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Rights in the Time of Populism: Land and Institutional Change Amid the Reemergence of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in Colombia

  • Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular


In Colombia, right-wing leadership returned to power after winning the presidential elections in 2018 in a campaign in which they opposed the previous government, primarily because of the negotiations and peacemaking with the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo ‘Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia—People’s Army’), Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization. Globally, there is a vibrant academic debate about how to characterize the current rise of right-wing populism or authoritarianism, but more profound insights from each country’s situation and its political economy implications are needed. The victory in Colombia was due to numerous factors, including the support from some rural elites who have historically obstructed the enforcement of redistributive land policies. However, the populist aspirations of the right-wing government have been persistently frustrated not only by social unrest and political mobilization but also because of the enforcement of institutions previously incorporated into the country’s political scenario. Specifically, in terms of agrarian political economy, two sets of human rights-oriented institutional changes are relevant regarding this matter: (a) the Land Restitution Law enacted in 2011 and (b) the Comprehensive Rural Reform contained in the Agrarian Chapter of the Peace Agreement between the national government and the FARC-EP in 2016. The purpose of this paper is to ground the ongoing theoretical and political debate about the rise of different forms of populism and right-wing authoritarianism in the current Colombian political context, and its implications on the countryside. The analytical contribution of this paper is twofold: On the one hand, I propose an alternative for explaining the nature of the current political regime in Colombia as right-wing authoritarianism; on the other hand, I analyze some features of such regimes in terms of its disputes with the enforcement of human rights-oriented institutions, that are in force as the result of political processes triggered by peasants’ mobilization.
Rights in the Time of Populism: Land and
Institutional Change Amid the Reemergence of
Right-Wing Authoritarianism in Colombia
Sergio Coronado 1, 2,
1Otto-Suhr-Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität—Berlin. Ihnestr. 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany;
2Political Ecology Research Group, the International Institute of Social Studies, Kortenaerkade 12,
2518 AX The Hague, The Netherlands
Associated Researcher at Cinep/PPP, BogotáCra 5 No. 33B-02, Colombia.
Received: 19 June 2019; Accepted: 27 July 2019; Published: 31 July 2019
In Colombia, right-wing leadership returned to power after winning the presidential
elections in 2018 in a campaign in which they opposed the previous government, primarily
because of the negotiations and peacemaking with the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
de Colombia—Ej
rcito del Pueblo ‘Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia—People’s Army’),
Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization. Globally, there is a vibrant academic debate about how
to characterize the current rise of right-wing populism or authoritarianism, but more profound
insights from each country’s situation and its political economy implications are needed. The victory
in Colombia was due to numerous factors, including the support from some rural elites who
have historically obstructed the enforcement of redistributive land policies. However, the populist
aspirations of the right-wing government have been persistently frustrated not only by social unrest
and political mobilization but also because of the enforcement of institutions previously incorporated
into the country’s political scenario. Specifically, in terms of agrarian political economy, two sets of
human rights-oriented institutional changes are relevant regarding thismatter: (a) the Land Restitution
Law enacted in 2011 and (b) the Comprehensive Rural Reform contained in the Agrarian Chapter
of the Peace Agreement between the national government and the FARC-EP in 2016. The purpose
of this paper is to ground the ongoing theoretical and political debate about the rise of dierent
forms of populism and right-wing authoritarianism in the current Colombian political context, and
its implications on the countryside. The analytical contribution of this paper is twofold: On the one
hand, I propose an alternative for explaining the nature of the current political regime in Colombia as
right-wing authoritarianism; on the other hand, I analyze some features of such regimes in terms of
its disputes with the enforcement of human rights-oriented institutions, that are in force as the result
of political processes triggered by peasants’ mobilization.
authoritarianism; populism; institutional change; agrarian policies; human rights; land
restitution; peace agreement; rural politics; Colombia
1. Introduction
The rise of dierent forms of populists and authoritarian political projects across the world is
defying democratic systems and institutions while raising critical questions regarding the causes and
implications of this political phenomenon in current times. Currently, there is a broad academic and
political debate around how accurate it is to consider divergent and uneven political situations
as “populist.” In the political field, a broad range of actors—from traditional parties to social
Land 2019,8, 119; doi:10.3390/land8080119
Land 2019,8, 119 2 of 20
movements—have expressed their concern regarding the rise of populist projects, particularly
right-winged, that are threatening democratic pillars and institutions, such as the separation of
powers and multilateralism. For instance, on the one hand, during the European elections in 2019, there
was an enormous concern among traditional political actors around how much support was likely
to gain right-wing political parties such as ‘Vox’ in Spain or ‘Alliance für Deutschland’ in Germany.
In January 2019, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that “that the rise of right-wing populist
parties in Europe was “a poison” and that nationalist policies risked fracturing international ties”
In such a context, one of the key questions was around their capacity for undermining multilateral
European Union institutions from within2. On the other hand, agrarian social movements as “La Via
Campesina” have alerted about the risk of the rise of right-wing populism and its impacts on migrant
and refugee policies and the violation of human and environmental rights of indigenous and peasants
in countries under right-wing populist regimes as Bolsonaro’s Brazil3.
In the academic field, dierent scholars have reflected and debated around the current political
momentum. Drawing on early conceptualizations from scholars as Stuart Hall and Chantal Moue,
academics have debated a trying to grasp an understanding of the current rise of populism. As a part
of such a debate, Scoones et. al, considered some features of authoritarian populism for analyzing
the linkages, roots, and contestation of such a phenomena in the rural world, including “the embrace
of nationalism [
. . .
]; highly contested national elections, resonant with broad-brush appeals to ‘the
people’, in which candidates are rewarded for ‘strong man’ talk that pits insiders against outsiders
of dierent colors, religions and origins; growing concern over the ‘mobile poor’, including refugees
and migrants whose presence seems to threaten a shrinking resource base; appeals for security at the
expense of civil liberties; a concerted push to increase extractive capitalism at all costs; and, finally,
a radical undermining of the state’s ability to support the full range of citizens, while utilizing state
powers to increase surplus for a minority” ([
], p. 1). While some consider accurate to draw on Hall’s
concept of authoritarian populism, others argue that using such notion is a misunderstanding of Hall’s
original proposition, because it was coined for denoting the ideological consent around neoliberalism
during the 1980s [
]. Furthermore, critical discussions have emerged, for instance, regarding the
causes behind populisms’ episodic character, whether such character relates to its ambivalent positions
towards institutions, or its relationship with capitalism’s cyclical crises, among other topics [3].
Although he uses of both the concept and its theoretical assumptions has been highly debated,
the gravity and the fragility of the political momentum has not, as well as the urgency to deliver more
in-depth analysis for understanding its entanglements and outcomes. Scholars have drawn on such
debate for developing notions that are useful for analyzing each country’s political momentum. Such
concepts include ‘authoritarian corpopulism’, for highlighting the interconnections of agribusiness
corporations with the state and the elites amid the rise of conservative politicians in Guatemala [
‘right-wing populism’ for distinguish it as a “regressive, conservative or reactionary type of populism
that promotes or defends capitalism in the name of the people; in its current manifestation, it is also
xenophobic, nationalist, racist, and/or misogynistic” ([
], p. 3), or for stressing its particular appeal
to the—white and Christian—people to engage against both elites acting from above and parasites
from below in the current political scenario in the United States [
]. Therefore, although the notion
of authoritarian populism is useful as an overarching concept for raising the attention of the current
political momentum and some of its features beyond countries’ borders, it also results clear that each
42292865 (accessed on 19 July 2019).
For more insights about populism within the current European situation see:
world/europe/european-parliament-elections- populists.html; and
european-parliament-elections-and-the-populist-threat-to-the- eu (accessed on 19 July 2019).
See: 340-organizations-call-on-the-eu-to-immediatly-halt-trade-negotiations-with-
brazil/(accessed on 19 July 2019).
Land 2019,8, 119 3 of 20
regional and national political process challenges this notion, creating space for developing more
precise concepts for guiding better the analysis.
Across regional contexts, populism is associated with multiple and even divergent meanings.
However, it could be stated that, compared with previous periods, such a concept is currently charged
with negative perceptions [6].
