Learning lessons on land grabbing and agrarian reform in Colombia

Source: Learning lessons on land grabbing and agrarian reform in Colombia | zimbabweland

This blogpost shares some commentaries emerging from the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing held in Bogota in March (see this IDS news article). All have relevance to the wider debate about land and agrarian reform, including in Zimbabwe.

I start with an article I wrote with Angela Serrano for openDemocracy, which was titled, A new and silent land grab is underway – we must stop it. We open with the following:

“As recently as 15 years ago, large-scale land grabs regularly made headlines around the world, as wealthy governments bought up fertile fields in poorer countries to grow and export produce to feed their own populations. This was part of a trend that has seen 30 million hectares of agricultural land sold off around the world since the early 2000s, according to the Land Matrix, an independent monitoring initiative that tracks land deals across the world. But these spectacular state-led land grabs appear to have now been replaced by silent, often small and incremental forms of expropriation, where capital extends its frontier for either expanding agricultural estates, conservation areas, carbon investments and energy projects. Against this background, land struggles are playing out across the world.”

Salena Tramel wrote two excellent articles on the conference – 5 Things to Know About the Global Land Rush and How to Stop It and How to Resist the Expanding Global Land Grab. She highlights in particular the surge of ‘green’ and ‘blue grabs’, suggesting that “Climate politics signify the perfect storm”:

“Green and blue grabs—the idea of “selling nature to save it”—masquerade as a solution to the climate crisis and have resulted in an advanced surge of extraction, commodification, and financialization of nature. Such initiatives have brought new actors to the scene of the extractive economy, some of whom initially opposed it, in a vastly complicated alliance.”

But there is hope, she argues:

“But against all odds, and frequently faced with great danger, social movements are winning struggles for territory. This work occurs in sophisticated alliances that straddle local, national, and international organizing efforts. Colombia was selected as the host country for the gathering against land grabbing precisely for these reasons, with hopes that bearing witness to the history being written there could inspire political gains elsewhere….. Social movements are building strong convergences with politically aligned scholars and policymakers to prepare for the next phases of their still-uphill battle against the land rush—not only in Colombia, but around the world.”

From land grabs to agrarian reform

Sylvia Kay from the Transnational Institute reflects on the findings of the conference, in an article: “Tackling Inequality through Land Redistribution: Lessons from Colombia“. She argues:

It’s time for an emancipatory land politics that puts land into the hands of small-scale food producers and places indigenous peoples on centre stage. Colombia’s approach may show how to tackle growing inequality through land redistribution?”

The importance of land redistribution as part of wider agrarian reforms was a running theme through the conference. The last blog reported on a dialogue session on this theme, where we explored the experiences of about 20 countries. As the recent IPES-Food report, Land Squeeze, highlights, land inequalities distort our food systems and undermine the livelihoods of many.

Follow the money

Another article from Caroline Cornier of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester reflects on the conference findings. She highlights the recurrent theme of ‘following the money’ in studies of land grabbing, highlighting a number of interesting sessions of ‘financialisation’, as land becomes ‘the new gold’. She recalls how

“…..Ruth Hall, from the University of Western Cape, declared that given the all-encompassing nature of today’s financial sector adequately tackling land grabbing demanded to become ‘better economists’. In particular, PhD students and younger scholars met this demand by contributing fresh perspectives on the new prominence of finance in rural development in the Global North and China. For example, Alex Heffron from Lancaster University examined new, financialised enclosures of Welsh sheep farms for carbon credit procuring timber production. Katherine Aske, from the University of British Columbia, highlighted the increasing distress and isolation of Canadian grain farmers given capital needs and over-indebtedness. And Madeleine Fairbairn, from the University of California, Santa Cruz , showcased the financialisation of American farmland, which is now available for purchase based on crowdfunding schemes open to anyone.”

Field experiences

Following the conference, as several of the articles in this compilation mention, some of us visited a number of land reform sites. In addition to The Campesino Reserve Zone in the Venecia highlands mentioned in the openDemocracy and TNI pieces, we also visited another land reform project, formerly the home of a narco drug baron, which had been appropriated and redistributed by the state after his conviction. This short video from Jovie Paredes of Erasmus University tells the story (and this post reflects on her experiences as a comms professional).

Ruth Hall and Ayanda Madlala from PLAAS in South Africa reflect on the experience of the visit from a southern African perspective in a blog titled, Colombia’s expropriation without compensation and lessons from South Africa. They conclude:

“There are things South Africa and other countries would do well to learn from the Colombians, and that is the leadership and impetus from the executive to drive a people’s reform, with a mandate to officials to move with speed, decisively, and in the interests of the landless. These are officials who got the memo that they are no longer there to defend privilege but to bring about social justice. There’s a stark line in unequal countries such as ours, and fence-sitting and state prevarication only defers the social and political necessity of reform.”

Lesson learning in the build-up to ICARRD 2026

The conference was an important moment for sharing experiences between academics, activists and policymakers from across the world. But it was perhaps the field visits where the greatest learning took place. Some years ago there was a flurry of comparative lesson-learning exchanges across land reform experiences globally. All had their agendas. Some were pushing the ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ model, while others insisted on a more radical redistributive reform.

Yet such opportunities fostered debate and created networks. Lessons from Latin America, including Colombia, are important for southern Africa where similarly stark land inequalities exist. Some of Zimbabwe’s experience was shared at the conference, but I think more global South-South sharing is needed around this crucial issue, especially in the build-up to ICARRD (the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development), which will be hosted by Colombia and Brazil in collaboration with FAO in 2026.

Image credit: Federico ‘Boy’ Dominguez: www.peasantjournal.org/gallery/.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland