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Ruth Hall and Ayanda Madlala

In the sweltering heat of Colombia’s central lowlands, a dirt road flanked by fertile meadows with lush foliage, palm trees, horses and cattle eventually reaches 20-30 friendly campesinos outside the gates of a grand hacienda – the main house of a farming estate.

It has all the hallmarks of its former luxuries: double-volume cool rooms, a games room with a large billiards table where the campesinos gather, and a swimming pool with a boat-shaped entertainment space and its own water slide.

This is San Joaquín Farm, a 156 hectare property in the prime agricultural Magdalena Medio region, one of several properties owned by a man known as ‘Mao Tetu’ because of his abundance of tattoos. He was part of a narco-paramilitary organisation responsible for much violence in the region and owned many properties, which he used to launder drug money. After his murder by rival mafia groups in 2015, the farm was managed by Colombia’s Sociedad de Activos Especiales (SAE), then sold to the country’s National Land Agency (NLA) in 2021. As of 2023, the property is finally in the hands of peasants.

This was the first stop on our field trip following the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing held at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota. It was co-organised by the Land Deal Politics Initiative and the Journal of Peasant Studies, with several other leading scholarly journals and other academic institutions.

The complexities of Colombia’s post-conflict efforts in land reform echo those we have witnessed over the past three decades in South Africa, where government has been biased in favour of well-to-do beneficiaries who are assumed to be competent at large-scale commercial farming; corruption and rent-seeking force out those with greater needs; and keeping the old farm boundaries forces people into collectives that often don’t align with their priorities. In both, land reform is just one part of a wider vision for social and economic transformation, and receiving land is only the first step towards this.

Researchers and campesinos walk though San Joaquín Farm. One carries a green flag with the title of the conference.

Campesinos and researchers walk thorugh San Joaquín Farm. Picture: Jovana Paredes, Erasmus University Rotterdam

The wider Colombian land reform remains market-based, having been developed in the 1990s with World Bank advice, alongside South Africa’s. As long as this remains the case, it will be a cost beyond the capacity of the state to buy out estates at market prices and will remain marginal and without any major impact on the overall structure of the agrarian economy. In this context, success for the campesinos and indigenous people at farms like San Joaquín is essential to pave the way for demands for wider redistribution and de-concentration of landholdings.

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The San Joaquín Farm has been expropriated without compensation

As proceeds of illicit drug trafficking and money laundering, the Colombian state under President Gustavo Petro has legal authority to seize not only bank accounts and moveable equipment, but also farms and industrial property. Since the Peace Agreement of 2016 (PA) between the government and main guerrilla movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), properties have been confiscated in this way and are held in the interim by a state agency that manages assets of crime, the SAE.

From criminal cartels to a people’s economy

In support of agrarian reform, narco-traffickers’ farms that once enabled them to launder fortunes and establish control over territory have now been promised to be used for land reform and to house people displaced by war.

“We are men and women committed to land reform, here… Our main aim with this land, with this farm, is to contribute to land reform. We would like to produce the best agricultural produce in Colombia… Here we have peasants and indigenous people living here. We have an agricultural vocation. It used to be used for cattle, but it is such good land, we would like to use it for more stuff,” says William, one of the leaders of the San Joaquín Farm, who handed out homemade juices in the grand farm’s courtyard.

A powerful, diminutive Laura, a councillor representing agreement signatories, says access to land is still a struggle for many.

“It has been seven years since we signed the agreement, and it has been a long and difficult process, because the last government was not facilitating implementing the PA, but breaking the PA. So now we have a new government which has a democratic perspective.”

PLAAS researcher Ayanda Madlala takes notes while colleagues and campesinos stand around her.

PLAAS researcher Ayanda Madlala takes notes during the visit. Picture: Jovana Paredes, Erasmus University Rotterdam

As Laura observed, their priority is not only farming, but first and foremost to create a decent settlement and homes for people.

“Not all of the signatories have moved here yet – we are in the resettlement process. That is a challenge, because they are not coming as individual signatories, they are coming as families. The challenge is not only to make the land productive but to provide a future for the families here.”

The SAE prohibits any construction on the land it redistributes until the final transfer is concluded. This means that, in a chicken-and-egg situation, not all the members are able to settle until there is a feasible housing plan.

Diego Tumeke, an official from the SAE, explained that the government’s approach to redistributing these farms was framed through a Land for Peace strategy, which aimed to ensure that assets confiscated from organised crime were put to use, as he put it, “for the purpose of people’s economy, and in this case, peasants’ economy”.

Core to this is reducing land inequality, and dividing up large landholdings or giving them over to people’s cooperatives.

“The priority groups for these assets are first of all, victims of the conflict, signatories of the PA, women, young people, and landless peasants.” He said much work was done with dedication from different government departments and this includes the fight against corruption.

Campesinos and researchers in a group photo, some standing at the back while others sit in the front.

Campesinos at the grand hacienda of San Joaquín Farm. Picture: Jovana Paredes, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Applications to the SAE require an explanation about what the land will be used for before it is parcelled out. This co-operative already knew its desired outcomes: cattle farming, pastoralism, agriculture and tourism – all of which will contribute to the local economy.