Two additional elements should be considered a political project as populist. On the one hand,
populism is referring to a situation in which a government or a political project claims to represent
the vast majorities of a countries’ population. Such situation converges with the massive support
of the electors to that political project [
]. On the other hand, populism is usually associated to a
political scenario on which democratic institutions, namely the independence and autonomy of state
branches, the guard of fundamental rights and liberties and the protection of political minorities
through democratic channels, are threatened by the rise of a government that shows little respect
to those principles arguing the need for overcoming crisis. In these situations, populism is usually
conflated with authoritarianism, and the human rights international infrastructure becomes crucial for
confronting them [8].
The insights of the debate mentioned above should not be considered as a check-list for identifying
an authoritarian populist political project, but to identify relevant aspects for addressing the questions
that need to be raised for grasping an understanding about how these projects are gaining support by
dierent groups within a society, how progressive and democratic forces are confronting them, and
what are its multiple relations with the rural world.
The purpose of this paper is to ground the ongoing theoretical and political debate about the rise of
dierent forms of populism and right-wing authoritarianism in the current Colombian political context,
and its implications on the countryside. The analysis of contemporary rural politics in Colombia
is one of the best ways for grounding both political and theoretical debates. On the one hand, the
presidential elections of 2018 gave the victory to the candidate appointed by the right-wing populist
lvaro Uribe, who counted with vigorous support from dierent regional rural elites. On the
other hand, and partly because of the peace agreement signed between the national government and the
FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ej
rcito del Pueblo ‘Armed Revolutionary
Forces of Colombia—People’s Army’), the country is undergoing a transitional scenario on which the
enforcement of reforms on land policies, that follows a human-rights approach, is one of the pillars
of the peacebuilding process. For addressing the purpose of the paper, I will focus on the disputes
between the enforcement of those reforms and the current right-wing government.
Substantial obstacles impede considering the current government in Colombia as right-wing
populism. Despite meeting some of the criteria mentioned above, the notion of populism in the Latin
American context is historically loaded. Populism was a widespread and contested concept within
scholarship for analyzing the rise of charismatic leaderships that gained political power at for from the
1940s until 1960s in such region. Later, it was also used for considering a second wave of populists at
the end of the 20th century, and more recently it has been used for labeling the left-wing ‘pink-tide’
governments [
]. After analyzing the scholar debate about this notion in Latin America, Wydeland
defined a populism as: “an individual leader seeks or exercises government power based on support
from large numbers of followers” ([7], p.12).
In the absence of both massive popular support, and of a solid multi-class nationalist alliance,
the current Colombian government does not make a case as populist, particularly compared with the
presidential mandate of the charismatic leader
ribe (2002–2006 and 2006–2010). Therefore,
in the absence of a better term, I consider the current political scenario in Colombia adjusts better to
the concept of right-wing authoritarianism. Grounded in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, and
following the pioneer work of Adorno and Horkheimer on this matter [
], authoritarianism and
right-wing authoritarianism are terms widely used within psychology scholarship, mainly for studying
preferences and behaviors of individuals regarding traditional values, authoritarian submission, and
prejudices [
]. Moreover, the term has also been used for describing and analyzing political regimes.
Land 2019,8, 119 4 of 20
Altemeyer considers that the primary dierence between right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism
does not rely on the political orientation of a given regime (conservative or leftist) but instead depends
on the kind of the authority that is followed by a constituency of citizens. Accordingly, the former
occurs when those authorities represent the status quo of a society; meanwhile, the latter takes place
when those authorities aim to overthrow the establishment [
]. Other characteristics of right-wing
authoritarianism includes an excessive use of force and political repression as a means to deal with
democratic challengers and opposition, exacerbation of nationalism, deprivation of civil liberties, and
attempts to concentrate and centralize political power [
]. Besides those generic features, there are
aspects of such a regime and its interaction with rural politics that will be explored in the analytical
part of this paper.
For the analysis of the rural politics I consider peasants’ agency, as a factor that has triggered
human rights–oriented institutional changes regarding property rights. Peasants movements in
Colombia could not be considered as a uniform social actor. Their demands have changed over
time influenced by the dynamics of agrarian change, political violence, and the state-society relation.
For this paper, I consider mainly the movements grouped in the coalition entitled “Cumbre Agraria,
tnica y Popular.” Such coalition reunites dierent members of La Via Campesina in
Colombia, alongside with indigenous peoples’, afro-descendant, and rural women organizations.
Their central demands encompass the enforcement of redistributive land reform, the fulfillment of
human and social rights for all rural dwellers, claims towards the recognition of the peasantry as a
political actor, anti-extractivism, and the protection of dierent forms of territorial rights as a means for
achieving higher levels of autonomy and self-determination [14]
In the time of populism, where dierent political projects that could be characterized as such are
gaining terrain, or at least have the aspirations of becoming so, human rights-oriented institutions could
play a critical role in terms of contention of their consolidation. By human rights-oriented institutions, I
mean the result of the political processes through which existing institutions are adjusted and adapted,
or new institutions are created for meeting human rights protection and realization standards allocated
within a human rights instruments, and frameworks developed both the international and the national
levels. In some cases, such processes include social movements’ strategies for creating human rights at
the global scale [
] and their eorts for extending their implementation to the national level through
various means: judicial claims, legislative advocacy and several protests’ repertoires, as dierent
peasants’ movements have done with claims over the fulfillment of the right to food, and subsequently
demanding access and eective control over rural lands [16].
A human rights approach in terms of democratic land access and control implies that state
actors must engage with “respecting and protecting existing democratic access to land where it exists,
promoting redistribution of access to land where it is required, and restoring lost land access and
control where it is demanded, correspond to the state’s three core human rights obligations (respect,
protect, and fulfill)” ([17], p. 68).
Although they have experienced a protracted and profound process of institutionalization,
human rights must not be understood in apolitical or ahistorical ways because they are the result
of dierent sort of social movements demands (including civil rights, workers, women, and
environmental). Despite its institutionalization, claims for their respect, protect, and fulfill by
social movements usually encompass demands for social justice. Despite its inclusion in national or
international legal frameworks, human rights and human rights oriented agrarian institutions are
neither self-interpreted nor self-implemented [
]. Social movements eorts towards human rights
fulfilment are usually counter-hegemonic [
], and therefore are a decisive tool for confronting populist
and authoritarian regimes.
This paper is mainly based on my PhD research about rural politics, peasant agency and
institutional change in the context of convergent transitions in the Colombian countryside. For this
paper, I am focusing on two reforms informing institutional change on property rights over rural lands:
Land Restitution Law and Comprehensive Rural Reform—contained in the Agrarian Chapter of the
Land 2019,8, 119 5 of 20
Peace Agreement. Those reforms are relevant in at least two ways for this paper: they are crucial in
terms of how the reemergence of right-wing authoritarianism is being contested, and they are the result
of political processes on which peasants’ agency played a pivotal role. Methodologically, I developed
a detailed observation and reconstruction of the political processes that gave birth to those reforms
within the period 2010–2019. Such reconstruction is based on dierent sources: press articles, policy
papers, public hearings, grey literature, legal documents, and judiciary rulings. The data collection
took place from December 2018 to July 2019. The analytical contribution of this paper is twofold:
one the one hand I propose an alternative for explaining the nature of the current political regime in
Colombia as right-wing authoritarianism; on the other hand, I analyze some features of such a regime
in terms of its disputes with the enforcement of human rights-oriented institutions, that are in force as
the result of political processes triggered by peasants’ mobilization.
After this theoretical introduction, I will oer some key elements of the national context of
Colombia for understanding the interaction between human rights, rural politics, and authoritarianism,
alongside with complementary theoretical insights. Subsequently, I will describe the political processes
that gave birth to such reforms. Afterwards, I will survey key features of the right-wing authoritarian
government and its eorts for eroding the human rights inspired institutional setting, as much as
its political economy implications. Finally, I will reflect on the paths and risks in terms of building
alternatives to the consolidation of authoritarian projects.
2. Human Rights, Rural Politics and Right-wing Authoritarianism in Contemporary Colombia
As mentioned before, populism is a familiar notion in the Latin American political scholarship.
