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Latin American countries have failed to govern their lands fairly and are now so deep in thrall to rich elites and big business that the future of sustainable and inclusive development of much of the continent hangs in the balance.
A new Oxfam report, “Unearthed: Land, power, and inequality in Latin America,” describes the result of 50 years of botched policies and disastrous practices that continue to push millions of people into poverty and hardship.
- The concentration of Latin American land in the hands of a few is even worse now than in the 1960s, when the problem was so bad many governments pushed major reforms.
- One percent of “super farms” in Latin America now control more productive land than the other 99 percent.
- Colombia is at the top of the list, with Paraguay and Chile close behind in terms of gross land inequality.
- Women hold less land than men; from as little as 8% in Guatemala, and up to 30% in Peru.
“This extreme inequality of Latin American farmlands is fueled by dependence on ‘extractivism’ by super farms, cattle ranches and big oil, gas and mining companies, which control immense tracts of land,” said Oxfam’s Latin America and the Caribbean director, Simon Ticehurst.
- Timber plantations alone are expanding by more than half-million hectares each year across the continent, especially in Chile and Mexico.
- Livestock farming in the Gran Chaco region of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia is now causing the highest rates of deforestation in the world, threatening the very survival of indigenous peoples and contributing to climate change.
- Mining and oil concessions are proliferating across vast areas of Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. For example, 31% of land in the Peruvian Amazon has been offered by the government for oil and gas concessions.
“Previous land reforms failed because of corruption, deregulation, cronyism and lack of support to family farming,” Ticehurst said. “States have proved incapable of resisting the powerful elites that dominate the land and profit most from exploiting its natural resources.”
Oxfam says Latin America’s land inequality is limiting decent employment in rural areas and driving more people living in poverty into cities. It is undermining social cohesion and democracy, along with the stability of local environment and food systems.
The commodity price upsurge in recent years enabled Latin America’s extractives boom to drive economic growth in the region and as a result, in some countries, an improvement in public services. But Ticehurst says this masks troubles underneath – and ahead.
“When countries become dependent on exploiting their raw natural resources they risk international market volatility, high social costs and ever more accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a few. We see this manifested in various ways, for example in Bolivia and Paraguay where a handful of transnational companies now control most all of the soy trade.”
In response, powerful interests are fighting a rear-guard action – including buying control of politics, policing and media, using international instruments to usurp local law, to criminalizing and in some cases even murdering protesters – in order to stop resistance.
“Countries like Argentina, Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela have all been hit by multi-million dollar threats of litigation by corporations and, in some cases, fined for cancelling licenses to extractive activities,” Ticehurst said.
“We’re seeing more land disputes and violence particularly against indigenous peoples and peasant communities, particularly women, who are defending their rights. They are being harassed, attacked and criminalized for trying to stop projects that threaten their lands and livelihoods and don’t usually offer them any benefit.”
2015 was the worst year in Latin America’s recent history for human rights abuses. 122 rights defenders and protesters were murdered – more than 40% of whom were fighting for their lands or indigenous rights – including Oxfam’s ally, the Honduran activist Berta Cáceres.
“Berta’s death highlights the extreme vulnerability of women activists and the apathy – even complicity – of governments in failing in their duty to protect their citizens,” Ticehurst said.
“Never before have activists, journalists and defenders been so endangered in Latin America. And it is being done by design, part of a strategy of repressing people demanding their rights to land.”
Oxfam says that land should be placed back at the center of political debate in Latin America by all institutions engaged in development.
Governments, financiers, civil society and social movements, businesses and academic institutions should join forces so that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals “do not remain merely words on paper”, Ticehurst said.
International development financiers and companies should ensure that robust human rights standards and safeguards are applied to all their projects. Oxfam has suggested a 10-point agenda for Latin American governments including particularly to recognize women’s and indigenous people’s rights.
Oxfam says it will continue to support local social movements in their fight for the right to land and territory, and against extreme inequality so that the benefits of Latin American development are better distributed.