Promised Land: Dimensions of the Agrarian Issue

Hobeth Martínez Carrillo

Colombian President Gustavo Petro signs the land purchase agreement.

AFTER A LONG period, land reform has returned to public debate in Colombia. This resurgence is primarily a direct outcome of the Final Peace Agreement signed between the Colombian state and the agrarian and communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (FARC-EP), in November 2016.

The first chapter of the agreement was entirely devoted to addressing structural problems in the countryside through what was called a Comprehensive Rural Reform (CRR). It also gained renewed momentum thanks to a revitalized impetus brought about by the first-ever elected leftist national government under President Gustavo Petro Urrego and Vice President Francia Márquez Mina in 2022. (For specifics on the details of the land reform, see the following article “Mechanics of Colombia’s Land Reform.”–ed.)

Before this, the previous attempt at carrying out agrarian or land reform in Colombia began in the early 1960s under the auspices of the U.S. Alliance for Progress and ended abruptly in 1974. At that point, a coalition of landowners and national politicians signed an agreement (Chicoral’s Pact) to halt its most distributive policies, perceived as a direct threat to their properties, power and privileges.

The following decades witnessed the increasing intensification of the internal armed conflict, economic “opening” as part of the neoliberal agenda, a market-led land reform with very limited redistributive effects, and the near abandonment and wilting of the agricultural sector.

The compounding effects of these factors have been catastrophic. According to the Truth Commission, between 1985 and 2015 more than seven million people were internally displaced by violence. They were mostly peasants, Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians who left their lands behind.(1)

Drawing on data from the last agricultural census carried out in 2014, Oxfam’s researchers calculated that Colombia has the highest land inequality in the subcontinent, with one percent of the owners controlling about 80% of the arable land.(2) Most of that land is in the hands of both agro-industrialists and less productive cattle-ranchers, who have traditionally taken sides with conservative and right-wing political forces.

Academics have found that the country lost its food sovereignty by the late 1980s. Over the last decades Colombia imports between 30% of its food and 50%  agricultural goods.(3) This grim reality was what the Peace Agreement’s CRR aimed to transform, and which the Petro-Márquez administration is attempting to address through their land reform policy.

Petro, Márquez and Their Challenge

Although from different backgrounds, both Petro and Márquez are recognized for their trajectories and leadership on the left.

Petro joined the urban M-19 guerrilla in the 1980s and, after the guerrillas demobilized, continued his political activism by becoming a congressman. During his time in congress, he stood out for exposing the links between state officials and politicians with the paramilitaries, as well as for his opposition to then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Leading the Progresistas political movement, he successfully won the position of Mayor of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. He was later dismissed in a disputed court decision, which the Inter-American Court for Human Rights overturned. The dismissal, perceived by his supporters as illegitimate and a result of right-wing political persecution, paved the way for him to consolidate his popularity and, arguably, pursue the presidency.

For her part, Márquez Mina is an Afro-colombian woman, a social leader, and environmental activist from a small rural community in western Colombia. She came to international prominence in 2018 when she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism against illegal gold mining and for the protection of rivers.

Márquez founded a political movement — “Soy porque somos” — in which she championed the causes of feminism, anti-racism, opposition to patriarchy, and the defense of the excluded. Marquez joined Petro’s campaign and became the first black woman ever elected to hold such a high political position in a country profoundly racist.

I will explore here some of the obstacles that Colombia’s present leftist government faces in implementing land reform, focusing on two specific mechanisms — land sales and rural development. First and foremost, the market-friendly path chosen to persuade large landowners to relinquish their land carries political and financial challenges that may significantly limit the reform’s impact.

Additional inherited issues related to rural development, as well as the government’s poor budget execution of local development plans, raise questions about its capacity to fulfill promises of bringing progress and well-being to the economically excluded rural regions. This is particularly significant as these rural areas constitute a substantial electoral base for the government.

The weight and relevance of these obstacles vary significantly, but what is certain is that unless the national government addresses them within the next two years — the remaining period of its term — land reform will be postponed… once again.

Limits of Non-Confiscatory Land Reform

From the government’s perspective, signing an agreement with the largest and most important business association of cattle ranchers makes absolute sense. Members of this economic sector have not only been involved in the past in the creation, maintenance and operations of paramilitaries groups but have also endorsed one of the most active right-wing oppositions to the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC-EP.

Additionally, they have voiced their disagreement with the current leftist government, viewing president Petro as a kind of Marxist and communist nemesis ready to expropriate their private properties.

For these reasons, although Petro’s decision could be seen as too compliant with his opponents, it seems to fit logically within his larger strategy of achieving “total peace.” This encompasses criminal gangs and guerrillas still operating in the country, economic agents, as well as antagonistic political actors inside and outside the national congress.

The primary reason for such an agreement was to avoid, by all means, the exacerbation of contradictions with far-right wing forces so ready to defend, also by all means, their own interests. This is a considerable aim in a country attempting to break the vicious cycle of violence in which it has been trapped over the past six decades.

