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Reviving the Tree of Life: How land reform holds the key to Colombia’s future

In 1503, Christopher Columbus wrote: “When I discovered the Indies, I said they were the greatest rich domain in the world.” Over five hundred years later, in 2021, anti-government protesters in Barranquilla, Colombia toppled Columbus’s statue, dragging their country’s namesake through the streets. This event is just one of many upheavals against colonialism that have been commonplace throughout Colombia’s history, as countries like the United States have exploited the country’s ‘rich domain’ for their own benefit. 

For much of the 20th century, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, waged a civil war against the government in response to staggering inequality and Western imperialism. The conflict only just ended in 2016 when the FARC and the Columbian government came to a long-awaited peace agreement. Amid this newfound peace, Colombia has a unique opportunity to define its legacy outside of the United States’s southern-cast shadow. However, to truly break free from its tradition of colonization and violence—and prevent a relapse into conflict—Colombia must prioritize addressing the underlying issues that led to the original unrest and fully implement the land reform portions of the 2016 peace agreement. 

The imperial aims of the United States are largely responsible for Colombia’s conflict-fraught history. After Colombia gained independence in 1819, the white and mestizo colonial elite had almost complete control over the country’s rich natural resources as well as its economic and political systems. Seeking to exploit Colombia’s natural resources, the United States rubber-stamped the country’s highly unequal political and economic arrangements. By aiding right-wing governments and paramilitary groups throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, the United States repressed anti-imperialist movements that would threaten Colombia’s ruling class and, in turn, US economic interests. As a result, Colombia has remained a highly unequal society, making it no wonder that a group like the FARC would form in 1964. 

It’s also unsurprising then, that despite the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia risks lapsing back into violence. Most recently, protesters took to the streets in April 2021 to press the government to craft a clear plan to address inequality. Though the protesters were ultimately successful in changing the tax code, civilians were met with brutal police repression, signaling that the government remains hostile to large-scale wealth redistribution efforts. Much has changed in Colombia in recent years, but the government and the upper class continue to hold tight to their economic privilege. And economic inequality—so entrenched that it would take “11 generations for descendants of a poor family to reach the average income”—has only worsened during the pandemic, which has shrunk Colombia’s economy by almost 7 percent. 

While failure to act will create ripe conditions for renewed conflict, a solution that addresses the inequality of the past while moving Colombia into the future lies in the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC. The agreement acknowledged that the issue of land ownership, especially the exclusion of the rural population from the land-owning class and the underdevelopment of rural communities, constituted an important cause of both the formation of the FARC and the civil war itself. Key is the absence of formal land titling, as rural Colombians have long been denied their rightful land due to their lack of official titles. But the reform process codified in the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC would formalize around 7 million hectares of land that, while technically belonging to rural peasants, have remained titleless. Such reform would not only strengthen rural peasant communities by officially affirming their ownership of land, but it would also undermine the concentration of private land in the hands of the elite, a remnant of colonialism and US imperialism. This would then stem the flow of displaced peasants into the cities, where they have joined the largely homeless urban poor. Additionally, implementation of the suggested land reform would give former FARC combatants newfound confidence in the political process by reducing economic desperation, fostering a future in which they need not turn to arms.  

In his book “Century of the Wind, acclaimed Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano detailed a history of Latin America, writing, “The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths [sic] them and the land plows and loves them.” In Colombia, where land ownership has long been a privilege of the elite, this tree of life is out of reach for most. But with an established land reform agenda, peace between the government and guerrillas, and a population that remains stalwart in its opposition to inequality—as recent protests have shown—hope remains that Galeano’s tree of life will take root in this new era of Colombia.