After the first wave of populists’ governments of the 1940s and 1950s, the region experienced a second
period of charismatic leaders, usually known as ‘neopopulists’ as Fujimori in Per
and Uribe in
Colombia. In the 1990s and the 2000s, both presidents challenged the democratic setting of each country
and succeeded in prolonging their mandates beyond what each country’s constitutional framework
permitted. Both leaders counted on substantial support by electoral majorities, both enforced fierce
neoliberal reforms, and both left oce amid strong accusations of being responsible for massive human
rights violations amid each one’s crusade against terrorism. However, human rights institutions played
a crucial role in curbing their aspirations. In 2010, the Constitutional Court prevented Uribe’s attempt
for running for a third presidential election, while in Per
after his resignation in 2000, Fujimori faced a
protracted criminal trial around human rights violations charges and he was convicted and sentenced
to 25 years in prison. As in the cases of Fujimori and Uribe, there is an opposition between human
rights institutions and authoritarian or populist political projects, mainly because human rights usually
entail adequate limitations and inhibitions to the exercise of power. For instance, on the one hand, in
2019 the right-wing governments of Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay delivered a
statement demanding reforms within the Inter American Human Rights System, specifically in terms
of limiting the extent to which the jurisprudence of the Court influences rulings over other cases and to
limit the capacity of the International Entities to conduct subsidiary investigations regarding human
rights violations
. On the other hand, the left-wing populist president of Venezuela, Nicol
s Maduro,
denounced the “San Jos
Agreement” and by doing so the Inter American Human Rights Court lost
competence for addressing and ruling over human rights violations cases in this country5. Although
some claims made by authoritarian or populist heads of government regarding the role of multilateral
human rights institutions could resonate with some of the questions raised by scholars within critical
approaches as Marxism [
] or decolonial [
] theory; it is also true that social movements, including
The ocial statement is available at: de-embajadas- y-consulados/gobiernos-
de-argentina-brasil-chile-colombia-y-paraguay-se-manifiestan-sobre-el- sistema-interamericano- de-derechos-humanos?
ccm_paging_p=4(accessed on 20 July 2019).
az (accessed on 20 July 2019).
Land 2019,8, 119 6 of 20
those working for agrarian justice, have also use human rights framework and institutions for framing
their struggles [16].
Besides being relevant within criminal cases against neopopulists, human rights instruments are
also crucial for placing institutional changes and adjusting policymaking at several levels. In Colombia,
since the promulgation of the 1991 Constitution and its corresponding incorporation of a broad and
ambitious bill of rights, multiple formal institutions and policies have adapted to meet human rights
approaches. Some of these changes have taken place because of the development of the human-rights
jurisprudence by the Constitutional Court, while others have taken place at Congress. As a result, a
considerable amount of land and related agrarian policies are following a human rights approach.
For instance, on the one hand, the Constitution and the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court have
recognized territorial rights to indigenous and rural afro-descendant communities in Colombia, and in
many cases the protection of such rights have imposed eective limitations to state and private actors,
arguably blocking land commodification processes over those lands on which agrarian reform entities
and judges have entitled land and rights on behalf of these populations. On the other hand, agrarian
social movements have used human rights frames and institutions for contesting market-oriented
agrarian policies such as the 2007 Rural Development Statute. Such a legal framework was declared
unconstitutional because of the violation of ethnics’ groups to prior, free, and informed consent
rights regarding the enactment of such legislation [
]. Nevertheless, such processes do not occur
automatically. Instead, they are triggered by peasants’ movements, human rights defenders, and other
groups using their political agency.
I argue that some legal reforms introduced during the 2010s and the jurisprudence of the
Constitutional Court have introduced significant changes in the institutions of property rights over
rural lands in Colombia, undermining the dominant neoliberal approach introduced since the late 1980s
and the early 1990s. The 1994 Agrarian Reform Law consolidated the shift towards the market-assisted
agrarian reform, previously incorporated in the legal landscape in 1988. Since then, eciency
became the main criteria for granting and allocating land rights in the countryside, swapping out
the redistributive approach that marked previous eorts of state-led agrarian reform. Under such
schema, the allocation of property rights over rural lands is usually limited to formalization programs,
on which peasants or small-scale producers obtain a land title of the plot they are already farming,
regardless of subjective capacities for farming and objective inadequacy of the land plot for meeting
the needs of the household; such programs could be considered as “formalization in lieu of and/or
without redistribution” ([
], p. 68). Conversely, the legal reforms and the jurisprudence of the
Constitutional Court arguably have undermined eciency as the criteria for allocating property
rights in Colombia. Two legal reforms have brought back into the institutional setting restitution and
redistribution approaches as alternative criteria for granting property rights over rural lands: the 2011
Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive Rural Reform. To dierent extents, both frameworks
are the result of social movements’ demands, and both are influenced by human rights international
instruments and frameworks.
In Colombia, the right returned to power after winning the presidential elections of 2018 in a
campaign during which they opposed the previous government, primarily because of the negotiation
and peacemaking with the FARC-EP. Ivan Duque, the candidate of the Centro Democr
tico’s party won
the election in the ballotage with 54% of the votes. His victory responded to numerous factors, including
the support from some rural elites who have historically obstructed the enforcement of redistributive
land policies. In Colombia, regional rural elites could not be assumed as a homogeneous or indistinct
mass. Conversely, those groups are regionally dierentiated and have diverse interests regarding the
state and the structures of political and economic power. In this paper, I use the notion of rural elites for
addressing a specific type of these social actors that could be founded in several regions of Colombia,
particularly in those incorporated within the country’s agrarian border before the 1950s, namely areas
on which the settlement process was relatively stagnant at that period. Those rural elites reached their
dominant position by taking control over several aspects of the economic and political apparatus in
Land 2019,8, 119 7 of 20
their regions. For instance, in C
rdoba—a department located in the Caribbean region—the political
and economic power of those elites was enlarged because of the integration of emergent political and
economic forces based on cattle-ranching, commercial agriculture, and market [
]. One distinctive
characteristic of these regional elites is that their political and economic power mainly depends on their
capacity to concentrate property rights over rural lands. Historically, those rural elites played a critical
role in terms of blocking previous attempts for delivering redistributive agrarian reform. In 1973, an
alliance of rice-growers and cattle-ranchers promoted a legislative amend that eectively blocked the
enforcement of the 1961 and 1968 agrarian reforms laws [
]. Currently, the unions of cattle-ranchers
and oil-palmers are one of the sectors that have manifested their opposition to the enforcement of the
land restitution law and the Comprehensive Rural Reform, I will further develop such an argument.
Despite being driven by former president Uribe, a popular leader, Centro Democr
government could not be entirely considered as populist, mainly because of the lack of massive
popular support. Compared with the electoral results achieved by Uribe presidential campaigns in the
2000s, president Duque lacks popularity, as proved by dierent surveys
. Furthermore, the strong
opposition of various political actors impedes him to count with the majorities in Congress, while
the High Courts have proved their independence by ruling contrarily to government aspirations
Notwithstanding the lack of popular support, Duque’s government is increasingly turning authoritarian,
among multiple reasons, by not-enforcing key parts of the agreements signed with the FARC-EP,
and by rolling-back the enforcement of the human rights-oriented institutions in the agrarian field
enumerated above.
3. Human Rights-oriented Institutional Change in the Agrarian Field
Colombia is an exceptional case for analyzing the tensions between the rise of political populists
or authoritarian political projects, the enforcement of human rights-oriented institutions and its
implications in the countryside. Compared with other countries of the region, Colombia counts with
relatively stable political institutions: presidential and legislative elections are carried out every four
years, diverse political groups participate in such elections and, even in some cases alternative forces
have gained regional elections. Despite eorts towards peacebuilding violence continues to be an
overarching element of the Colombian political system. Besides the peace agreement signed in 2016
with the FARC-EP, the Colombian government facilitated the demobilization of paramilitary groups
in the mid-2000s and during the late 1980s and early 1990s developed peace negotiation with other
leftist insurgencies. The Constitution of 1991 is a landmark in this regard, not only because of the
significant participation of non-bipartisan political forces, including former guerrilla leaders, and
indigenous peoples’ representatives; but also, because of the inclusion of a comprehensive bill of
rights. However, the human rights-centered institutional framework has had little impact in terms of
land access and redistribution. Attempts for enforcing redistributive land reforms were frustrated
by some rural landowning elites during the second half of the 20th century, while the market-led
In February 2019, amid a verbal confrontation with Venezuela’s president Nicol
s Maduro and after a terrorist attack
perpetrated by the Ej
rcito de Liberaci
n Nacional—ELN, President Duque’s popularity reached the highest point with 42,7%
See: duque-en- febrero-encuesta-invamer-327284
(accessed on 20 July 2019). However, such a situation turned unendurable, according to the most recent YanHaas poll, in
June 2019 President Duque’s approval dropped down to 28%, while 68% of the population disapproves his performance.
