January 2017


Across Latin America, resource extraction projects are fueling a new land grab that is concentrating resources into the hands of the one percent.

            Land ownership across Latin America is now more unequal than it has been in decades, with resources concentrated into the hands of an elite few threatening setbacks in human rights and crippling opportunities for poverty reduction and sustainable development in the region, a new Oxfam report found.

            The report, “Unearthed: Land, power, and inequality and Latin America,” finds that control over land in Latin America is even more unequally skewed than it was before governments in the region — under pressure from campesino movements — led a tide of redistributive agrarian reform policies in the 1960s to tackle the problem by putting more land into the hands of small-scale farmers and cooperatives.

            Many of those historic reforms faced serious challenges. Some policies were reversed or collapsed with the dawn of neoliberalism, while waves of privatization and pandering to corporate interests in recent decades have chipped away Indigenous, campesino and collective lands.

            “Previous land reforms failed because of corruption, deregulation, cronyism and lack of support to family farming,” Oxfam’s Latin America and the Caribbean director Simon Ticehurst explained in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “States have proved incapable of resisting the powerful elites that dominate the land and profit most from exploiting its natural resources.”

            Such elite interests have driven the re-concentration of land in the region and have taken the shape of mega-projects dedicated to resource extraction, such as oil, gas, and mining ventures, cattle ranches, and so-called “super farms” that hoard more productive land into 1 percent of farms than the other 99 percent combined.

            The problem is particularly pronounced in Colombia, where rural inequality and demands for land reform sparked the 52-year civil war between left-wing guerilla armies and government forces that is now finally coming to an end with a historic peace deal with the largest rebel group, the FARC. After more than half a century of conflict, rural reform remains a key issue on the agenda, and for good reason. According to Oxfam, 67% of Colombia’s agricultural land is concentrated into just 0.4% of farmland holdings, while 84% of the smallest farms control less than 4% of productive land.

            Paraguay and Chile both follow close behind Colombia in terms of grossly unequal land distribution. US-backed military dictatorships in both countries consolidated extreme concentration, paving the way toward a full embrace of a neoliberal and pro-agribusiness agricultural model followed today.

            The unequal reality across Latin America isn’t only fueling cycles of poverty and driving desperate rural inhabitants away from the countryside and into cities at a faster rate, it’s also spurring new conflicts as communities resisting land grabs and a general scramble for their resources are often met with violent repression.

            “We’re seeing more land disputes and violence particularly against indigenous peoples and peasant communities, particularly women, who are defending their rights,” Oxfam’s Ticehurst continued. “They are being harassed, attacked and criminalized for trying to stop projects that threaten their lands and livelihoods and don’t usually offer them any benefit.”

            According to the human rights organization Global Witness, 2015 was the worst year on record for land defenders with more than three killed around the globe every week. Out of 185 killings of rights defenders across 16 countries, 122 were in Latin America. This year, the spate of systematic violence against Latin American land and environmental defenders and Indigenous activists has continued, epitomized perhaps most clearly with the assassination of iconic Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Caceres in March.


            “Berta’s death highlights the extreme vulnerability of women activists and the apathy — even complicity — of governments in failing in their duty to protect their citizens,” Ticehurst argued.

            And women are particularly impacted by the already grossly unequal distribution of land across the region, marginalized with less land than men at a rate ranging from just 8% in Guatemala up to 30% in Peru, according to Oxfam. As for the repression, criminalization and violence faced by rights defenders — and perhaps especially women rights defenders — the spike in hostility is not a coincidence, but part of a systematic strategy of protecting private land.

            In the face of such growing inequality and a threat of further setbacks as extractive projects plow forward across the region, Oxfam’s report calls for governments and institutions to put issues of land distribution back on the top of the political agenda across Latin America. As one of the region’s “unresolved historical problems,” the report argues, land inequality must be in the spotlight to spark key debates and action related to improving land access and gender equality, curbing runaway corporate power and impunity and promoting sustainable development.

            While it’s urgent for governments to rise to the challenge, marginalized communities and social movements will continue to play a central role in demanding respect for their rights and resources and fighting to build more equal and just societies across Latin America. – Third World Network Features.


The above article is reproduced from Telesur, 30 November 2016.

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