Act, and other racially motivated land confiscation measures. Hence, South Africa remains the world’s most unequal society.

If Colombia is to prevent future unrest and continued inequality, it must address structural economic problems. For Colombia this means effective land reform. FARC-EP has consistently fought for the rights of peasants, a more equal distribution of land, and the alleviation of the urban-rural wage gap. It is unlikely that the dissident offshoots of the guerrilla army will lay down their weapons until these issues are adequately addressed.

A striking parallel between the South African and Colombian transitional periods is the failure of MLAR in both countries. Land inequality is increasing in Colombia despite MLAR programmes, and South African racial land inequality remains extreme. In order to rectify its systemic inequalities, Colombia must learn from South Africa’s transitional stagnation and look beyond MLAR.

Jonathan Cannard is a volunteer intern in the Research and Policy Unit who was with the IJR for 12 weeks.  Jonathan is currently pursuing his MPhil in Justice and Transformation at UCT.

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