See: de-los- colombianos-desaprueban- la-gestion- del-presidente-duque-
segun-encuesta-yanhaas-articulo-866957 (accessed on 20 July 2019).
During his first year of government, President Duque attempted to modify the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Justicia Especial
para la Paz—JEP, the transitional justice system agreed with the FARC-EP as a pillar of the peace accord), by objecting the
statutory law enacted by the Congress. According to the constitutional procedure, the Congress must consider the presidential
objections and vote over them and remit them again the Constitutional Court for its final constitutional examination. Neither
the Congress nor the Court endorsed the presidential objections and after a long political and legal debate, the President
enacted the original version of the statutory law. For a detailed analysis on this matter see:
litigation/los-argumentos-sobre-las-objeciones- presidenciales-que- presento-rodrigo-uprimny-ante-el-congreso/(accessed
on 20 July 2019)
Land 2019,8, 119 8 of 20
agrarian reform of 1994 has failed in terms of securing access to credit to poor peasants, and avoiding
land prices’ distortions [
]. The concentration of rural lands numbered with a Gini index of 0.88 [
and such inequality fuels rural violence in multiple ways. Eorts towards rural democratization and
peacebuilding enabled the environment for the development of two significant institutional changes in
the agrarian field during the 2010s, and such transitions are also attempting to overcome a well-founded
anti-peasant bias in agrarian policymaking.
In Colombia, formal agrarian institutions have historically favored the interests of rural land
owning elites by enabling and legalizing the process of land concentration, leading towards a higher
concentration of wealth and political power on their behalf [
]. Since the late 1980s and during the
1990s, rural policies experienced a neoliberal shift, and consequently, the agrarian law introduced a
market-oriented land reform paradigm, fostering a ‘conservative modernization’ of the agricultural
production. Although the privileges of large-scale landowners remained unaltered, the new policy
largely favored agribusiness, by prioritizing public support to large-scale investors in terms of
facilitating their access to land, resources, and credit while threatening livelihoods of small-scale
farmers and peasants [24,28,29].
Besides the neoliberal shift on agrarian policies, other kinds of changes within this institutional
setting have also taken place, especially after the promulgation of the Constitution of 1991.
Such institutional changes are driven by social actors struggling for alternatives on agricultural
and land policies, particularly in terms of demanding more democratic land distribution and the
promotion of alternative rural development models, besides large-scale agribusiness or cattle-ranching.
Furthermore, such transitions within the institutional framework are also boosting alternatives to
agro-extractivism and natural resources exploitation.
By institutional change, I mean relative stable shifts on the rules and procedures that structure the
interaction between social actors and with the state [
]. The sources of institutional change vary
from one context to others, but in this case, there are at least two relevant variables for analyzing how
these transformations are taking place. In the first place, substantial changes in the political context
may imply a shift of strategies within existing institutions. The new Constitution in 1991 delivered an
important process of democratization of the Colombian society. The new framework reinvigorated the
independence of the branches of the state, and the creation of the Constitutional Court and other human
rights entities encouraged the dissemination of human-rights instruments and approaches by social
and state actors. Within such a new constitutional framework, groups traditionally underrepresented
in the state structures found in the judiciary an opportunity for pursuing their demands. Specifically,
in the agrarian field, dierent studies demonstrate how peasant movements have channeled some
demands through legal and judiciary mechanisms, triggering institutional change [
]. Furthermore,
institutional change takes place when “political actors adjust their strategies to accommodate changes
in the institutions themselves” ([
], p. 17); besides the opportunities brought by the broad political
transition in the early 1990s, dierent actors struggled to accommodate changes within the institutional
agrarian setting. The approval of the land restitution policy by Congress in 2011 is arguably one
of the changes illustrating such a situation. However, it is substantial to keep in mind that pieces
of legislation are not institutions themselves. The articulation and enforcement of the legal reforms
analyzed in this paper are indicating a broader process of institutional change regarding property
rights over rural lands, through which eciency is challenged as the criteria for defining land rights
allocation and granting.
One distinctive characteristic, if not the most important, of this kind of change is the progressive
incorporation of human rights instruments and approaches into the transformed institutions.
The relevance of the human rights approach relies on the fact that it facilitates the articulation
of institutional change with the social mobilization claiming democratic access and control over land
and other natural resources. In this sense, the transformation of agrarian institutions is articulated with
broader agrarian justice goals, such as the enforcement of land policies with a clear bias favoring the
rural poor, the protection of existing land rights and the enforcement of redistributive land policies [
Land 2019,8, 119 9 of 20
Those features are at the core of the dispute between the right-wing authoritarian government and
social actors pushing forward the impacts of institutional change, and these disputes also could be
translated into a political economy perspective, as much as these changes facilitate shifts on the access
and control over land and natural resources from powerful to powerless actors. Subsequently, I will
explore two reforms informing institutional changes on property rights over rural lands in Colombia:
(a) the reform of the agrarian legal framework carried out by the approval of the land restitution law in
2011 and (b) the reforms included in the Agrarian Chapter of the 2016 peace agreement between the
national government and the FARC-EP.
3.1. Legal Reforms: Land Restitution
How was the land restitution policy possible in a political context habitually closed for approving
reforms favoring the rights of dispossessed peasants? It is commonly assumed that the approval of
this policy responded mainly to the alliance between former president Santos with the Liberal Party
and, especially as a result of his commitment to making such reform possible. Quoting his own words:
“If this law is passed, being President has been worthwhile”
. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to
consider other crucial elements, usually blurred in the ocial narrative.
Before such presidential backing, human rights defenders and victims’ movements engaged in
attempts for creating a land restitution legal framework. After the demobilization of paramilitary
groups facilitated by the “Justice and Peace Law” enacted in 2005, human rights defenders and
social movements advocates insisted on the necessity of developing a complementary framework
for guaranteeing victims’ rights, particularly for those aected by forced displacement and land
dispossession. From 2006 until 2010, at least two attempts for having a statute for victims’ rights and
land restitution were frustrated by the majorities in Congress controlled by Uribe’s government [
Those attempts were steered by victims’ movements, peasants’ movements and human rights defenders.
They raised questions about the concept of restitution, what to restitute and how to do it, enabling the
approval of the law at the Congress in 2011 [37].
Therefore, the window of opportunity opened by president Santos hinged on previous attempts
from social actors for making such legal reform. The land restitution policy faced, and still faces, the
challenge of redressing the number of victims estimated at 6 million and restituting property rights
over an area calculated between 4 and 8 million hectares of land [
]. The legislative debate that took
place between 2010 and 2011 relied on the leadership of Santos’ government, and as a result, they
convinced skeptical political actors that previously opposed to the approval of such reform, while
other actors expressed their opposition to such legal framework, especially former president Uribe.
The legal framework consists of the Law 1448 of 2011 and two Legislative Decrees regulating
independent procedures for the restitution and reparation of indigenous and Afro-descendant victims,
the decrees 4633 and 4635 of 2011 respectively. These special decrees were also the result of ethnic
groups’ claims for expecting special procedures for the protection of their rights and were grounded
on the Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence on Free, Prior and Informed Consent—FPIC. The process
for obtaining the FPIC from the indigenous groups for the approval of this special decree is considered
as an outstanding example of how such endeavors could be carried out, and ended with innovative
formulas proposed by indigenous peoples’ representatives such as the recognition of land and territory
themselves as victims of the armed conflict [39].
