So much land in the hands of so few

Immersed in numerous social, economic and cultural conflicts which are expressed through the politically motivated violence throughout the nation, Colombia is a hugely unequal country. Wealth and land are highly concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while much of the country is completely neglected by the Colombian State.[1] A report by Oxfam International shows that 1% of the population holds 80% of the land, leaving just 20% of the land distributed amongst the remaining 99% of the population.[2] Oxfam concludes that Colombia is the most unequal country in Latin America in terms of land distribution, and that this inequality and the concentration of land ownership in the hands of so few, has increased in recent decades.[3] Inequality is a proven driver of conflict, and the inability to address its structural causes has been at the heart of the drawn out violence Colombia has experienced for decades.

Illustration: María Lessmes

Land is at the centre of many conflicts in Colombia. Despite an increase in its urban populations, a result of years of armed conflict and dispossession on a massive scale, 23% of the population still lives in rural areas, living directly off the land through agricultural activities.[4] The small-scale farmers produce food for the ever-increasing city populations and for the growing export markets, which Colombia has developed thanks to the 16 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) signed in recent years.[5]

FTAs have a huge impact in the countryside, incentivising changes in production methods as imported products are saturating the internal markets. Despite Colombia’s high capacity for food production due to its rich soil and varied climates, 28% of the food consumed by its population is imported.[6] The protective clauses for foreign investment contained in the FTAs limit the Colombian State’s sovereignty over how to use its land and regulate the domestic agricultural markets, because it cannot negatively affect the economic projections set out in the agreements.[7]

Illustration: María Lessmes

The economic model promoted by the Colombian Government in recent decades has been largely focused on natural resource extraction and large scale agro-industry, meaning that territorial conflict over land distribution and use occurs both above and below ground.[8] The model promoted by the State, from its capital Bogota, often contradicts the regional perspective of what the communities themselves want for their territory, illustrated by the recent popular consultations held in several regions across the country where communities reject large scale mining operations installed in their territories.[9]

For rural communities, particularly ethnic communities, land is not just a material resource for satisfying human consumption, but has a spiritual significance that generates a profound connection between communities and their land or “territory”, forming part of their historical, spiritual and cultural identity. In many Latin American cosmovisions, land is depicted as a mother who not only produces for her flock, but deserves respect and conservation for future generations. This relationship with the land is particularly visible in indigenous cultures which see themselves as part of the land and guardians of the ecosystems. It is no coincidence that indigenous communities have settlements in the most biodiverse parts of the world and have successfully preserved it for centuries. In the territories occupied by ethnic groups in Colombia, 90.8% of the land is covered by forest, compared to the 6.9% used for agricultural production. This highlights the important role that ethnic groups play in environmental protection.[10]

Inequality is a proven driver of conflict, and the inability to address its structural causes has been at the heart of the drawn out violence Colombia has experienced for decades.

Colombia is internationally recognised for its high levels of biodiversity, with 314 different ecosystems coexisting throughout the country.[11] Since the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the Farc in September 2016, 88 new species have been discovered in Colombia in areas that were previously seen as too dangerous to enter for research purposes.[12]  A number of important cases have recently been heard in Colombian courts to protect these delicate ecosystems, for example the Constitutional Court’s sentence prohibiting mining operations in the paramos (high altitude wetlands) as they are important sources of water for the Colombian population,[13] and another sentence from the same Court which concluded that the Atrato River in the department of Choco itself is a subject of rights, underlining the importance and urgency of protecting it given how polluted this water source has become.[14] New conflicts are emerging between people who are trying to protect the environment and those who see the wealth of these ecosystems, not in terms of their natural importance, but of the minerals that can be extracted from them.[15]

Casanare, Uwa 2015
The economic model promoted by the Colombian State is largely focused on natural resource extraction and large-scale agricultural projects, which means that conflicts over land take place both above and below ground. Photo: Bianca Bauer

In a country as resource-rich as Colombia, access to land is power.   Colombia is a producing country and has produced goods for the rest of the world´s consumption since colonial times. This model continues today with a vast amount of Colombia´s produce headed for the export market which drives the demand, whether that be palm oil, gold, bananas, petrol, chocolate, coffee, sugar or most infamously, cocaine.[16] These products are either extracted from the land or farmed upon it, meaning that access to land is at the heart of any economic project aimed at producing for the global market.

In Colombia there is an absence of effective environmental legislation, which has a severe impact on different ecosystems throughout the country and creates significant confusion over which model to apply to which territories, given the varying perspectives and interests.[17] This has become evident in recent national deforestation figures which indicate that it is on the increase. Colombia went from having 64,417,000 hectares of forest in 1990 to 58,501,000 in 2015, which means nearly six million hectares were lost in the last 25 years. Between 2015 and 2016, deforestation in Colombia increased by 44%.[18] This, combined with legislation that favours foreign investment, and the power asymmetry between transnational corporations and rural communities, generates tensions between different actors and interests over the territory, which fuels conflict around the issue of land.

Hannah Matthews


[1] El País: “Habitantes del Pacífico han sufrido el abandono estatal”: Iglesia Católica, 21 May 2017
[2]  Oxfam: Radiografía de la Desigualdad: Lo que nos dice el último censo agropecuario sobre la distribución de la tierra en Colombia, July 2017
[3] Oxfam: Radiografía de la desigualdad: distribución de la tierra en Colombia, 4 July 2017
[4] Banco Mundial: Población rural (% de la población total), 2016
[5] Mincomercio, Industria y Turismo: Acuerdos Vigentes, 2017
[6] El País: Colombia importa el 28% de sus alimentos: presidente de la SAC, 25 May 2015
[7] Legis, TLC: Las Nuevas Reglas en Arbitraje de Inversión Extranjera
[8] Departamento Nacional de Planeación: Consulte el Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, 2014-2018
[9] Business and Human Rights Resource Centre: Colombia: Jesús María rechaza en consulta popular la minería a cielo abierto o la explotación petrolera, en defensa del agua, 18 September 2017
[10] Oxfam: Colombia’s challenge: addressing land inequality and consolidating peace, July 2017
[11] Colciencias: Colombia, el segundo país más biodiverso del mundo, 11 September 2016
[12] The Conversation: Colombia faces challenge to build peace without sacrificing its famed biodiversity, 21 August 2017
[13] Corte Constitucional de Colombia: Sentencia C-035/16
[14] Corte Constitucional de Colombia: Sentencia T-622/16
[15] Global Witness: Defender la Tierra, 13 July 2017
[16] DANE: Información Estratégica, Exportaciones, 2017
[17] Semana Sostenible: ANLA: una crisis de autoridad, 3 April 2016
[18] Semana: Deforestación en Colombia aumentó un 44% entre 2015 y 2016, 6 July 2017

* Cover photo: Francesca Volpi: woman planting beans.
Photo part of the exhibition “Vivir defendiendo derechos. 20 relatos gráficos por la defensa de los derechos humanos” shown in Madrid during 2017

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