Dying while defending life II

Agriculture and territory: agro-industry, agrarian reform and land restitution

By Iván Beltrán

July 28th, 2021

Colombia is a country with a strong and thriving agricultural tradition. Historically, our economy has been driven by the boom of certain products such as rubber, sugar cane, coffee, flowers and, now, avocado. However, even with the importance of agriculture for the Colombian economy, there is a lack of state investment in the organisation and technification of small farmers. On the contrary, recent governments have opted to give significant amounts of money for the expansion of large (even illegal1) agricultural consortiums, relegating small producers to selling their products at cost price and competing in worse conditions with developed countries with which free-trade agreements have been signed since 20112.

Perhaps the most notorious cases of state neglect of the Colombian countryside are seen in remote regions of the departments of Cauca, Antioquia and Chocó. In these areas, the only profitable crop is still the coca plant due to the lack of infrastructure to grow and sell other products (e.g. access to roads, agricultural supplies, and internet), and the pressure from illegal groups on peasants and indigenous people to cultivate this plant, necessary to maintain the lucrative cocaine business. In this sense, the Peace Agreement was key in promoting a programme that provided support to farmers to replace their coca plantations with alternative crops, such as cocoa, banana and coffee. However, this programme was not well implemented. Worse still, many participants have been threatened, and in several cases killed3, by criminal organisations that profit from drug trafficking and continue to hinder the replacement of illicit crops at any cost.

What changed with the 2016 Peace Agreement?

The Peace Agreement brought a significant reduction in the number of victims of violence, provided alternatives for the incorporation of ex-guerrillas into society and generally gave us hope for an end of the conflict. However, the signing of the agreement also allowed other actors access to national territories that were previously under control of the FARC. These territories should be a fundamental axis in planning for the country's future economic and social development, as the FARC's withdrawal theoretically allows the government to exercise control over these territories. This, in turn, should bring economic and environmental benefits, such as agro-industrial technification, eco-tourism and the reduction of environmental damages caused by illicit crops. However, it seems that the absence of the FARC has resulted mostly in social unrest, where some producers have taken advantage of the absence of control - given that the national government continues to have no presence there - to open roads, cut down bush to make small plots and grazing areas, increasing the deforestation of key areas for national biodiversity4. However, this is not the main reason why Colombia is one of the countries with the fastest growing deforestation rates in the world5. The main drivers of deforestation are large-scale agro-industrial expansion interests, which, taking advantage of the lack of government presence, have taken over thousands of hectares of forests (see Box 1.).

Conflict over productive land and environmental destruction has intensified and local community leaders, mostly indigenous and peasant, have become targets for assassination and intimidation. Rural communities are among the most affected by these agro-industrial interests, as criminal gangs (most likely defending particular expansionist interests) have settled in regions where previously there was a strong presence of the FARC guerrilla.

Meta, Caquetá and Guaviare are the departments that have suffered the most from deforestation since the signing of the Peace Agreement, and are also regions of the country where several murders of environmental activists related to agro-business have been recorded. However, the result of Oigo Paz's research (using Indepaz database6) shows that the most affected departments are Cauca, Chocó and Antioquia (Figure 1). Our review of data on the killing of leaders is exhaustive, but it will never accurately capture the true dimension of the problem. The absence of comprehensive government records and the difficulty of recording (and verifying) cases of attacks on activists in remote areas of the country mean that the available figures are likely to be an underestimate. Moreover, the numbers and graphs fail to describe the real situation faced by environmental activists on a daily basis.

The same trend can be observed globally. After Colombia, the Philippines and Brazil are the most dangerous countries to be an environmental activist. According to a study by Global Witness7, the second most important cause of death of environmental activists is, after mining, agro-business: 34 victims in 2019 alone, which represents an increase of more than 60% compared to 2018. 

This is the situation of many peasants in Colombia, however, in other areas closer to the big cities, it is not very different. The lack of state vigilance and investment is largely responsible for the low productivity and technification of the Colombian countryside. Some of the various technologies and solutions that urgently need to be implemented include the extensive use of more efficient tractors and machinery, access to the internet, crop monitoring using satellite information and spectral images, the application of fertilisers, pesticides and seeds with precision, and the implementation of organised management programmes8. These measures will significantly increase farmers' productivity and profits by saving inputs and generating added value to commodities through ecological (e.g. environmental certifications) and/or industrial (e.g. packaging or new derivatives) processes.

Likewise, as Tatiana Orozco García (a fellow Oigo Paz author) previously showed in the article “Structural transformation of the countryside, a priority”9, inequality in land tenure in Colombia is very high. More than 50% of Colombian peasants do not own the land they work, which has remained virtually unchanged since the middle of the 20th century. The land is therefore in the hands of a few, and in many cases remains unproductive as the forest is cut down only to put a few cows on it10.

On the other hand, peasants, working land that is not theirs, produce a large percentage of the food consumed in the country. The profits derived from this production are limited by the payments due to the landowners, as well as by the low prices of their products, which are necessary to be able to compete with imported products sold by large chain stores. For this reason, the formalisation of land tenure and access to land, especially in areas that have been highly affected by the conflict, is of vital importance for the development of the Colombian countryside.

Leaders killed between 2016 and 2020 whose work was related to fighting against expansive agro-business, land restitution and the implementation of an agrarian reform.  The animation in the top left corner highlights the 5 most affected departments in this category. Finally, the bottom panel shows the number (and percentage) of leaders killed according to the social sector to which they belonged.

What are the solutions?

The first is to demand and verify the fulfilment of two very important programmes that were discussed in the 2016 Peace Agreement: (1) a solid and stable crop substitution programme that generates confidence in the farmer and economic results for the country and (2) a Comprehensive Rural Reform that guarantees the economic integration of poor rural communities through land titling and the extension of state services (e.g. road construction, technical advice, subsidies on inputs, etc.). 

For instance, the Congress of the Republic has until Sunday 20 June to ratify the “Especialidad agrícola” project, which seeks to balance the inequality in land use and land tenure relations. As citizens we must exert pressure and vigilance on the government in office and on the national control bodies for the implementation and correct fulfilment of these programmes. It is also our obligation to demand transparency from the next government regarding its position on the Peace Accords and clear actions for the defence and maintenance of social development programmes.

From the cities we can also support our farmers. Initiatives such as the “canastas campesinas” or “Compra lo nuestro” support the distribution of products produced in the country and increase the income of small and medium-sized Colombian entrepreneurs. This is not only good for the national economy but also for physical and environmental health, as it favours the consumption of fresh food and reduces the carbon footprint generated by moving products from abroad.

The Colombian countryside has immense potential for growth. Colombia has an agricultural frontier of approximately 40 million hectares, of which only 8 million hectares are currently cultivated11. With adequate investment and vigilance, our region has the appropriate climatic and ecological conditions for the production of a great diversity of foods, which will surely have a great impact on the world market. Even during the pandemic, the agricultural sector has been one of the few to register growth, which shows the great resilience of our farmers. All the more reason for the state to look after its farmers and provide the best possible conditions for them to develop their full potential. 

The current picture, however, is not so positive. Many activists continue to be assassinated while defending their right to land tenure and land use against the interests of large consortiums and illegal groups. This terrible situation of environmental activists in Colombia, and around the world, cannot wait. Clear and forceful measures are urgently needed from the government and other state entities to stop the massacre of our environmental leaders. But it is also important that we as citizens make the right consumer decisions and, more importantly, the right electoral decisions.

BOX 1. Oil palm and the Nukak-Makú indigenous people in Guaviare


Indigenous peoples, despite representing a small percentage of the Colombian population, have been, after the peasantry, the group most affected by violence against agricultural and environmental leaders. One of the most exemplary cases seen recently has been the struggle of indigenous groups in Guaviare, particularly the Nukak-Makú against the expansive illegal agriculture that has 'flourished' after the 2016 Peace Agreements.

After cattle ranching and the planting of illicit crops, oil palm is the biggest cause of deforestation and confrontation between indigenous people and settlers in the Amazon region. The oil from this palm is used in the cosmetics, food and energy industries, among others, for the production of products such as soaps, chocolates, biscuits and biofuels. Oil palm is therefore a sought-after commodity in the domestic and international market. Although most of the global production (84%) is concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia, Colombia is currently the main South American producer and has the potential to be an important player in this market. In our country, the entity in charge of regulating this market is Fedepalma, which brings together producers and buyers from the 21 departments that are registered with the entity. Surprisingly, Guaviare is not on this list. So why is this crop affecting the territory and the lives of the Nukak indigenous people, and why is there no evidence of cultivation in this department before Fedepalma?