However, the design of the land restitution law was not freed from the influences from rural
landowning elites who would be aected by its enforcement. Key land restitution provisions have
proved their limits for bringing power balance in existing asymmetrical relations. Moreover, the policy
has proved limitations in transforming the structures of rural land concentration in the Colombian
countryside. Such limits are explained at least at two levels. At the lawmaking level, the legal
8Own translation from the original quote in Spanish: “Si se aprueba esta ley habrávalido la pena ser presidente.” [35] n.p.
Land 2019,8, 119 10 of 20
framework included clauses for protecting the interests of some rural elites who may have benefited
from massive land dispossession and who had strong representation in Congress [
]. At the
enforcement level, the land restitution policy has faced enormous challenges in terms of aecting
large-scale landowners, agribusiness, or extractive industries [
]. However, the inclusion of those
safeguards was insucient for convincing the detractors of such an initiative, and both the enactment
and the enforcement of the land restitution policy rapidly became the sticking point between the new
opposition led by former president Uribe. I will be back to such tension afterward.
Although explaining the implementation of land restitution policy exceeds the goal of this paper,
it is worth mentioning that despite the contradictions mentioned above, the land restitution law is
still a landmark in the agrarian field in Colombia. During the first years, the land restitution judges
ruled in favor of the protection of territorial rights of indigenous communities aected by mining
concessions, in other cases, historical demands for the formalization of land rights of victims of forced
displacement where finally solved thanks to the intervention of the new state actors created by the legal
framework [
]. However, it is insucient for attending to the structural problems of the Colombian
countryside, particularly in terms of promoting a more democratic distribution of land among the
rural population.
The agrarian chapter of the peace agreement signed between the FARC-EP and the Colombian
government arguably addresses such problem more integrally. Furthermore, the prolongation of
the enforcement of land restitution policy is fully articulated and supported in the context of the
enforcement of the peace agreement. I will now provide a better understanding of the implications of
the agrarian chapter of the peace agreement.
3.2. Agrarian Institutions for Peacebuilding: Comprehensive Rural Reform
The peace agreement signed between the national government and the FARC-EP aims to exclude
violence as an overarching element of the Colombian political and economic systems. In Colombia,
the regimes of political and economic exclusion are supported by institutional and para-institutional
uses of violence; actors excluded from the political and economic system often draw upon violence
as a reaction to their situation; violence is used by the elite classes to impose particular development
models [
]; and at the regional level, violence is also an expression of the uneven state-building
process [45].
The protracted 53-years-old armed conflict is an expression of such overarching violence, although
it has been recently transformed because of recent peace negotiations between the national government
and the FARC-EP. Scholars from dierent stands agree that the agrarian problem is one of the core
causes and structural factors explaining not only the ignition but also the evolution, of the internal
armed conflict in Colombia [
]. Specifically, the FARC-EP found their territorial expansion and
founded social bases in areas of relatively recent border expansion, on which peasants expelled from
other regions more integrated to the agrarian markets, found shelter and protection from the economic
and social squeeze through their engagement, in some cases, as coca growers [
]. More recently,
the forced displacement and land dispossession executed mainly but not only by paramilitary forces,
or as a consequence of their territorial control in given regions, also had transformed the Colombian
countryside, favoring political and economic sectors that supported such illegal armies [42].
Despite such consensus, there are divergent and multiple explanations about the interaction
between the emergence and evolution of the armed conflict with the dynamics of the various
dimensions of the agrarian problem. While some explanations put more emphasis on land distribution
and inequality, arguing that such factor triggered and fueled armed insurgency in the countryside [
others place more emphasis on the fact that illegal armies fostered landed property accumulation as a
Land 2019,8, 119 11 of 20
safeguard of the illegal rents obtained through violent means and that also is an indicator of the state
incapacity to control illegal armed actors controlling drug-tracking [51]9.
Overall, there are four aspects that explain the complex interactions between the emergence and
evolution of the armed conflict and the agrarian problem. First, dierent kinds of unsolved land claims
and demands were channeled through violence. Since its foundation in 1964, the former FARC-EP
guerrilla demanded the enforcement of profound agrarian reform, through which large-scale land
properties should be redistributed among poor landless peasants or peasants that do not have access to
land to secure their livelihoods
. Secondly, the permanent expulsion of peasants from lands within the
agrarian frontier was crucial for the constitution and consolidation of guerrillas in border expansion
regions [
]. Thirdly, land purchasing and accumulation was used as a saving-fund for the investment
of the profits derived from illegal economies, particularly drug-tracking since the decade of the
1980s [
]. Such a process is an expression of "the co-optation of the paramilitaries forces by the
narco-bourgeoisie in the late 1990s. This allowed it to negotiate its incorporation into the political
elite and redefine its relationship with the state” ([
], p. 415). Fourthly, and linked with the previous
statement, a massive phenomenon of forced displacement and land dispossession occurred during the
intensification of the armed conflict. This lead toward a new process of land concentration favoring the
interests of large-scale landowners, agribusiness investors and cattle-ranchers and aected dierent
rural dwellers, mainly poor peasants. In the middle of the 1980s, the armed conflict experienced a
period of intensification of actions against civilian population. From 1988 to 1995, 7.5% of the total of
the peasant population was expelled from rural areas [
]. Therefore, violent and forced displacement
is one of the most prominent characteristics of the late stage of capital accumulation in Colombia.
Forced migration facilitated land grabbing, and this was accompanied by a “process of broaden and
deepening the capitalist ‘market-imperative’ in the agrarian sector” ([44], p. 329).
Besides of the rooted linkages between unsolved agrarian problems and the armed confrontation,
the evolution of the violence in Colombia shaped the performance of agrarian institutions and triggered
new cycles of land concentration. Law and legal institutions played dierent roles regarding each of the
previous interactions between the agrarian problem and the armed conflict in Colombia. In dierent
regional settings, notaries, governmental ocials and public authorities legalized land dispossession
wielded by armed groups, notably paramilitaries, by issuing land titles ignoring the legal frameworks
protecting peasants’ tenure rights [57,58].
Therefore, although many of the land conflicts implicating poor peasants’ claims over land rights
are linked with the long-standing land concentration process; currently, such disputes are also shaped
and triggered in relation with the most recent dynamics of the armed confrontation. The peace accord
signed between the FARC-EP and the National Government took into consideration, not only the
rooted agrarian origins of the armed confrontation, but also the dierent trajectories of interaction
between the agrarian problem and the violence, particularly the land dispossession suered by poor
peasants during the last periods of the armed conflict. Hence, this accord aims to attend the causes of
the armed confrontation to settle the basis for the construction of a durable peace with social justice [
The first part of the peace accord comprehends an ambitious program to transform the Colombian
rurality named “Comprehensive Rural Reform.” This new framework allocates transformations within
Although the latest dynamics of narco-trac are relevant to understand the most recent evolution of Colombian armed conflict
and its interaction with the agrarian problem since the middle 1980s, it results insucient for providing a comprehensive
explanation on the origin of rural insurgencies, dated at least 20 years before the incursion of narco-trac in the dynamics of
the armed conflict. Therefore, the interaction between the armed conflict and agrarian problem, including land concentration,
rural poverty and the presence of illicit crops also depends on distinct periods of the evolution the dynamics of the armed
conflict, the logic of territorial control deployed by armed actors and the degree of engagement with illicit economies [52].
In 1964, year of the foundation of the FARC-EP guerrilla, they launched their “Programa Agrario”—Agrarian Program.
The program is one of the foundational statements for understanding their position regarding the agrarian problem
and the underlying motivations of the armed unrest. The program was ratified and updated in 1993. See: https:
// conferencia/programa-agrario-de-los-guerrilleros-de-las- farc-ep.html (accessed on 28 February
Land 2019,8, 119 12 of 20
the agrarian institutions for addressing the underlying agrarian causes of the armed confrontation
related to rural poverty, including land concentration, among other issues. Such transformation is
intended to be carried out in three overarching ranges. The first refers to land formalization and
redistribution. The goal is to formalize, secure, and protect land rights, estimated at 7 million hectares,
to dierent kind of rural dwellers, focusing on poor peasants, but without excluding large-scale
landowners. Complementary, the agreement aims to distribute without price, through the constitution
of a “land fund," of 3 million hectares to landless peasants or to peasants that do not count with enough
land to generate a livelihood. This part also includes a highly ambitious program to update land
management institutions through the construction of a modern rural cadaster. The second part refers
to the implementation of programs of territorial development
. The third part includes national scope
policies to reinforce the transformation and modernization of the countryside
. Overall, one of the
goals of the agreement is to transform a “anti-peasant” bias of rural and agrarian policies enforced by
the Colombian State.
