How can access to and control over land and associated resources (water, forest, minerals) in Colombia be radically democratized, decisively breaking from the past pattern of wholesale failures alongside partial pockets of victories, whether these are in the context of classic agrarian, or contemporary environmental, social justice perspectives?
These difficult political questions constitute some of the difficult challenges for the government of Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez (Marquez is Goldman Environmental Prize 2018 recipient). For the first time in history, a centre-left coalition in Colombia succeeds to reach the presidency, with an important representation in Congress. This coalition includes social movements like the Afro-descendant movement (to which the vice-president-elect belongs), Indigenous Peoples and peasant movements, and other sectors of the Colombian left.
The land and agrarian questions continue to be at the centre of contemporary social problems in Colombia. Historically, land politics has been fiercely contested, being one of the causes of violence during much of the past century and continuing to the current one. The high degree of inequality in land ownership persists: 81% of the landowners cultivate 5% of the total area of production in properties with less than 10 ha, while 0.1% of the owners control 60% of the total area of production in properties of more than 2,000 ha (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE) 2016). This situation becomes more complex if the link between the agrarian problem and drug trafficking in the country is taken into account.
The government’s program that brought Petro and Marquez to the centre of political power seeks to “reestablish the productive balance between society and the environment with social justice” (translated from Spanish) (Pacto Histórico 2022:13). This program gives priority to climate justice policies, which include land and agrarian policies. Until now, environmental and agrarian policies tend to be not only treated separately but also within the broadly neoliberal, extractivist logic of global capitalism. To break free from the mainstream logic of extractivist capitalist accumulation and mainstream climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that have affected rural inhabitants, nature and especially fragile ecosystems, ultimately the government of Petro and Marquez will have to confront difficult challenges that are both classic and contemporary, agrarian and ecological in character. Some of these challenges, separately and together, can be seen through the normative idea of ‘agrarian climate justice’, which can make some modest contribution to the overall effort by the Petro/Marquez government in democratizing the Colombian society system-wide.
The idea of agrarian climate justice links the pursuit of agrarian justice and climate justice. The challenge is huge. Pursuing agrarian justice is already a very difficult task. One will recall that the historical demand for agrarian justice in Colombia has never been met to any significant extent; on the contrary, as argued in Fajardo (1996) guided colonization was prioritized over the redistribution of the fertile land of the inter-Andean valleys. Replacing agrarian reform with colonization outside the agricultural frontier partly led to the emergence of illicit crops, which required very low-cost land and cheap labour, as explained by Fajardo (2014).
Achieving climate justice? It might proved to be just as difficult. The extractivist development strategy of previous governments to address the climate crisis has focused on the expansion of the neoliberal logic by, among others, supporting the production of biofuels (for production in the name of biofuels – whether there are indeed biofuels produced or not; that is, many such projects are speculative and opportunistic in nature), and strengthening agribusiness, including oil palm cultivation as demonstrated in key studies such as (Girón and Mahecha 2015) and Marin-Burgos and Clancy (2017). Environmental and climate change policies have served more to consolidate the control over land by certain social groups and capital accumulation imperatives, rather than the principles of climate justice, such as problematical concepts and practices in forest conservation and national parks (Ojeda 2014).
The broad agenda on deep social reforms proposed by the new government is generally framed in a way that directly speaks to the notion of ‘agrarian climate justice’, and we feel that it is the correct way. But carrying out either agrarian justice or climate justice is already extremely difficult; carrying out the two, fused together, is even more difficult. Often, the social forces opposed to deep social reforms may also use the notions of agrarian justice and climate justice against one another in order to divide and conquer people. It is all the more important to pursue the two as one, always. Pursuing something short of agrarian climate justice is not an option for the Petro/Marquez government.
At a more practical level, the agenda on agrarian climate justice can be framed and operationalized through a 5Rs framework: Redistribution, Recognition, Restitution, Regeneration and Resistance. It is not a check-list of a wish-list; rather, the challenge is how to pursue all five in an integrated manner, and not in a sectoral way as it has been attempted in the past, in Colombia and elsewhere.
