Agrarian reform and land tenure in Colombia

by Fabián Pachón (Fensuagro) y GRAIN | 30 Nov 2023

I want to ask a question to anyone who can answer it,
If the earth was made before humans were born,
Tell me, by what right did they seize it?
How did it come to be bought and who was willing to sell it?
- Gino Gonzáles, La tenencia de la tierra

Land tenure is a fundamental issue in every country and Colombia is no exception. The way in which land ownership has been historically regulated and managed has a profound impact on the country's economy and the different ways of leading a dignified life in the various territories.

For decades in Colombia, attempts have been made to promote agrarian reform strategies that would, among other things, enable the equitable distribution of land and even return land to people who had to leave their lands due to violence.

Currently, the distribution of land in Colombia is the consequence of the historical context of labour relations that have been forged around the development of an economic model for extraction and accumulation, the political-economic conditions of the territory, which today reflect decades of extractivist agribusiness projections and their link to the bureaucratic state apparatus at the national level.

Colombia is a country that has been marked by constant conflicts over land. Throughout history, the use and tenure of land has been subject to different changes as a result of the development of agrarian capitalism. This has led to constant changes in the forms of farming and means of producing that determine an accumulation-based economy. This has benefitted the richest echelons of society, who in turn have influenced the governmental structure so that it works in their interests.

Peasant groups were formed to combat the constant restrictions on access to land for Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and mestizo peasants. The domination, possession and control of land throughout history has kept many people submissive.

Since colonial times, a territorial order has been established based on the accumulation of wealth. Production forms in Latin America sought to meet the key demands of international markets.[1] Land tenure and land distribution were controlled by those who held power at the time.

As part of the above scenario, easily accessible lands with the best conditions for farming and establishing settlements were seized as part of the promotion of large estates, while the more remote and hard-to-access lands were occupied by the resisting communities. This is how the peasantry was shaped, by the continuous struggles for the right to land and the establishment of their own labour and economy.

There are various forms of resistance in the territories that are still in force today. In the case of the Colombian peasantry, this most often takes the form of the creation of Peasant Reserve Zones (ZRC, for its initials in Spanish), with 64 such zones (some recognised, others in process or planned). These zones already enjoy a legal basis allowing them to strengthen their territories through organised collective work on the land and secure decision-making power over the planning of watersheds and micro watersheds.[2]

Another form of territorial self-determination consists in the struggle waged by a number of peasant organisations to establish agro-food peasant territories, which enable the exercise of peasants' self-determination. There are also other forms of organising territories led by Indigenous communities (Resguardos Indígenas) and Afro-descendant communities (organised territorially as quilombos, cumbes, rochelas or palenques). These are all ways of developing strategies for community-based land control.

However, the above mentioned ways of organising are not enough given the persistent inequality in land tenure. The majority of rural communities have no land and when they do, it is not enough to meet the economic needs of families.

In spite of this, Colombian peasants produce more than 80% of the food that the country needs.[3] However, the concentration of rural ownership in Colombia is a problem that remains unresolved, reflected by the fact that 80% of the land currently belongs to only 1% of the population.[4] In other words, despite the fact that peasants represent 31.8% of the country's total population, with the little land they possess, they are responsible for feeding Colombian men and women.[5]

The rural population is made up of 48.2% women and 25.5% young people between the ages of 18 and 25.[6] In most cases, women take on unpaid work in the care sector and account for only 36.6% of land owners.[7]

As a result of these figures, structural changes have had to be made in recent years, due to the worsening of the economy as a result of the pandemic. With the new government that took office in 2022, important constitutional reforms concerning land tenure have been pushed through.

The government has proposed an agrarian reform project that aims to grant peasant farmers more than 60,000 hectares in two years. This is a challenge that began with the Támesis agreement in 2022, when the first plots of land were handed over as part of the agrarian reform, i.e. 600 hectares that belonged to the mafia and were given to 50 families that are members of the Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (Fensuagro).[8] Since then, land titles and loan agreements have been granted to peasant men and women across the country.

This raises additional challenges related to the forms of peasant land tenure, the consolidation of organisational arrangements for working on the plots of land transferred, and the establishment of farming proposals based on agroecology to promote food sovereignty in the country and guarantee dignified living conditions in the countryside.

We must bear in mind that for decades Colombian rural areas have been neglected. This has led peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian organisations to urge the government to promote measures to address the problems of basic services in the territories, develop educational strategies that do not result in the displacement of peasant youth and children, improve and de-privatise the health system, improve tertiary roads, and establish new ways of marketing farm products that will consolidate a more resilient peasant economic system. The agrarian reform plans also include the need to bolster labour reform that will guarantee the rights of peasants. In addition, a change of strategy has been proposed regarding the role of agricultural technical assistance.

Among the important measures pushed through by peasant organisations and the current Colombian government, one is of particular importance given the Latin American context. This involves recognition of peasantry as rights-holders and subject to special protection, thereby amending article 64 of the Colombian Constitution. [9] This legal instrument lays the groundwork for recognition of the UN declaration on peasant rights and other people living in rural areas. Moreover, strategies are being established to consolidate public policy on agroecology and bills on agroecology and food sovereignty are being submitted to Congress.

For all of the above reasons, monitoring the current agrarian reform developments in Colombia, and those that will unfold in the coming years, will contribute to the issue of land in Latin America, against the backdrop of a complex global landscape. Each agrarian reform attempt that arises from peasant grassroots in any country opens up a range of possibilities to guarantee decent living conditions in the countryside, based on the biodiversity resulting from the different ways of life of rural communities.

This article is part of Revista Biodiversidad 118 / 2023 - 4

Photo: Sumapaz Peasant Reserve Zone, IALA, María Cano, Colombia. By the Fensuagro communication team

[1] The historical process of specialisation of Latin American production is extensively detailed by Rose Mary Thorp, 1998: Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: An Economic History of Latin America in the 20th Century | Publications (
[2] El Espectador, 2018:
[3] Ministry of Agriculture in Colombia, 2016:
[4] Alejandro Reyes: “En Colombia no hay un problema de tierras, hay 100 problemas de tierras”:,inequidad%20m%C3%A1s%20altos%20del%20mundo.
[5] DANE, 2019:
[6] Dejusticia, 2020:,Colombia%20tiene%20la%20primera%20radiograf%C3%ADa%20de%20su%20poblaci%C3%B3n%20campesina,tienen%20los%20campesinos%20y%20campesinas
[7] DANE, 2022:
[8] Semanario Voz, 2022:
[9]Colombian Presidency, 2022:

Author: Fabián Pachón (Fensuagro) y GRAIN
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