Secondly, the peace accord includes high-reaching policies regarding the transformation of the
approach to combat illicit crops, drug production, consumption, and narco-tracking. Concerning the
impacts of such change in the countryside, it is worth to mention that the accord includes transitional
policies to promote the substitution of illicit crops and the promotion of new economic activities for
the population engaged with illegal crops. Regarding land policies, it is expected that the replacement
of illegal crops will be accompanied with the formalization of land titles to peasants involved with the
transition into licit production; and that granting formal rights should encourage poor peasants to
abandon illicit activities. Although similar initiatives have been enforced in Colombia for more than
two decades, this is the first time that a substitution program counts with the support of FARC-EP, and
this could make an enormous dierence concerning previous programs [60].
The extent to which the implementation of the peace agreement would transform the current
agrarian structure and inhibit the emergence of new cycles of land grabbing is still unclear. However,
dierent actors expect significant benefits from the implementation of the agreement and the decrease
of violence in the countryside, particularly a capitalist expansion in expected because of the peace
agreement’ enforcement
. As mentioned before, one of the consequences of more than fifty years of
armed confrontation is that land remained concentrated because of the violence exerted against rural
dwellers. The armed conflict impacted and facilitated more land concentration in the already unequal
agrarian structure in Colombia. The institutions regulating land rights have changed as a consequence
of the land dispossession that took place during the armed conflict, particularly during the years of
most intensive victimization against the civilian population [58].
The enforcement of the peace agreement is by far the critical sticking point between the right-wing
authoritarian government and their counterparts. Since their victory in the 2016 peace referendum,
The goal of this programs is to focus State intervention in regions particularly aected by the armed confrontation with the
enforcement of development programs orientated towards the reconstruction of the productive forces and the revitalization
of the political life in given areas.
These policies comprehend the construction of rural infrastructure—roads, irrigation districts, housing and, electrification;
infrastructure for rural education (schools and high education centers), mechanisms to foster peasant’s access to credit and
rural banking, technical assistance for production and commercialization, and even the formalization of rural labor, among
other initiatives.
Multiple economic actors expect that agriculture production will grow in the years following the signature of the peace
agreement between the government and FARC-EP. Agricultural grow is expected to take place as the result of the enforcement
of the Comprehensive Rural Reform. According to the National Planning Department, during the years following the
peace agreement the agriculture is expected to grow over 1.2% to 1.4% in addition to the regular growth rate [
The implementation of the peace agreement should lead agriculture to grow and the improvement of the conditions for
farming, consequently land formalization and (re)distribution policies play a critical role in the accomplishment of such a
goal. However, it remains unclear the extent to which such enforcement will prioritize rural working classes. The first
decree enacted by the Government (Decreto 902 de 2017) for commencing the Comprehensive Rural Reform has been highly
criticized because it could entail the enforcement of land formalization policies without consideration of class dierences in
the countryside, by granting property rights over public lands to all kind of rural actors, including large-scale owners and
corporations [62].
Land 2019,8, 119 13 of 20
they insisted in the necessity of limiting the extent of the Comprehensive Rural Reform included in
the agrarian part of the peace agreement. Therefore, under the new government, the enforcement of
the accord is highly questioned. One element to consider in this regard are the mobilizations from
peasantry demanding the peace agreement’s implementation. In dierent regions of the country,
peasants have mobilized demanding the enforcement of specific agreements, particularly those around
the implementation of illegal crop substitution programs. Such mobilization is taking place in an
ongoing scenario towards the expansion of the Constitutional and human rights framework in Colombia
while challenging the right-wing authoritarian government.
4. Right-wing Authoritarianism and Its Disputes with Human-rights Oriented Institutions
As mentioned before, there is a robust debate around how to characterize the rise of multiple
and uneven political projects that are challenging institutional settings of contemporary democracies.
Despite the pertinence of this debate, characterizing the political momentum in Colombia became
a significant analytical challenge. On the one hand, the current Colombian government headed by
the Centro Democr
tico’s party commanded by former president Uribe is encouraged by the rise
of authoritarian populists in other countries of the Americas, as Bolsonaro in Brazil or Trump in
the United States. Their shared position on crucial topics such as the Venezuelan crisis, the reform
on the Inter-American Human Rights System, and their repressive approach criminalizing narcotics
consumption as an eective way to hamper narco-track, permit to consider the idea of a coordinated
action of a regional axis of authoritarian populists [
]. Therefore, the current Colombian government
needs to be analyzed in a relation of the regional context on which authoritarian populists have gained
control over several countries’ governments by electoral means.
On the other hand, considering this government as populist conveys a contradiction in terms,
because of several factors already explained. However, those before-mentioned populist frustrations
do not prevent this government from being considered as a case of right-wing authoritarianism.
Onwards, I will survey some of the particular characteristics of the current right-wing authoritarianism
in Colombia as follows, while analyzing key aspects of the disputes with institutional changes in the
agrarian field described above.
Dependent on an iron-fist figure
The current rise of the right-wing authoritarianism is explained by the protracted acceptation
lvaro Uribe. The Centro Democr
tico party was founded as a pole of opposition to president
Santos government, and particularly for hampering the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC-EP
guerrilla by competing in the legislative and presidential elections of 2014. Even though the name
of the party recalls the aliation to the political center, its statutes’ covers critical characteristics of a
conservative-populist movement. The party is well-founded on the charismatic figure of their leader.
The members of the party must adhere to the work and ideas of former president Uribe, while the
general statute grants him exclusive rights, including the right to be elected without restrictions at any
party’s committee, and the life right to preside the national convention and the national board of the
The victory of this party in the presidential election of 2018 is highly explained because of how
former president Uribe capitalized the opposition against Santos and particularly against the peace
agreement with FARC-EP. In 2016, an editorial of the New York Times appointed Uribe as “The man
blocking peace in Colombia”
. Even though the parts founded alternatives for overcoming such
blocking after the defeat the peace-plebiscite in October of that year, such election facilitated the
More information about the statutes of this political party and its ideology is available at
(accessed on 20 July 2019).
15 See: (accessed on 20 July 2019).
Land 2019,8, 119 14 of 20
re-accommodation of many political forces under the Uribe’s leadership, including some regional
rural elites, ultra-conservative religious groups, politicians formerly indicted for their linkages with
paramilitary groups, among other sectors. Such an alliance that also counted with the support of the
Conservative Party after the inclusion of their candidate as the vice-presidential formula gained victory
after a highly-contested election.
Combination of violence with formal respect to democratic institutions
One distinctive characteristic of the Colombian political regime is the paradoxical coexistence
of a relatively stable and competitive democratic system with high levels of violence and political
repression. Despite respecting the forms, institutions, and procedures governing the constitutional
democracy; the political system permitted in dierent degrees the privatization of security provision
with plausible eect in terms of widespread violence. Such a phenomenon has taken place in particular
periods, especially during the intensification of the armed conflict against civilians, primarily rural
population, from the middle 1990s until the end of the 2010s [64].
After the signature of the peace agreement with the FARC-EP guerrilla, the violence against
grassroots’ activists and social leaders and ex FARC-EP combatants have increased [
]. Although such
violence is not a new phenomenon, currently human rights defenders are dealing with risks wrought
under the new peacebuilding setup, especially in those regions on which its enforcement would entail
deep transformations. For instance, the risk is higher on areas on which the reincorporation of former
combatants into the democratic system dovetails challenges regarding shifts of peasant economies
highly dependent on coca production and retailing. As mentioned before, the agreement included
programs for facilitating the transition towards the legality of coca producers by transforming the
repressive/criminal approach for human rights-oriented policy. Such institutional change hinged
upon the prohibition of aerial aspersion with glyphosate ruled by the Constitutional Court in 2017.