For the cattle ranchers represented by Fedegan, the agreement seems to be at once a pragmatic move and one that may well help them address some of the challenges facing the livestock industry.

José Félix Lafaurie, Fedegan’s president and one of the most prominent members of the right-wing political party Democratic Center, has repeatedly declared that the government would carry out the agrarian reform “with or without, or against them.” This implies that cooperation would be a convenient path to follow given the circumstances.(4)

That’s precisely what has been happening. Since the signing of the agreement, Fedegan has offered about 500,000 hectares of land to the government’s land agency. According to the agreement, the state would also provide technical assistance so that cattle ranchers can transform their current extensive cattle model into the Intensive Silvopastoral Systems (ISPS).

Thus, Fedegan seems to be taking advantage of the situation and tackle some of the criticism the industry faces globally for its negative environmental impact. Ranchers seem to be cooperating with their antagonist out of necessity.

Among the most pressing challenges the ranchers have identified as threatening their economic interests are changes in consumption patterns, leading to sustainable diets that reduce meat consumption, and the close scrutiny of the industry’s carbon footprint.

Problems abound, however, with this path. To start with, the intentions of ranchers should be taken with a grain of salt. One of the most effective means that traditional landed elites have found to hamper redistributive land reforms has been, precisely, to formally abide by the democratic rules while weaponizing institutions and processes at the level of state administration. This is where their power and influence might be more effective.(5)

It is indicative in this regard that until today the ranchers still object to the Final Peace Agreement, which they denounce as spurious and illegitimate. The land sale deals between the government and the cattle ranchers might be restricted to those results convenient to the latter, while the broader political goal of the government, such as fully implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform of the Peace Agreement, might be more contested.

Although land redistribution can still be reached through voluntary land sales, the redistributive effect has been less significant compared to classic land reform.(6) This is partly due to the high cost of the land, which tends to increase as speculation is triggered by the prospect of a buyer with a huge pool of resources (the state) and a seller with greater bargaining power.(7)

Additionally, if the lands put on the market are not only expensive but of poor quality, the business deal could not better for the seller. And this has been the case: most of the lands Fedegan offered (about 67%) are located in areas of the Colombian eastern plains, which need high capital investment to become productive.(8)

The fiscal pressure on the state can be massive. Buying three million hectares of land was estimated at about 60 billion COP (US$15 billion), an amount so substantial that the government decided to re-set its land reform goal to avoid a negative impact on public finances. It cut its goal in half, pledging to redistribute 1.5 million hectares over the four-year period.(9)

The last available report on its progress states that the government has acquired 118,645 hectares in 2023, fulfilling its commitment for the year.(10) The land agency increased its budget to about five billion COP ($1.2 billion) in 2024 in order to buy an additional 500,000 hectares.(11)

Will the government accomplish this goal? This is a crucial year for the “government of change” to deliver on its promises, Given that land reform is multi-faceted, it is not the easiest to accomplish.

Rural Development in Question

Afro-colombians, Indigenous peoples and peasant communities epect inclusive rural development.

Among the components of the 2016 peace agreement, the Comprehensive Rural Reform was the most delayed, with only about 4% of its commitments fully implemented by the end of 2022.(12) Besides the land fund focused on the redistribution of land to landless peasants, the development plans with a territorial approach (PDET’s) were essential to transforming rural zones that were economically relegated, socially impoverished, and politically marginalized.

These regions mostly coincide with territories of the country inhabited by peasants, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The 16 development plans were meant to attract massive public investment to implement the ideas that the local communities proposed to foster their inclusive development.

These development plans comprise a few projects (also called “initiatives”) that local communities drafted in a participatory process between 2017 and 2018. By the end of 2022 about 41% (13,458 out of 33,808 projects) were underway.(13)

While there has been some progress, this process has been heavily criticised by the same communities that were supposed to be the beneficiaries. The final decision in terms of resource allocation (what projects would be funded), and in what order (planning), excluded the representatives of the local communities. Instead, it seemed to be in the hands of a bunch of technocrats in Bogotá or even hired from foreign consulting firms like Deloitte.

What was supposed to be a participatory process from beginning to end, where community representatives were key to any decision, ended up in a centralized decision-making process. Beneficiaries feel alienated, disempowered and frustrated.

As a result, communities are skeptical about the development plans’ capacity to improve their living conditions. Meanwhile the state rapidly wastes the scarce social legitimation the process was to provide.

For example, Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and peasant women from Alto Patía — Norte del Cauca (southwestern Colombia) — have been speaking out about their frustration. In their view, the scattered projects that got funded did not lead to the structural transformation they thought essential. They sought to prioritize infrastructure to counteract gender violence against women and LGBTI communities in rural areas.

