Protecting Land Rights

Fighting Land Grabbing in Colombia

Land laws to protect peasant rights

“Land grabbing” by agribusiness corporations is a major threat to the way of life of communities in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. EDLC is working with local lawyers on a case that challenges Cargill’s massive land purchases in eastern Colombia, where small farms in the isolated high plains were earlier given to peasants by the government.

With over 80% of its land in the hands of 14% of its landowners, Colombia’s land ownership system is one of the most unequal in the world. In 1994, Colombia enacted legislation to protect the rights of poor peasants to own land. Law 160 established conditions for the granting of state-owned lands (baldíos) to poor peasants, as well as for subsequent transfers to third parties. The law seeks to prevent the accumulation of large expanses of land in the hands of a few by establishing a limit to the number of acres that can be owned by a single person or company.

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Cargill tries to get around the law

Cargill wanted to acquire large areas of land in the department of Vichada, but much of the land it wanted to buy fell under Law 160. In order to bypass the law, Cargill created dozens of small companies owning no capital or other property. Through these companies, Cargill acquired thirty-nine contiguous plots of land totaling over 130,000 thousand acres between 2010 and 2012. The government attempted to “legalize” this land grab practice after the fact. The first such attempt- a law that allowed the acquisition of large portions of baldíos if accompanied by the right amount of investment- was ruled unconstitutional by the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2012.

In 2013, the land purchases by Cargill and other companies made the front pages when the first reports appeared. The abuse of the land law was denounced publicly by members of Congress. Oxfam published an extensive report on the problem. INCODER, the government’s rural development agency that can bring lawsuits requesting the annulment of unlawful transactions involving baldíos, filed a few such lawsuits. However, this process was halted by the government, which replaced senior INCODER officials, preventing further action against the companies.

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In a 2014 report, the Colombian government’s comptrolling agency analyzed fourteen land grabbing cases, including Cargill’s. The agency concluded that by illegally acquiring this land, Cargill caused Colombia to suffer a loss of $43 million. In addition, through its various small companies, Cargill illegally obtained agricultural subsidies to which it was not entitled, causing a further loss of $11 million. In a similar situation, a Brazilian company was ordered to return the money to the government.

Challenging the abuse of the law by Cargill

EDLC found an experienced team of lawyers in Colombia to review in depth the legal violations resulting from Cargill’s actions. The review led to a lawsuit filed in August 2015 on behalf of affected communities, with the ultimate goal of having these land acquisitions be ruled illegal by the Colombian courts. The case was dismissed for lack of standing in November 2015. Before a new case could be filed, Congress passed a law in an attempt to validate the land grabs, but the lawyers are bringing another lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of that law. This is the largest challenge to date of illegal land grabs in Latin America.

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