Conversely, Duque’s government requested the Court, in a public hearing held in Bogota in March 2019,
to contradict their jurisprudence by allowing once more the use of this herbicide as a mean to control
the expansion of coca crops, opposing what was agreed on the peace accord
. The formal request of
the government to the Judiciary authority matched the escalation of political violence amid protests in
coca-producing regions, fueled by the lack of fulfillment of the government of the agreements signed
with peasants’ movements and build-up from the peace accord [66].
Disdain towards human rights frameworks and institutions
The Constitution of 1991 marked a landmark in terms of human rights promotion in Colombia.
The inclusion of a broader and more ambitious bill of rights, the creation of new state actors –such as
the Constitutional Court-, and new mechanisms for enhancing human rights’ protection, such as the
writ for the protection of fundamental rights (Acci
n de Tutela), enabled the environment for a new
period of engagement of landless peasants and rural workers with legal means, that resulted more
advantageous compared with the former constitutional framework. In some cases, the human rights
framework has imposed limits on the power of dominant actors while protecting the interests of the
rural poor through legal contention strategies [67,68].
While social movements attempt to expand human rights instruments by including new rights
and interpretations, right-wing authoritarianism engages in disputes against human rights institutions
and defenders. Populists and authoritarian actors often consider that there are too much liberty and
rights, and that is partly the explanation for the moral crisis that should be confronted with traditional
values restoration. Therefore, the human rights agenda is usually narrowed during these times [69].
Constitutional Court, Public Hearing held on March 12th of 2019 to follow the decisions of the Ruling T-236 de 2017. More
information on (Viewed 18 July 2019).
Land 2019,8, 119 15 of 20
During the first semester of 2019, a new cycle or rural politics took place on which the peasants’,
indigenous and afro-descendants movements mobilized across the country. Such mobilization, called
the “Minga,” demanded the government to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, approved in December 2018, and on which the
Colombian delegation voted negatively. After formal and informal requirements, President’s Duque
government reasserted their original position and refused to make public the substantive grounds for
such a decision.
Promotion of corporative agro-extractivism
The reemergence of the right-wing authoritarianism in Colombia is supported by a coalition of
dierent social actors and economic groups. Among such diversity, sectors engaged with deepening
and expanding agro-extractivism and natural resources exploitation are having strong representation
in the composition of the government. One of the explanations provided by scholars for analyzing the
dispute between Santos and Uribe refers to the tension between two dierent kinds of elites. On the
one hand, an entrepreneurial and centralist urban elite engaged with the process of modernization
of the country as a means for enabling the environment for capitalist development. On the other
hand, an amalgam of regional elites, usually land rentiers, controlling the structures of the state at the
regional level and highly reliant on large-scale landed property as a mean for ensuring political and
economic power. Although there are crucial controversies between them, there are also agreements.
Historically, the urban entrepreneurial elites have less hostile to redistributive agrarian reforms than
some regional rural elites. For the first group, the distribution of the access to land represents a minor
threat and an opportunity to expand the demand in the rural areas by creating income in those regions;
conversely, for some rural elites the enforcement of a redistributive land reform would impact their
share of political and economic power directly. However, both actors usually agree on a neoliberal
orientation of the economy, the privatization of public services, and other key political economy
areas, such as the necessity of expanding the mining and oiling frontier, regardless of the emergence
of socioenvironmental conflicts. While Uribe granted mining concessions over more than 8 million
hectares from 2002 until 2010, Santos expected the mining sector to be one of the drivers of economic
development from 2010 until 2018.
The agrarian problem is the crucial sticking point of the dispute between both elites. Designed
and approved during Santos Government, both the land restitution policy and the agrarian chapter of
the peace agreement are two landmark policies threatening the current dominant position of some
regional rural elites. Arguably, the first indicator of Santos’ treason (how the far-right baptized the
distance of Uribe’s former Minister) was the enactment of the Land Restitution and Victims Law
in 2011. Since its first year of enforcement, the far-right has distrusted the land restitution policy.
Legal and informal strategies have been enforced for diminishing the impacts of such institutional
change. At least in two legislative periods, congresspersons from the Centro Democr
tico party
have attempted to reform the land restitution policy, particularly regarding the bona fide principle.
According to this principle, administrative and judiciary authorities must presume the good faith of
the victims, while the opponents, meaning the persons owning, using or with the usufruct of the land
denounced as dispossessed by the victims, are in the obligation to prove that they acquire such rights
following due diligence. The enforcement of such principle aected members of some rural elites
that drove the land dispossession process or that bought ownership rights over dispossessed land
at low prices because of the depreciation of those actives. Their reaction did not remain at formal
channels. In 2016, amidst the appearance of threats against peasants demanding land restitution
by so-called “Anti-restitution Armies,” the former General Attorney, Alejandro Ord
ñez, and the
president of Cattle-Ranchers’ Federation, Jos
lix Lafaurie, conducted a public hearing held in one of
the most conflictive regions for the enforcement of this policy. They referred to the restitution as ‘the
first steps towards delivering the territorial control of the country to illegal armed actors’ ([
] n.p.).
After the victory of the presidential elections of 2018, the former General Attorney was appointed
Land 2019,8, 119 16 of 20
as Ambassador to the Organization of American States while the president of the cattle-ranchers’
federation was nominated by president Duque as a candidate for General Comptroller, although the
Congress finally selected another person. Furthermore, for the direction of the Land Restitution Unit,
president Duque appointed a former secretary-general of the oil palm federation. In the Urab
one of the most aected by land dispossession, land restitution judges ruled that 25 oil palm companies
could not prove due diligence and good faith regarding purchases of ownership rights over the lands
currently occupied with oil palm plantations [
]. The cattle-ranchers’ federation and the oil palm
growers guild are two representative actors that have often opposed against the implementation of the
analyzed reforms and that are an essential part of the constituency of the political forces supporting
the reemergence of right-wing authoritarianism in Colombia.
The right-wing authoritarian government also jeopardizes the enforcement of the agrarian chapter
of the peace agreement. The goal to formalize 7 million and distribute 3 million hectares of land to
the landless and nearly landless peasants depends on critical reforms that are not being suciently
enforced. Conversely, the agrarian agenda of the government encompasses legislative reforms on
the agrarian law, that not only impedes the enforcement of the peace agreement but roll-back a key
institution in the Colombian agrarian legal framework: the prohibition to grant ownership rights over
idle lands or ‘bald
os’ to subjects that are not considered as agrarian-reform beneficiaries in areas
exceeding 450 hectares [
]. This initiative enhances corporative control of the agricultural production
by granting agribusiness demands, while discouraging peasant agriculture, opposing what was agreed
on the peace accord: an inclusive rural development model for the coexistence of dierent modes of
agricultural production [72].
5. Conclusions
The reemergence of right-wing authoritarianism in Colombia could not be understood without
considering its relationship with the rise of far-right populists in the Americas, and to a global
momentum on which populists are increasingly gaining support amid multiple crises brought, among
other causes, by the failure of neoliberal policies. However, the current conditions of the Colombian
regime impede consider it as populist, mainly because of lacking massive popular support, particularly
compared with the backing towards former president Uribe in the 2000s. As an alternative, the current
government is considered in this paper as a case of right-wing authoritarianism.
I consider that human rights-oriented institutional changes in the agrarian field play a crucial role
in terms of confronting right-wing authoritarianism, specifically the institutional changes informed by
the land restitution policy enacted in 2011 and the peace agreement signed between the Colombian
state and the FARC-EP in 2016. Both processes convey alternatives to eciency as the primary criterion
for allocating property rights over rural lands in Colombia. Conversely, they introduced restitution
and redistribution criteria for defining who will be entitled with property rights over agricultural lands.
In the enforcement of such alternative standards, state actors are obliged to allocate property rights
over rural lands to subjects that could not be considered by the mainstream parameters as the most
ecient holders. Furthermore, restituting and redistributing property rights over rural lands could
aect directly the interest of some regional rural elites highly represented in the constituency of the
political project in power. Therefore, the disputes over the enforcement and the prolongation of these
reforms are at the core, not only of the current rural politics in Colombia but also in the rearrangement
and grouping of political forces confronting or supporting right-wing authoritarianism.
Those institutional changes are critical for addressing current conflicts over land in Colombia.