A total of 40 000ha of land has been redistributed through the SAE and Tumeke says for this process to be a success, it needs academia.

Cooperatives or independent smallholders – the eternal question

Land reforms always have to tussle with individual versus collective systems of landholding and production. In the San Joaquin case, they envisage that through their landholding institution – the Cooperativa Multiactiva Frontera Sur (Coomfrosur) – they will work as a collective, with no household-level production.

“We are a cooperative, we work in an associative way. We are not interested in individual access to land. We want to have collective projects. What we want to do is to develop large-scale production in order to provide a good livelihood for all our families. Each family is eight to nine people. We are facing many challenges, the two most important are: the formalisation of the land title; and the second one is to develop a housing project for all the families,” said William.

What rights are states willing and able to transfer to people through land reform? 

As in South Africa, Colombia is in the middle of a two-step process – a lease, followed by a title transfer. Diego explained it this way: “We give user rights to communities through a contract. But it is not enough to have just user rights. Legally speaking, SAE cannot give land titles. We can give a contract for use. We ask the NLA to purchase the land and to give the proper title to the communities already living there. I am aware of the shortcomings of giving contracts for land use. But this is a sure way to give access to land for communities to increase production on confiscated property.”

When the state is your landlord (even temporarily)

As so many governments have taken to doing under market-based reforms, the Colombian government is charging people rent while pursuing land reform. Diego explained that, pending the final transfer, the state is indeed planning to charge people rent, but this is considered a “social rent” where, for the first year, they don’t have to pay anything and from the second year they have a 60% discount on a market-related rent, which reduces over time.

The similarity to South Africa’s land redistribution policy is remarkable – and yet it is precisely this aim of the state to extract rent from its beneficiaries that has skewed reform towards those able to pay – the better-off – and prompted a massive problem with the state’s inability to determine who isn’t paying because they can’t or because they won’t. And quite apart from rent, if the cooperative were to use the land for purposes other than food production, it is unclear if their rights could be removed and they be evicted.

From farmers to combatants and back to farmers

State-driven processes of matching people with land can be fraught. Those who were allocated this farm are 91 signatories of the peace agreement, but they did not all previously know one another and were constituted as a group by the government. Most are former guerrillas, and they all come from Nariño, a region in the south near the border with Ecuador where there is still fighting, so it has not been possible to redistribute land to them in the region.

Adapting to new territory

Not only do they not all know one another, but land reform that moves people to new areas means different agro-ecological conditions that they need to understand: new terrain for production, working out which crops will grow and which need to be revised, or when to plant and how to care for their crops. Thomas showed us the trial plot. “We have 200 seeded plantain trees now, but our aim is to have 300-400,000 plantain trees.”

Just two months in, the plantain seedlings are flourishing – they are thigh-high, and prospects look good for producing the staple for consumption and for local markets.

“Everyone here, we are peasants, we are indigenous, and we are also farmers. We are not people from the city. Our fathers and ancestors showed us how to work the land, but in a very specific way. Everyone here, they know how to farm. But before we came here, we were in another part of Colombia with a greater altitude, so the products were different. It was a region for potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes.”

Struggles are under way in the state, too

Agrarian reform isn’t possible unless land is accompanied with other resources and support. “So far, we haven’t received support from the ministry. Multiple state institutions have to play their roles – but often they don’t, or they don’t coordinate and pull in different directions,” says William.

“When we took office, we realised the whole institutional design of the Colombian state was supporting large landholdings and agribusiness,” explained Diego.

Madeleine, vice-president of the cooperative, is an indigenous person and a signatory of the Peace Agreement. She points out that 37 of the 91 members are women and that women’s interests in land use will have to be central. The only way to ensure that women enjoy the fruits of the collective, she says, is “we will work everywhere”.

But what about other people with legitimate claims to the same land – those who were formerly dispossessed of the land – either peasants or indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities? As in South Africa, redistribution can clash with restitution. And what about former farm workers?

The difficulty of building a community and a landholding institution awaits these new land occupiers in Colombia. Communal Property Associations’ experience in South Africa suggests that, if there is one thing they might do to avoid South Africa’s pitfalls, it is to allow people to have separate enterprises within the farm, and not insist that all work is done by the whole cooperative. Combining cooperative-wide enterprises with smaller group, household or individual land uses would avert the predictable conflicts that so often arise.

The land reform must work, if there is not to be a resumption of war

We leave inspired and hopeful, but worried too. We have witnessed a country actively driving not only land reform but with an aim of wider agrarian reform, with the state explicitly on the side of the landless, peasants, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. It is willing to confront at minimum narco-capital and at other times agribusiness to push for de-concentration landholdings, redistributing land and bringing about land justice.

There are things South Africa and other countries would do well to learn from the Colombians, and that is the leadership and impetus from the executive to drive a people’s reform, with a mandate to officials to move with speed, decisively, and in the interests of the landless. These are officials who got the memo that they are no longer there to defend privilege but to bring about social justice. There’s a stark line in unequal countries such as ours, and fence-sitting and state prevarication only defers the social and political necessity of reform.