The peace accord signed in June reflects the enormously complex character of Colombia’s long-standing civil war. It boils down to five main points: rural reform, political participation for the FARC, a new policy on illicit drugs, reparations to victims, and the logistical steps to enact the settlement, including FARC demobilization and disarmament.
The latest, revised deal is similar, but it includes several important changes: the withdrawal of a promise of guaranteed seats for former rebels in Congress, the removal of foreign magistrates from special peace tribunals, and the requirement that the FARC — formally known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — proffer comprehensive information about its role in the drug trade. There has been no announcement on whether the new deal will be put to another referendum or be decided in Congress.
Land inequalities are central to ending the conflict
There’s little indication that the latest deal improves the terms of rural reform, particularly the role of land access and rural development in ending the conflict. The FARC, a Marxist-based guerrilla group, formed in 1964 after more than a decade of civil war. Its most potent message for decades was the promise of a radical redistribution of property should it seize national power.
Addressing the country’s vast inequalities holds broad appeal in the countryside. The 2015 agrarian census — Colombia’s first since 1970 — revealed a 45 percent rural poverty rate, triple the urban rate. Farmers get little government support — 83 percent lack agricultural machinery and 90 percent do not receive any agricultural credits or technical assistance. Access to education in rural areas is also sorely lacking: 73 percent of people ages 17 to 24 have no educational opportunities.
The FARC and other violent groups such as the ELN and organized crime have been successful in rooting themselves in rural areas, where many families are scraping by and the opportunity cost of supporting armed groups is low.
For decades, Colombia’s small landowners and landless farmers were left behind socially and economically. Many have been physically displaced by conflict, and nearly all of them want some form of land reform that will give them the security of ownership of the land they till.
But the discussion on land reform was narrow and eclipsed by the FARC
Ironically, the public debates and media coverage before and after the October referendum focused almost exclusively on the fate of the FARC leadership and rank–and–file guerrillas. This is in no small part because of the fact that former president Álvaro Uribe — the most vocal opponent of the June accord — cast the deal as a referendum on amnesty for the FARC. The referendum’s ultimate failure was, therefore, a boon to Uribe. Reflecting his increased political power, he issued a statement asking to review the latest peace deal in detail before pronouncing whether he supports it.
Yet the failed referendum suggests that Colombia’s voters are at war even in how they think about peace. The greatest support for the peace agreement came from the countryside — the rural areas hit hardest by FARC-driven violence. Civilian massacres, guerrilla recruitment, internal displacement and land dispossession were documented features of the FARC’s operations.
What explains this seeming contradiction? As several accounts have suggested, rural inhabitants understand the enormous stakes and knew that any peace deal is better than none. But a more likely reason is because the less-discussed but critical component of the peace agreement — rural land reform — promised the moon to Colombia’s millions of farmers. The agreement envisioned a regionally based land fund to dole out property to the land-poor, the development of rural infrastructure and education, and greater subsidies and credits to small farmers.
There is a darker side of land reform
By vowing to push for a tough line against the FARC in the new peace deal, Uribe continues to successfully draw attention away from these promises for rural development. Uribe himself hails from a prominent landowning family in the cattle-ranching state of Antioquia. Ranchers and large landowners in Antioquia and beyond have long opposed broad-based land reform, which could tilt labor markets, agricultural production and local political power in the countryside toward smallholders.
Furthermore, my research suggests that during his 2002-2010 presidency, Uribe continued the long-standing trend that enabled well-organized landowners to use their local political power and market power to appropriate public lands. As international prices of important commodities such as coffee, sugar and bananas rose, the government doled out more grants of public lands to private applicants. The land grants tied to these price increases, however, were large and systematically targeted toward more unequal places where land was suitable to the cultivation of these commodities.
These commodities are produced in Colombia by well-organized and politically influential agricultural groups. This suggests that established, well-organized landed interests disproportionately benefited from windfalls of public land grants driven by price shocks.
Can this November peace deal address rural inequality?
Santos’s next steps will be challenging. To win citizen support for the November peace deal, he has to first come to peace with Uribe — and he has already extended an olive branch in Uribe’s direction. But including Uribe as an architect in peace is likely to shift toward pleasing urban residents — who want harsher punishments for FARC guerrillas after decades of violence. This shift would come at the expense of residents in the countryside, where economic deprivation has long proven to be fertile soil for rebellion. This would probably provoke continued violence, rather than douse it.
In short, regardless of whether Colombia’s new peace deal sticks, rural violence and discontent are likely to continue, fueled either by another failed agreement or a revised deal that ignores a fundamental source of Colombia’s conflict: the plight of the nearly 25 percent of the population that lives in the countryside.
Michael Albertus is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, where he researches the political conditions under which governments implement egalitarian reforms. His first book, Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform, was recently published by Cambridge University Press and won the Luebbert Book Award.