Needles Into Ploughshares

Want to fight Latin America's drug problem? Try land reform.


Latin America has a lot to be proud of. In recent years many countries of the region have succeeded in embracing democratic institutions and spurring economic growth. Yet many serious challenges remain. Latin America has the highest levels of inequality in the world. It also faces a host of security threats, including Mexico’s raging drug war, gang violence and human trafficking in Central America, and the persistence of crime across the region.

Many of these problems are linked to the stubbornly persistent production of drugs in Colombia, fueled by decades of conflict in which various illegal armed groups have seized land for illicit uses and displaced millions of peasants. Leaders from the region are increasingly discussing alternative approaches to the war on drugs and the broad security challenges it has created — and that’s a conversation they are sure to continue when they converge at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena on April 14-15.

One recent initiative by Colombia is likely to loom large: its path-breaking 2011 Victims Law, which offers reparations, in the form of land, to victims of the country’s fifty-year long civil conflict. When President Juan Manuel Santos came to office in 2010, he courageously supported this policy to draw attention to those who have suffered from the war and settle what he called "a historical debt with the peasants." The law includes reparations and land titles for victims of the armed conflict, including those who were displaced from their land. Its proposed scope is unprecedented: an estimated four million victims stand to receive reparations and 350,000 families are eligible to reclaim roughly five million acres of land.

The Victims Law has broad potential ramifications, given that the vague and contested property rights at the heart of Colombia’s conflict are hardly unique to that country. Land conflict plagues Brazil’s expanding agricultural frontier, the promotion of new settlements in Bolivia and Ecuador near indigenous communities, and the ongoing expropriations and land invasions in Chávez’s Venezuela. Peasants in Paraguay and Honduras are pressuring for redistribution and invading large estates with dubious ownership, resulting in threats and violence against activists.

The clear delineation and legalization of property is a first critical step governments can take to address these issues. Legalization helps prevent ownership disputes, and can also help lift farmers out of poverty by providing incentives to plant and invest in property and improving access to credit by creating a source of collateral. But legalization itself is not sufficient. Land ownership for victims of displacement or marginalized rural inhabitants is also an important part of the solution to the structural problems that produce insecurity in the countryside. Indeed, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest Colombian insurgent group, which is also involved in drug trafficking, has long staked their reputation on the promise of land reform. (The photo above shows relatives of people kidnapped by FARC at a demonstration in Bogota on April 4.)

Land distribution and titling under the Victims Law offers a way of undercutting the dynamics that give life to insurgent groups. At a speech to the first recipients of land under the new law in January, President Santos declared that the next wave of land reform will "steal the arguments of the insurgents" and eliminate the social grievances that sustain rebel recruitment and popular support.

We share Colombia’s optimism over the restitution program but also caution that past experience should serve as a guidepost for the present. Colombia’s history with land reform is politically fraught. A large titling program in the 1960s stalled and was implemented broadly only in a few concentrated areas. Later resistance and counter-reforms by large landholders and paramilitary groups who displaced peasants from their land contributed to the current demand for reparations.

Research that we have conducted on how land reform affected insurgent activities at the municipal level from 1960-2000 indicates that in most areas of Colombia land reforms did not temper the insurgency. Instead they had the opposite effect, exacerbating disputes and grievances over plots. Only in a few key zones with massive amounts of titling and continuous state support were land disputes more resolutely settled and support for insurgents depressed. These successful zones only constituted about 5 percent of all of Colombia’s municipalities. In other words, stealing the arguments of the insurgents will not be easy.

Colombian leaders are certainly aware that the restitution of land to so many victims will face a variety of technical, bureaucratic, and political obstacles. Even with recent security gains and successful operations against insurgent and criminal groups, threats to the land program are no secret. Several prominent land advocates have already been murdered by counter-reform criminal bands and large landholders.

Latin America’s progress will be deservedly trumpeted at the summit. Yet key challenges remain in confronting a steep legacy of conflict, inequality, and entrenched elite interests. With the Victims Law, Colombia is striving to set an example of a path forward. A successful land policy has the potential to give common citizens a leg up and improve security in Colombians’ daily lives. It may also have positive repercussions throughout the region both as a model of good governance and because it holds the promise of uprooting the drug problems that sow discord throughout the region. With so much at stake for the region and with billions of dollars of U.S. aid invested in Colombia, we hope that President Obama and his Latin American counterparts will provide strong support for Colombia’s reform efforts.

Oliver Kaplan is an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves. Twitter: @oliverkaplan

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.