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Vertical Inequality, Land Reform, and Insurgency in Colombia

  • Thomas Edward Flores EMAIL logo


How can we understand the origins and resilience of Colombia’s long-running insurgency? A leading theory emphasizes the feasibility of insurgency, identifying drug trafficking as the main culprit. I propose an alternative theory of civil violence that emphasizes how bargaining over property rights in the face of deep vertical inequality deepens the subordinate group’s social identity, heightens its sense of grievance, and facilitates collective violence. An examination of the history of land reform struggles in Colombia echoes this pattern. Struggles over land reforms in the 1920s and 1930s created new patterns of collective action that helped sustain campesino groups in the “independent republics” of the 1950s and 1960s and the creation of the FARC in 1964. This analysis suggests that the Colombian state’s lack of credibility on issues of land reform demands a significant third-party enforcement of any peace agreement and confidence-building measures between the FARC and the Colombian government.

Corresponding author: Thomas Edward Flores, George Mason University, The School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, 3351 N. Fairfax Drive, MSN 4D3, Arlington, VA 22201, USA, E-mail:

  1. 1

    The continuity of conflict in Colombia should not disguise variation in its intensity across space and time, as micro-analysis of Colombia shows (Daly 2012; Rodríguez and Daza 2012; Vargas 2012).

  2. 2

    The vigor of the debate can be seen in the frequency with which authors challenged each others’ findings in subsequent journals.

  3. 3

    See Daly (2012) for an important recent exception.

  4. 4

    Sánchez, López-Uribe, and Fazio (2010) come to different conclusions regarding the proportion of land granted to peasants, finding that peasants received 45% of land titled between 1853 and 1930. These calculations, however, assume that the average farm granted to peasants averaged 511 hectares, over ten times as large as what Palacios (1980) would classify as medium-sized.

  5. 5

    Income inequality obviously does not capture perfectly the dynamics of land inequality, but given the context of continuing land inequality, deteriorating income inequality is suggestive.

  6. 6

    This discussion is based on regression analysis using replication data from Daly (2012). Results are described in the appendix.

  7. 7

    Napalm is a chemical agent used in incendiary bombing. It can cause severe burns, intense pain, and asphyxiation. The United Nations Convention on Certain Chemical Weapons (CCW), passed in 1980, bans its use against civilian populations.

  8. 8
  9. 9

    Results available upon request.

I thank William Clark, Robert Franzese, Catherine LeGrand, James Morrow, Irfan Nooruddin, Juan Vargas, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. The research contributing to this article was supported by a J. William Fulbright Scholarship. All errors are my own.


This appendix provides details on the empirical claim made in Section 4.2 that “municipalities with higher land values and access to roads also had higher rates of inequality.” This is part of a larger argument that Colombian elites were successful in excluding peasants from access to disputed land, even after land reform in 1936. If we assume that elites held the legal and coercive power to create facts on the ground and that their motivation to do so was directly correlated with the economic value of land, then we should observe greater inequality in places with higher land values.

Daly (2012) fortunately has collected municipal-level data on land value and inequality, part of a larger data project, that permits a test of this intution. Her data include monthly observations for 1076 municipalities between 1964 and 1984.8

Daly (2012) measures inequality on a 100-point scale. Two measures contained in Daly’s data should correlative positively with this dependent variable. First, she measures land value on 100-point scale, using data on the “geochemical and microbiological aspects” (475) of land at the municipal level. Second, Daly (2012) collects data on the logged total length of roads, railroads, and accessible waterways. The availability of transportation, in addition to the intrinsic capacity of the soil to support crops, should increase the economic value of land.

I also include several variables as controls: the distance from Bogot’s, existence valuable gem and mineral deposits, mountainous terrain, and proximity to an international border.

The data in Daly (2012) are time-series cross-sectional (TSCS), but none of the measures used in this regression vary across time. A simple ordinary least squares regression (OLS), is the simplest and most proper choice to test the link between land value and inequality. Results are described in Table A1 above; standard errors are in parentheses. Two models separately estimate inequality as a function of land value and roads, with only gems, population, and international borders as control variables in an effort to minimize missing data. Both land values and roads are positively and significantly correlated with inequality. The last model includes the full set of control variables – adding mountains and distance to Bogotá – and both land value and roads, reducing the sample size. Again, both roads and land value exacerbate municipality-level inequality.

Table A1

Land value and land inequality.

Basic modelsFull Model
Land valuesRoads
Land values0.44***0.30***
International border–9.84***–14.61***9.09
Distance to Bogotá0.0014

*p<0.10, **p<0.05, ***p<0.01.

In results not reported here, I also estimate a model that includes a control variable for population density instead of total population and a multiplicative interaction term of land value and population density. The model suggests that the impact of land value on inequality is substantively stronger and more statistically significant in areas with lower population density. This suggests that the connection between land value and inequality was strongest in rural areas, again supporting the point made in Section 4.2 of the article.9


Daly, S.Z., (2012), Organizational Legacies of Violence: Conditions Favoring Insurgency Onset in Colombia, 1964–1984, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 49, pp. 473–491.


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Published Online: 2014-01-21
Published in Print: 2014-01-01

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