Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of access to land – 14% of land owners possess about 80% of total land. This high concentration of land ownership is one of the structural causes for the country’s long-standing internal conflict, but also one of the main drivers for deforestation and, therefore, of climate change in Colombia.
The causes of Colombia’s armed conflict have been the subject of long and controversial academic and public debate. Some of the most frequently mentioned causes include the lack of political participation, international spill-over effects of the Cuban revolution and the Cold War, weakness of the state and land concentration. With land tenure being less formalised in Colombia and land access lying in the hands of a few, the state has not been able to gain monopoly over responding to or regulating basic needs linked to land use and rural development – e.g. food and labour.
Furthermore, many scholars deem Colombia’s geographical preconditions with numerous secluded regions as conducive to the poor provision of such areas with public services and infrastructure. As a result, many rural regions have experienced low levels of economic development and poor infrastructure, leading to local communities’ perception of neglect. Thus, on the one hand, land concentration has created grievances that motivated rebellion, while on the other, the states’ lack of control over land has enabled non-state armed actors, such as the guerrillas, to step into that void and take over. The guerrillas’ subsequent control over large parts of the country and their violent rule that has contested the status quo then led to the emergence of paramilitary groups that have defended large landowners and initiated turf wars with guerrilla groups. In the late 1970s, drug trafficking added yet another actor seeking to co-opt land for its own purposes, aggravating and prolonging violence significantly. The Colombian armed conflict between the state and guerrillas, as well as between different armed groups, must therefore also be understood as a land-driven conflict.
Additionally, the high concentration of land ownership has also become a direct driver for deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Colombia. The high concentration of land ownership has a direct relationship with the predominance of extensive cattle ranching, an activity that contributes to 15% of the country's GHG emissions. This is due to the greater extension of farms, which enables larger agricultural areas to be destined for livestock farming. According to figures from the Ministry of Environment, by 2017, 45% of deforestation in the country was driven by the clearing of land for pastures.
In recognition of the role played by land issues in the conflict, the peace agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 contemplates the implementation of a rural reform, which includes important elements that would contribute to land use improvements, such as: i) completion of the rural cadastre, which currently only covers 20% of rural land; ii) formalisation of land ownership, since around 40-65% of rural land has no clear property rights; and iii) guarantee of the operation of the Land Fund, which should distribute three million hectares of land to landless peasants.
In addition to the rural reform, another policy instrument that could contribute to reducing land ownership concentration would be the introduction of a tax to promote efficient land use, through which unproductive land would be redistributed on the basis of compliance to sustainability standards, contributing to land productivity improvements and the reduction of pressure on the agricultural frontier. Such tax would further act as a catalyst for large scale reduction in GHG emissions and lead Colombia to a promising path towards implementation of ambitious climate goals, as well as environmental sustainability goals linked to land restoration and biodiversity protection.
The adequate implementation of the rural reform proposed in the peace agreement, together with the implementation of a tax that drives sustainable land use, can therefore help solve one of the structural causes of Colombia’s deep-rooted conflict, improve the productivity of the rural sector and mitigate one of the country’s main drivers of deforestation and climate change.