Agriculture and gender in the Colombian peace agreement

Law professor Helena Alviar argued that the second peace agreement concluded between the government of Colombia and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC) had limited redistributive agrarian policies and gender equity gains.

Agriculture and gender in the Colombian peace agreement

Peasant woman in the municipality of Aquitania, Colombia. Photo: Sandra Mernio/ Flicker, 2008; cropped. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“The government said from the beginning that they would not be radical with land reform and they really weren't. None of this was revolutionary, radical, different — nothing.”

by Alison Claire Brailey (UCLA 2017)

UCLA International Institute, March 13, 2017 — Law professor Helena Alviar of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, visited UCLA recently to speak on the agrarian and gender policies outlined in the newest peace agreement (November 2016) between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC). The event at the UCLA School of Law was cosponsored by the International and Comparative Law Program and the Latin American Institute.

Alviar has published works on a number of topics, including feminist theory, property, law and development, social and economic rights and transitional justice. She is currently the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard Law School.


In June 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a historic ceasefire, marking the end of over 50 years of violent conflict. As the FARC disarms, thousands of armed men and women will leave FARC strongholds deep within the Colombian jungle and begin to reintegrate into the rest of Colombian society.

Following the ceasefire, an initial peace agreement between both parties was negotiated. Although the agreement was expected to win by a landslide in a referendum last year, it did not pass. Alviar said the upset occurred because “the campaign [opposing the agreement] was based completely on lies.” Proponents of “Vote No” stated on public radio, for example, that they wanted people coming to the polls to “vote angry” as opposed to “voting informed.”

Alviar claimed that the “No” campaign was successful mainly because it “divided people according to their biggest fears,” telling various lies that appealed to different geographic and demographic groups. This strategy of inciting anger and fear proved extremely effective, yet the speaker argued that the Colombian government was also to blame. The government was too confident that “Yes” would win, she said, so it didn’t do enough to counteract or dispel the lies.

Both groups were forced to go back to the drawing board. In her estimation, the second round of negotiations mainly focused on issues related to impunity status for members of the FARC rejoining society. The resulting renegotiated peace deal, said Alviar, “is far less revolutionary” and will face many challenges in ensuring long-term peace. She found the second agreement sorely disappointing because it is unlikely to bring about any sort of progressive change in Colombia.

Law professor Helena Alviar. (Photo: Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.) Agrarian policy has been a main point of contention in the peace process, said Alviar. On the one hand, the FARC has long advocated major land reform. The group originated as a Marxist militia during the Cold War and although it has undergone a number of ideological and organizational changes since then, it remains a proponent of state-led redistributive policies.

On the other hand, the Colombian government has pushed economic growth and free-market policies. Alviar pointed out that the government’s rhetoric during the negotiating process has been quite the opposite of revolutionary. “[They] said that they would not be discussing anything related to the country’s economic model, military doctrine or foreign investment. Then what I want to know is, what were they talking about?” she asked.

The law professor, who drew on extensive personal research on the agrarian portion of the peace agreement, noted that most of the content in the newest peace agreement was included in the original agreement. But during the second round of peace negotiations, agrarian policies shifted in a regressive direction. Instead of focusing reforms on “the social functionality of property,” said Alviar, the second peace agreement did little to reflect the FARC’s views. “The government said from the beginning that they would not be radical with land reform and they really weren’t,” she said. “None of this was revolutionary, radical, different — nothing.”

She went on to explain that in the eyes of the Colombian government, the countryside should be utilized to develop agrobusiness, a view incompatible with the FARC’s idea of property's social function. And although the Colombian government has claimed that it supports using land for the benefit of the people rather than for profit, in practice it devotes massive amounts of public resources to agrobusiness development.

Gender reforms

Alviar’s other main criticism of the new peace agreement is that major gender equity gains have been significantly limited. She recognizes that some progress has been made in certain features of the new gender policies, but claimed that overall, “The agreement shifted towards a more conservative view of women in land policy and more liberal as related to development.”

In her assessment, the peace agreement now contains “a complex stream of different ideas related to gender,” with a variety of conflicting perspectives represented. Certain portions of the agreement portray women mainly as extensions of the family, which she said reflected conservative views. On the other hand, certain progressive feminist ideas are also present in the agreement. For example, Alviar cited the inclusion of women in text about the development process, which she said was “similar to affirmative action policies.”

Another major issue with the new agreement, said Alviar, was the decision to rename gender equality “women’s rights.” That it is a step in the wrong direction, she argued. “[Although] it is a symbolic battle, it is an important symbol,” she remarked, largely because the language of the new agreement excludes the LGBT community and frames harm against women in a way that ignores important issues such as sexual violence.

Overall, Alviar wanted to see the Colombian government more proactively promote gender justice and protect women from gender-based violence. “It cannot just be a promise,” she said. “They have to put some money into it.”

What next?

Alviar’s main implementation concern was the uncertain capacity of institutions in the countryside to aid women and peasants. Current policies may not be enough to protect these groups, she said. Even more threatening to them is the power vacuum that may occur in the region once the FARC is gone for good, she added.

The law professor pointed out that many people in the countryside voted “No” on the referendum specifically because of this potential power vacuum. Whereas the FARC has perpetrated violence on Colombian citizens, it has also provided protection and political organization in areas neglected by the Colombian state. As a result, many of these people did not want the FARC to leave their areas.

A recent spike in murders of human rights advocates has led people to fear that far-right paramilitary groups will try to gain control of the territory that the FARC has claimed for years. To counter this possibility, Alviar contended that the government needed to come up with a plan to manage this power vacuum. The situation is very concerning, she noted,  “[because] no one wants to see another conflict.”