The illegal oil palm plantations that are deforesting the Colombian Amazon and displacing indigenous communities seem to have no owner. There are "rumours" that illegal groups are behind these crops, including FARC dissidents, the Sinaloa Cartel and even settlers arriving from the interior of the country. However, as José Jacinto Cubides, Secretary of Agriculture of the Guaviare Governor's Office, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam12: “Here people come and take 500 or 1000 hectares, but they place intermediaries who are not the real owners and are not putting up the money to cut down [the forest]. But the problem is that if you denounce it, then you become a military target and nobody is going to risk losing their lives”. This shows the scale of the issue and the difficulty of curbing it. Although there is a clear idea of how much forest has been deforested and where, it is not yet clear how to stop this catastrophe.

The Law 2/59 and the Decree 111/59 that establishes the Amazon Forest Reserve as a site for the preservation of the indigenous communities, their culture, and their natural environment protects both the Nukak-Makú and their territories. In 2018, the 1st Civil Court of the Specialised Circuit on Land Restitution of Villavicencio decreed a precautionary measure in favour of the Nukak indigenous people that denounces the abuses against the community and orders the Attorney General's Office to initiate criminal proceedings against environmental crimes. The Prosecutor General's Office states that between 2018 and 2021 several operations have been carried out to prosecute people involved in these crimes13. For its part, Fedepalma also assures that efforts are being made so that companies producing, processing, marketing and consuming palm oil in Colombia can demonstrate that their processes are free of deforestation. To this end, these entities must be able to ensure full traceability of the product14, in order to know where the fruit comes from and whether it comes from an illegal plantation that is deforesting the Guaviare. However, in practice, it seems that these efforts are of little use, as every day the Colombian Amazon and the peoples who live there are affected by the advance of "civilisation". The Nukak-Makú are today a displaced people15, in accelerated loss of their traditions, with many diseases and chronic malnutrition due to almost no access to health services. This condition causes some indigenous people to leave their settlements and engage in illegal activities to earn a living for themselves and their community. According to the Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), some indigenous people are hired by settlers to collect coca leafs, and others occasionally steal produce from landowners16.  

Deforestation in the Amazon is a very profitable business, and halting its advance has been and will be a very difficult task, even during the pandemic17. The effective fight against deforestation requires government action that integrates the deployment of public forces, the strengthening and enforcement of established norms, but above all, a large social investment (educational training and infrastructure) to promote the sustainable use of natural resources in these megadiverse areas of the country. The recovery of the Nukak after their first interaction with settlers in 1963 has been slow, if not absent18, and they are now threatened again by deforestation and agro-industrial expansion that are driving them out of those territories that were once the promise of a new life.


  1. Periódico El Espectador (2009). Agro Ingreso Seguro habría favorecido a narcos. Available at: https://www.elespectador.com/politica/agro-ingreso-seguro-habria-favorecido-a-narcos-article-165592/  
  2. Revista Semillas (2014) Los TLC y la crisis del sector rural tocó fondo. Available at: https://www.semillas.org.co/es/los-tlc-y-la-crisis-del-sector-rural-toc 
  3. Forero Rueda, S (2021) Entre 2016 y 2020, 75 líderes de sustitución de coca fueron asesinados. Available at: https://www.elespectador.com/colombia-20/conflicto/entre-2016-y-2020-75-lideres-de-sustitucion-de-coca-fueron-asesinados-article/ 
  4. Clerici, N., Armenteras, D., Kareiva, P. et al. (2020) Deforestation in Colombian protected areas increased during post-conflict periods. Scientific Reports 10, 4971.
  5. BBC News World (2020) Deforestation: the 10 countries that lost the most virgin forest in the world (and 5 are in Latin America). Available at: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-52915114  
  6. Indepaz (2020) Informe especial: Líderes sociales y defensores de los derechos humanos asesinados desde la firma del Acuerdo de Paz (2016-2020). Bogotá: Colombia. Available at: http://www.indepaz.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Informe-Especial-Asesinato-lideres-sociales-Nov2016-Jul2020-Indepaz.pdf  
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  10. World Bank (2019) Trees and cows offer a path to recovery in Colombia. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/07/08/trees-and-cows-offer-path-to-recovery-in-colombia 
  11. Santoro, F (2020) El sector Agro colombiano promete en 2021. AgroNegocios. Available at: https://www.agronegocios.co/analisis/flavia-santoro-2807402/el-sector-agro-colombiano-promete-en-2021-3101623  
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  15. Nukak (2020) Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC). Available at: https://www.onic.org.co/pueblos/1128-nukak-maku  
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  17. Open Democracy (2020) Ni la Covid-19 detiene la deforestación en la Amazonía. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/es/ni-la-covid-19-detiene-la-deforestacion-en-la-amazonia/?source=wa   
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