Three Reasons why Colombia’s Land Reform Deal is Significant
Three Reasons why Colombia’s Land Reform Deal is Significant
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 4 minutes

Three Reasons why Colombia’s Land Reform Deal is Significant

After six months of bilateral negotiations in Havana, representatives from the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced on 26 May a breakthrough in their attempt to settle five decades of violent conflict. A joint statement heralded the conclusion of an agreement dubbed “Towards a New Colombian Countryside: Comprehensive Rural Reform” as the “beginning of radical transformations” in rural areas. It also said the parties had reached consensus on a set of measures that include land titling, improving access to land and the creation of a mechanism to solve conflicts over land use, among others.

With the negotiations operating under the rule that “nothing is agreed on until everything is agreed on,” further details will likely be kept private until there is an agreement on the entire six-point agenda, and both parties explicitly said its content could be adjusted in relation to accords reached on other agenda points. Without the agreement in its entirety, it is difficult to say whether the deal will ultimately provide the policy tools to address the deep seated problems of Colombia’s conflict-torn countryside. For instance, only one of two peasants possess titles for their land, and rural property is highly unequally distributed. In 2009, Colombia’s Gini coefficient for land stood at 0.86, one of the worst distributions worldwide, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Nonetheless, the announcement is significant in at least three ways:

1. The agreement is a much needed shot in the arm for the peace talks, which were suffering from a growing fear that the lack of visible progress was slowly derailing the process. After six-months of positive rhetoric from both sides, proving an ability to produce concrete results is a crucial boost to the credibility of the negotiating teams and the political legitimacy of the talks. As the Colombian government’s Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo stressed, this is the first time that negotiations with FARC (which have occurred intermittently for a good part of the last three decades) have led to an agreement on any substantial policy issue. The agreement also contradicts the opponents of the peace negotiations, who have long forecast that the talks would eventually collapse because of a failure to produce outcomes. Their allegation that FARC is happy to negotiate, but unwilling to actually strike a peace deal, will now be much harder to sustain.

2. Land reform is not a minor problem—it is the issue at the heart of the Colombian conflict. FARC have long argued that their rebellion was sparked—and remains justified—by unjust landholding patterns that have forced peasant communities into political, social and economic marginalisation. While this stance hardly justifies the extent of FARC’s violence and the serious international crimes it has committed over the course of its insurgency, there is an increasing consensus that violence in the Colombian countryside has thrived upon land inequality and a failed model of rural development. There are other sources and causes of violence in Colombia, but reaching an agreement with FARC on rural development addresses the conflict at the deepest level possible.

Successfully completing discussions on land reform will also have a positive impact on the next stage of the negotiations. From FARC’s perspective, the best guarantee that land reform will move forward is actually being able to assume a role in its implementation. This sets the stage for the next agenda item that the two parties will begin to negotiate in June: political participation. The transition of FARC into a democratic political actor will be both controversial (as most Colombians see the guerrillas as criminals) and legally complex (as current constitutional rules raise doubts about the eligibility of FARC leaders). It is also a highly sensitive issue for FARC, given the catastrophic experience of the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party established as part of a peace process with FARC in the 1980s that was extinguished by targeted violence against its members. But the agreement on land reform has given the guerrillas, for the first time, a real stake in a future post-conflict Colombia, increasing the chances that an accord on political reintegration will be reached.

More broadly, the agreement raises the costs of breaking up the negotiations for both the government and FARC. This makes it more likely that talks will pick up speed and that a deal will be reached before the 2014 electoral campaigns provide for a more challenging environment. The Santos administration knows that a potential failure would probably cost it dearly in next year’s polls. This partial agreement should also increase FARC’s commitment to the talks. The guerrillas now have not just something to gain hypothetically from talking to the government; for the first time, they also have something to lose that they value highly, if negotiations were to collapse.

3. Finally, the agreement on land reform leaves transitional justice as the one make-or-break issue for the negotiations. With agrarian development out of the way, the long-term success of the talks will likely be defined by what agreement the two parties reach on transitional justice issues, such as the mandate of a truth commission, judicial accountability for serious international crimes committed by both state forces and the guerrillas, reparations, and a credible plan for institutional reform to prevent a return to violence in the future. All of these issues are highly controversial, but, as an upcoming Crisis Group report explains, both sides will need to muster the will to agree on a strong and holistic transitional justice model that unequivocally upholds the rights of all victims. Only then will the talks stand a chance to deliver the lasting peace that Colombia has so long deserved.

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