Both frameworks are the result of dierent process of engagement of dierent social actors such as
peasants’, victims’, and human rights defenders’ movements. By oering alternatives to the mainstream
neoliberal paradigm, the enforcement of both frameworks could trigger significant progress towards a
democratic distribution of land and progressive access and control of excluded rural poor to land rights.
Progressive political forces and social movements engage with those institutional transformations
because “broad policy paths can follow from institutional choices” ([
] p.22). For instance, a democratic
Land 2019,8, 119 17 of 20
and human rights-based solution for conflicts over land in Colombia can follow from the enforcement
of such institutional frameworks. The current disputes over these institutions convey on the one
side the defense deployed by social movements of those institutional changes, and on the opposite
the eorts of the right-wing authoritarian government for eroding and from preventing them from
being enforced.
In the time of populism, the dispute over those institutions is framed in a broader debate over the
capacity of the Rule of Law in terms of imposing eective inhibitions of the power of dominant groups
and the state [
]. Nor legal reforms nor institutional changes are sucient for the fulfillment of human
rights and the materialization of social justice goals. Disputes over the enforcement of such policies
and institutions turn even more sharp in the context of the re-emergence of right-wing authoritarian
political projects, that attempt to ignore what social movements and alternative political forces have
achieved through the deployment of their political agency.
Whereas significant institutional changes could facilitate the restitution and protection of land
rights, and encouraging democratic distribution and access to rural of the excluded rural population,
its limits emerge when authoritarian groups reach the control over the state. The evolution of these
disputes over institutions between the right-wing government and the social actors engaged with
these institutional frameworks is not only a matter of relevant scholar analysis but also a critical step
towards the construction of sustainable peace in Colombia.
This research on which this paper is based is possible thanks to the scholarship granted by “Brot für
die Welt” for doing my PhD Research in Social and Political Sciences at the Freie Universität-Berlin (2017–2021).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the ocial position of
any correspondent institution.
This paper is based on my Ph.D. research project, initiated in 2017. I want to thank the
guest editors for inviting to write this paper that is based on my dissertation, and that is bringing together
multiple reflections developed with scholar-activists across the world gathered at the Emancipatory Rural Politics
Initiative ( During the fieldwork
conducted in Colombia between December 2018 and April 2019 I discussed with scholars and activists several
ideas further developed in this paper. I want to express my gratitude to Alejandro Mantilla, who helped me to
frame better some of the notions exposed in this paper, and to Colleen O’ Brien for both editing and commenting
early versions of this manuscript. I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, as well as Sthandiwe Yeni, Deniz
Pelek and Ricado Jacobs for their valuable comments and for the time and patience they devoted to an early
version of this manuscript presented in the JPS Writeshop 2019.
Conflicts of Interest:
The author declares no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the
study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to
publish the results.
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... After the peace agreement between the state and the FARC in Colombia, the right-wing populist government has had difficulty enacting its agrarian political economy aspirations due to the existence of two legal pillars: the Land Restitution Law of 2011 and the Comprehensive Rural Reform included in the Peace Agreement of 2016. Coronado (133) argues that these institutional land and human rights have upheld alternatives to productivism (or "efficiency" as Coronado prefers) and property rights for rural lands. The United Nations' Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests (UN Tenure Guidelines) has similar potential for upholding land and environmental rights with sympathetic governments despite strong contestation by elites, corporate actors, and foreign investors. ...
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This review engages with literature on authoritarian populism, focusing specifically on its relationship to the environment. We analyze hybrid combinations of authoritarianism and populism to explore three themes from the literature: environmental governance, social and political representations of nature, and resistance. In the environmental governance section, we analyze how governments have increasingly resorted to populist politics to expand extractivism; certain commodities with national security implications have become key commodities to be protected; and borders, frontiers, and zones of inclusion/exclusion have become flash points. In the social and political representations of nature section, we analyze settler colonialism and sacrifice zones as organizing principles for relations with the environment. In our final section on resistance, we review literature highlighting pushback to authoritarian populism from peasant, indigenous, and worker movements. Variants of populism and authoritarianism are likely to persist amid increasing competition over resources as components of responses to environmental and climate crisis.
The politics of food, climate, energy, and the yet unfinished work of ending colonialism run square through questions of land. The classical agrarian question has taken on new forms, and a new intensity. We look at four dimensions of the agrarian question today: urbanization and labor; care and social reproduction; financialization and global food systems; and social movements. On this 50th anniversary of JPS, we as the journal's editors invite more research, vigorous debate, and scholar-activism on these issues in agrarian politics and beyond. We move into the journal’s next era hoping we might continue to better interpret the world in order to change it..
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Critical Agrarian Studies has three actual and aspirational interlocking features which together connect the worlds of academic research and practical politics: it is politically engaged, pluralist and internationalist. These features also defined the older generation of agrarian studies that gave birth to the Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS) 50 years ago, in 1973. Within a decade or so of the journal's inauguration, the agrarian world had been transformed radically amid neoliberal globalization. An altered world did not render agrarian studies less relevant; on the contrary, it has become even more so, but within a different context in which political engagement, pluralism and internationalism develop new meanings and manifest in new ways.
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How do human rights activists imagine transitional justice amid sociopolitical conflicts that surface after peace agreements? Since its inception in the 2016 peace accords, Colombia's renewed endeavor to come to terms with its violent past has been overshadowed by massive protests and political polarization. In this article, I argue that populism, defined as a grid of intelligibility to make sense of frustrated demands and engage in politics, can help us understand the protest discourses of human rights defenders on transitional justice as they emerge from experiences with political marginalization and broken state promises. Based on interviews during six months of fieldwork in different conflict-affected regions, I contend that human rights defenders imagine transitional justice in terms of a larger political struggle that exceeds justice for past atrocities and can be described through three tropes that both resound with and challenge populism debates: truth as the frontier of political confrontation with right-wing elites, the “rights-defending victim” as a form of popular subjectivity and political underdog, and liberal overhaul of corrupted democratic institutions. Conceptually, my reconstruction of activist discourses serves a two-fold purpose: it bridges debates on transitional justice and contentious politics, and constructively challenges the ostensible incompatibility of human rights and populism.
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Market-led agrarian reform (MLAR) has been conceptualized out of the pro-market critique of classic state-led agrarian reform. The pro-market model has been implemented in Brazil, Colombia and South Africa, where its proponents have claimed impressive success. But close examination of the empirical evidence puts into question the basic theoretical and policy assumptions and current claims of MLAR proponents. The same model is no more likely to work elsewhere.
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In the United States, right-wing populism is a major factor in national politics, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2015. Right-wing populism is defined by an appeal to ‘people’ (usually white, heterosexual Christians) to rebel – against both liberal ‘elites’ from above and ‘subversives’ and ‘parasites’ from below – by engaging in a hardline brand of conservative politics. There are a variety of right-wing populist political currents in the U.S. One of the most visible is the contemporary ‘Patriot’ movement, which is the successor to the Armed Citizens Militia movement which swept the across the nation in the 1990s. Today, the core Patriot movement groups are united by an interpretation of the Constitution that derides federal power (especially regarding environmental regulations, public lands, and progressive taxation) and advocates for a radical brand of right-wing decentralization. This opposition to federal government policies is framed in a way that inflames preexisting White, Christian nationalism (including anti-immigrant xenophobia and Islamophobia), as well as Christian Right support for patriarchy and opposition to LGBTQ rights.
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‘Authoritarian corpopulism’ relies on persuasion and selective violence, cloaked in the rule of law and backed by the state, to advance big business agriculture and resource extraction. Published in openDemocracy:
Parallels, resemblances, and interconnections between contemporary right‐wing populism and the populism of agrarian movements are examined in this essay. The two are partly linked through their social base in the countryside. This paper explores an agenda for political conversation and research on possible contributions to the twin efforts of splitting the ranks of right‐wing populists while expanding the united front of democratic challengers. The challenge is how to transform the identified interconnections into a left‐wing political project that can erode right‐wing populism. This requires a reclaiming of populism. In exploring this agenda, the paper revisits the ideas and practices of right‐wing populism and agrarian populism and the awkward overlaps and fundamental differences between them. It concludes with a discussion on the challenge of forging a reformulated class‐conscious left‐wing populism as a countercurrent to right‐wing populism, and as a possible political force against capitalism and towards a socialist future.