“Divide and Purchase”: how land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia

“The concentration of vast tracts of land in areas which have been destined by law for small-scale agriculture exacerbates social inequality and conflict in the country.”
Aida Pesquera
Country Director, Oxfam in Colombia
Published: 27 September 2013

New Oxfam report outlines how the world’s largest agricultural commodity trader managed to further concentrate land in Colombia.  

Bogotá, Colombia. International agency Oxfam urges the Colombian government to close the loopholes that allowed Cargill – the world’s largest agricultural commodity trader – to acquire over 52,000 hectares of land in Colombia’s Altillanura region through 36 shell companies between 2010 and 2012.

In a new report, Divide and Purchase, released today, Oxfam outlines how Cargill may have managed to evade Colombia’s legal restriction on acquiring previously state-owned land destined for family farming through a method of fragmented purchases, exceeding the maximum size of such land permitted by law for a single owner by more than 30 times.

Land distribution in Colombia is extremely unequal, with concentration of land ownership among the highest in the world, and second highest in Latin America after Paraguay. Inequality in access to land is closely linked to rural poverty, and is both a cause and a consequence of the internal armed conflict that has ravaged the country for more than half a century.

Smallholder agriculture is necessary

The government argues that only large companies are capable of developing the productive potential of the Altillanura region, and therefore seeks to establish incentives and legal reforms that will pave the way for domestic and foreign investment. However, the small farm sector has been shown to be as, if not more efficient, particularly if its contribution to food security, employment and poverty reduction is taken into account.

According to Aida Pesquera, Oxfam country director in Colombia, “Public investment in smallholder agriculture, ensuring land tenure of small holder producers is undoubtedly necessary in Colombia. Private investment is also useful but this must respect existing rights and legislation relating to land use, and include comprehensive assessments of social and environmental impacts at local and national levels”.

“The concentration of vast tracts of land in areas which have been destined by law for small-scale agriculture,” continues Pesquera, “exacerbates social inequality and conflict and worsens the country’s existing problem of concentrated land ownership.”

Rural reform

This report comes at an historic moment for agrarian issues in Colombia – in political, economic and social terms: the national agrarian strike, which began in August 2013 and mobilized civil society at large, has no precedent in the country and exemplifies the importance of rural development in Colombia; a new Rural Development Bill is under discussion, and various current legislative proposals on the table that aim to regulate large-scale land purchases by foreign entities.

Most importantly, rural reform is the key item on the agenda of the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana. The Colombian government has shown willingness to move towards a comprehensive rural reform and agrarian policy that strengthens the small-holder economy.

“The case of Cargill´s investment in the Altillanura,” concludes Pesquera “will test the policy coherence of a government cornered between national protests over agrarian issues and a public commitment to a more democratic distribution of land.”

Notes to Editors

On the report: “Divide and Purchase”, the research methodology combined local identification of the land acquired by Cargill with the review and analysis of public documents from the Superintendence of Notary and Registry Offices and the Bogota Chamber of Commerce.

On land distribution in Colombia: 80 per cent of land in Colombia is in the hands of 14 per cent of owners. Concentration of land ownership is on the increase: the Gini index worsened from 0.841 in 1960 to 0.885 in 2009. This figure puts Colombia in 11th place worldwide among countries with the worst distribution of land. Women face even greater difficulties in accessing land. According to some reports, 40 per cent of Colombian territory is under some type of contract with multinational corporations, either for the production of biofuels or for agriculture, forestry, or mining. Colombia ranks fifth among the 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries where the FAO has found large investments of foreign capital in crop farming. In a recent report, the FAO warns that there are trends in the foreign tenure of land, favoured by the absence of limits on land acquisition and favourable domestic regulations.

On Colombian legislation: The land acquired by Cargill had been handed over by the state to landless farmers as part of the agrarian reform. This kind of land is known in Colombia as baldíos. Baldíos are defined by article 675 of the Colombian Civil Code as land situated within the territorial limits which has no other owner, and consequently is the property of the State. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that such assets must be used to benefit society, in this case to fulfil article 64 of the Constitution, which ‘directs the State to promote progressive access to the ownership of land for agricultural workers with limited resources and to other rural public services, in order to improve the income and quality of life of the rural population’. Act 160, passed in 1994, enabled the National Institute of Rural Development (INCODER) to adopt decisions on the allocation of state land (baldíos) to the rural population with limited resources. The ‘Family Agriculture Unit’ (UAF) – established by law as the amount of land considered necessary for a family to obtain a decent livelihood – is the maximum limit the state may award to a single person. Act 160 of 1994 also prohibited any individual or legal entity from accumulating more than one UAF of this land if it had been previously adjudicated as baldíos.

Contact Information

For more information or interviews please contact:

Riccardo D’Emidio, Regional Campaigns & Communications Mgr., +52 1 55 1320 8796, rdemidio@oxfam.org.uk

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