Land redistribution is urgently necessary for the country with the most unequal land distribution in the Latin American region (Economía Portafolio 2017), a degree of inequality that has deepened over the past two decades (Ibáñez and Muñoz 2012; Pachón Ariza 2021; Suescún 2011). Land redistribution also requires the Recognition of land rights of various social groups, including Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants. This Recognition must consider the diverse forms of relationship with the territory, nature and resources that go beyond the logic of private property and the market. It must consider the traditions, wisdom and ancestral knowledge of rural communities that have been marginalized and excluded in Colombia during 200 years of republican life. Taking into account the effects and impacts of the armed conflict on rural populations, including the land grabbing of at least 6.6 million hectares throughout the conflict (Garay Salamanca et al. 2011), it is necessary to Restitute access to the specific plot of land that was grabbed, but even more important is to Restitute not only the individual but also the collective rights of the affected rural communities to allow for the rebuilding of communities that were destroyed. The rural development model and production practices that have been imposed on the Colombian countryside to date have affected soil quality and have ruptured agro-ecological flows, especially in geostrategic ecosystems such as the Amazon (Rojas 2022) and Orinoquia (Arango 2021). This implies the need to regenerate soils, forests and rivers affected by unsustainable forms of production. Thus, ecological Regeneration and social justice become imperatives in the transformation of the countryside and achieving social and environmental justice. The agroecological practices of the peasant and agrarian movement can be useful in ecological and economic regeneration. Redistribution, Recognition, and Regeneration of land and soils to be carried out require Resistance against the advancing concentration of land ownership and agro-export production practices that affect rural communities and their environments, as well as against political processes and institutions that lead to further exploitation and oppression of working people.
The current political conjuncture provides a very rare possibility to pursue a real process of structural social transformation that can be deeply democratic. A modest but significant part of this transformation may be guided by some elements of the normative concept of ‘agrarian climate justice’ as an articulating axis of the agrarian struggles that have been developing in the country since the 1920s together with the most recent environmental and climate struggles for the maintenance of biodiversity and the reproduction of life, as expressed in the government program of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez. The challenges are enormous, the path ahead rocky and uphill, and aspired outcomes are not assured and predetermined – especially because the global hegemonic land policy narrative is fundamentally opposed to the notion of agrarian climate justice; and this is significantly reflected in Colombian political realities. But one thing is certain: the Colombian organized social justice movements will continue to commit to pushing for these deep social reforms nevertheless, and this time they have crucial allies within the central government.
Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE). 2016. 3er Censo Nacional Agropecuario. Hay Campo Para Todos. Tomo II Resultados. Vol. 2. edited by MINAGRICULTURA, DANE, and Todos Por Un Nuevo País. Bogotá.
Economía Portafolio. 2017. “Colombia: El País de La Región Más Explotaciones Desigual En Distribución de Tierras. 704 Explotaciones (Con Promedio de 49,135 Hectáreas Cada Una) Controlan La Mitad de La Tierra.” Protafolío, July 7.
Fajardo, D. (1996). Colonizaciones y construcción social del espacio. In C. Caillavet & X. Pachón (Eds.), Frontera y Poblamiento: Estudios de historia y antropología de Colombia y Ecuador (pp. 1–66). Institut français d’études andines.
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Pachón Ariza, Fabio Alberto. 2021. “Distribución de La Propiedad Rural En Colombia En El Siglo XXI Distribution of Rural Property in Colombia during the XXI Century.” Revista de Economía y Sociología Rural 60:1–18.
Pacto Histórico. 2022. “Colombia Potencia Mundial de La Vida. Programa de Gobierno 2022 - 2026.”
Suescún, Carlos. 2011. “Dinámica Reciente de La Concentración de La Propiedad y Uso de La Tierra En Colombia.” Revista Criterios 4(2):121–49.