Agrarian capitalism, war and peace in Colombia

In Colombia, the formation of capitalism in intrinsically linked to a brutal history. In rural areas where landed property is highly concentrated, property owners rarely hesitated to rely on private militias to ward off claims from landless peasants. However, policies put in place to address rural property and agrarian conflicts are not designed to confront such structural challenges. The paradoxical consequence of this is that peace policies can end up concealing the close ties between plunder and lawful profit and obscuring the links between violent dispossession and the free market.

This research project has been focused on the contradictions between a particularly violent breed of capitalism and the narrow approach that peace professionals have used in their interventions. As a matter of fact, most of the peace professionals that I have interviewed throughout the years tend to consider that their mission consists of addressing the direct consequences of war by enabling people to regain control over their property or to be compensated for its loss, as well as putting an end to war economies based on smuggling and racketeering in order to build the foundations of economic recovery.

The reasons for this narrow focus are fairly obvious. Making a clear-cut distinction between legitimate and plundered assets helps peace professionals to circumscribe a field of action by drawing a neat line between the economic problems that can be addressed (property restitution, criminal justice) and those that are beyond the scope of any development or humanitarian assistance effort. Of course, most people I met in the field are relatively conscious of the fact that narrowing the target of peace building is overly simplistic, but they still embrace this attitude as a necessary illusion that renders their everyday work possible in a system plagued by daunting inequality.

This vision is often simply the consequence of a combination of good will and operational constraints, yet it remains highly misleading, obscuring the fact that, in post-war times, power relations that were previously produced and reproduced in violent ways tend to be laundered and made respectable. In a certain way, this view belies the close ties between plunder and lawful profit and obscures the continuity between violent dispossession and the free market. For in reality, the issues faced by the Colombian countryside are not solely a matter of justice: they are a matter of power, of the people who now control power and will control it in the years to come.

As such, addressing the intricate relationship between violence and agrarian capitalism is not only a historical and memorial duty, it is – in Colombia as just about everywhere else in Latin America and the Global South – a fundamental step towards the establishment of a more democratic social contract.

A book

Based on extensive research conducted in Colombia since 2009, my book addresses the connection between land grabbing and agrarian capitalism, as well as the unfulfilled promises of peace and justice. It was published by Routledge in 2021. The introduction can be downloaded here. More information is available on the editor’s website.

A short and easily accessible version of this work was published by the research collective Noria: in English, Spanish, and French.

Other research outputs linked to this work include: