Setting the ground: Addressing the concerns of both small and large agrarians

Like several Latin American countries, Colombia has endured a long-standing political battle over landownership, where progress has been slow. Reform in Colombia is complicated by the continuing internal conflict, the wide-scale displacement of campesinos (small-scale farmers), a lack of documentation for historical landownership and powerful landholding individuals and associations. A key demand of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) guerrilla movement in peace negotiations with the government is that land plots be delivered to campesinos. At the same time, agricultural companies argue they can’t compete with international imports unless they develop large-scale projects that justify the construction of infrastructure. In late 2015 the government introduced a new law that gives some idea of how the future of Colombian farming could take shape.

State Of Play

In August 2015 the government presented the results from its first agricultural census in 45 years. A team of 25,000 researchers covered 113m ha of terrain, accounting for land usage and recording development issues in the countryside. The report finds that the rural population is shrinking and ageing as young people move to cities and towns. While access to health care has improved, education still lags well behind urban areas. Land ownership has continued to concentrate, with relatively few areas dedicated to intensive agriculture. Over 41% of farmland is controlled by 0.4% of landowners, with 70% of farmers owning plots of less than 5 ha in size. Just 7.1% of the 113m ha surveyed is used to sow crops, with the majority of land used for raising cattle.

In addition, plantation crops – including sugarcane and palm oil – have come to replace temporary crops – such as potatoes, corn and cereals – in the areas that remain under the plough. Temporary crops are important because they allow farmers to decide what crops to plant based on market prices and climactic conditions. However, the segment has been one of the biggest losers from Colombia’s free trade agreements, with cheaper, mass-produced foreign crops flooding the market. In 2015 Colombia imported over a quarter of its domestic consumption in temporary crops. In 2013 mass protests by Colombian farmers against imports of crops under free trade agreements took place.

Family Unites

At the heart of Colombian agricultural policy lies the conflict between the government’s commitment to free trade and its obligation to provide a dignified way of life for the country’s 5m rural inhabitants, many of who are among the worst affected by the internal conflict. Under Law 160 of 1994 the government committed to prevent the concentration of landownership by distributing baldíos (uncultivated plots) in family agricultural units (unidad agrícola familiar, UAF). A UAF is an area of land capable of providing at least two minimum monthly wages for a family. UAFs vary in size depending on the region in which they are located and the type of agriculture they are used for. Individuals can only own one UAF, although they have the right to sell or rent the property.

Back & Forth

The continuation and expansion of campesino-ownership of farmland is one of the key goals of the FARC in the peace negotiations with the government. In May 2013 both sides reached an agreement on land reform that would guarantee individuals the right of access to land and the creation of a landbank of illegally appropriated lands to be redistributed among the rural population. However, free-trade supporters say the continued division of the country’s agricultural land into small units will prevent the development of a competitive agribusiness sector. In recent years several agribusiness firms have tried to circumvent the spirit of the 1994 reform by acquiring vast areas of land through the creation of dozens of subsidiary firms in the name of Colombians, each owning a UAF. These UAFs have the same legal representation and are unified in a single holding company, and are sometimes registered abroad.

Special Zones

The government’s compromise solution has been to reserve Colombia’s best-located farmland for smallholders while opening vast plots of difficult-to-access and less-fertile land to big business. In December 2015 the Congress approved a law creating rural, economic and social interest zones (zonas de interés de desarrollo rural económico y social, Zidres). Under the law, the Rural Agriculture and Livestock Planning Unit will define areas in which companies and individuals can acquire multiple UAFs for the purpose of developing agricultural projects, including forestry, cattle raising and crops. These areas can include uncultivated plots, state-held lands or private properties. In the instance of the latter, the landowner can choose to work their plot as part of the wider project or sell the land to the project owner.

For an area to qualify for Zidres status the lands must be isolated from large towns, in areas of low population density and high poverty. They must also be removed from existing transport infrastructure and have characteristics that will require significant investment in order to convert them into productive land and therefore not suitable for UAFs. Given these requirements, the areas most likely to host Zidres are the country’s eastern plains, the arid northern department of La Guajira, the pacific coastal department of Chocó and the heavily forested departments of Putumayo and Amazonas.

Once identified, the Zidres projects of between 10,000 and 800,000 ha in size will be auctioned to investors. The winning firms must make the lands suitable for farming and boost sustainable production through the development of irrigation and infrastructure. They also have an obligation to promote the social inclusion of agrarian workers and social and economic development in the surrounding region. Owners of Zidres will also pay into the newly formed Rural and Economic Development Fund. If companies fail to make meaningful progress to bring the Zidres into production in a timeframe of three years, it is returned to the state.


Supporters of Zidres say the law will provide employment and development in the country’s most remote and neglected regions. “The idea is that zones which lack highways, energy and drinking water have the opportunity to develop and enter the 21st century,” Marco Sergio Rodríguez, member of the House of Representatives for Vichada, told Congress. Private investors have also shown interest. According to national weekly Semana, Jorge Enrique Vélez, superintendent of notaries and registry, and a key proponent of the new law, received numerous inquiries about the scope of Zidres in the days following the law’s approval.

However, several obstacles remain to the creation of Zidres in Colombia. First, in the departments of Chocó, La Guajira and Amazonas there are large indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations whose rights are protected by constitutional law and must be engaged in a prior-consultation process before major projects can be implemented. In addition, in recent years large areas of the country have been acquired under mining titles and it remains unclear how potential conflicts between agribusiness and mine developers can be resolved.

The creation of Zidres faces opposition from various fronts. The FARC’s chief negotiator, Ivan Márquez, condemned the policy as a “cunning blow against comprehensive rural reform”. In December 2015 Luis Evelis Andrade, senator for the Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement told Congress that 70% of baldíos awarded to campesinos had since been sold and that the government should focus instead on helping small landholders develop their lands to make them more productive.