This included creating “care houses” for protecting victims of gender and political violence. For these women, the gender approach of the peace agreement paid lip service to ending historical gender discrimination and exclusion but then undercut it by placing unqualified officials in charge.(14)

Although most of this criticism cannot be targeted exclusively at the current government, there has not been much improvement since the Petro-Márquez administration came to power. During most of the period, between August 2022 and December 2023, the chief of the Agency for the renovation of the territory, in charge of implementing the plans, has been busy attempting to understand the problems the policy faces.

The diagnosis is discouraging: the plans are underfunded, their full implementation would take longer than the 15 years initially anticipated, and there is widespread noncompliance in the contracted infrastructure.(15)

Worse still, although the plans were drafted seven years ago, there has been no transformation in the living conditions of the inhabitants of these regions.(16) The complaints are grounded in successive years of frustration with no change in sight.

Early this year the government announced a large public investment with the intention of recalibrating the local development plans. This is clearly an attempt to rebuild trust and recover some of the legitimacy lost by calling on communities to take hold of the process.(17) Hopefully the government initiative will result in improving the lives of the rural populations.

Difficult Way Ahead

So far the balance remains ambiguous. While the “government of change” has significantly reinvigorated the implementation of the peace agreement through its program of non-confiscatory land reform, its ability to execute the needed reform remains weak.

There are doubts about how many hectares of productive and accessible land it can obtain from landowners to redistribute to landless peasants. Similarly, it is unclear what the government’s contribution will be to the development of rural areas, as only this year seems to show a serious commitment to implementing local development plans.

Such a lack of implementation of promises and budget execution have been taken advantage of by business groups, liberal sectors, and the opposition to discredit the capacity of the government to deliver, blaming it for the deceleration of the economy.

Thus, 2024 is a critical year for the Colombian government. If it fails to deliver on its promises of land reform and the necessary accompanying infrastructure, it will most likely be remembered as a government of good ideas, but poor realization: Too much talk about change, too little actual change.


  1. Comisión de la Verdad, Hasta la guerra tiene límites: violaciones de los derechos humanos, infracciones al derecho internacional humanitario y responsabilidades colectivas, Primera edición, Hay futuro si hay verdad, Tomo 4,4 (Bogotá: Comisión de la Verdad, 2022), 402.
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  2. Arantxa Guereña, “A Snapshot of Inequality: What the Latest Agricultural Census Reveals about Land Distribution in Colombia” (OXFAM International, 2017),
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  3. Darío A. Fajardo Montaña, Agricultura, Campesinos y Alimentos En Colombia (1980-2010), 1. ed, Cuadernos Del CIDS. Serie I 29 (Bogotá: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2019), 153; El Espectador, “Colombia importa el 30% de los alimentos que consume,” Text, ELESPECTADOR.COM, 4 March 2021,
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  4. Julio Sánchez Cristo, “La sorpresiva declaración de José Félix Lafaurie sobre Petro | Cambio Colombia,” 24 February 2023,
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  5. This thesis was postulated by Michael Albertus, Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015),
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  6. Michael Lipton, Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs, Routledge Priorities in Development Economics 9 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009).
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  7. Alejandro Reyes Posada, “Mejor extinguir el dominio que comprar la tierra,” Text, ELESPECTADOR.COM, 7 October 2022,
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  8. FEDEGAN, “A La Fecha, FEDEGÁN Ha Enviado a La Agencia Nacional de Tierras 1038 Ofertas de Ganaderos Por 507.854 Hectáreas | Fedegán,” 5 May 2023,
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  9. Agencia Nacional de Tierras, “Informe de Gestión 2023 — Tercer Trimestre” (Bogotá (Colombia): Agencia Nacional de Tierras, 7 November 2023), 6,
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  10. Ministerio de Agricultura, “El Contador Oficial de La Reforma Agraria,” 5 January 2024,
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  11. Edgar Quintero Herrera, “Casas, tierras y vías: claves de la gruesa chequera de Petro en el 2024,” La Silla Vacía, 12 January 2024,, 12 January 2024.
  12. Laurel Quinn, “Implementation of the Colombian Peace Accord Reaches Its Sixth Year” (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame, 12 June 2013),
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  13. Laurel Quinn.
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  14. Participants in some of the workshops carried out as part of a participatory research project about the perception of women and LGBTI people on the implementation of the peace agreement in western Colombia expressed these views and criticism. Since 2021, a team of researchers, of which I am part of, and in close collaboration with women and LGTBI’s organizations of the Cauca region, have been working together to assess the implementation of the agreement and provide recommendations to regional and national institutions.
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  15. Julián Ríos Monroy, “¿Qué pasará con los PDET en lo que resta del Gobierno Petro? Habla director de ART,” Text, ELESPECTADOR.COM, 12 July 2023,
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  16. Laura Herrera and Emilia Isaza, “Crónica de un olvido anunciado: ¿Se puede cambiar el destino de los PDET?,” FIP, 23 October 2023,
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  17. Presidencia de la República, “Más de medio billón de pesos se distribuirán en las 16 subregiones PDET en el primer semestre del 2024,” Presidencia de la República, 18 December 2023,
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March-April 2024, ATC 229