Land and Loss in Colombia

Land is no small thing in Latin America. Dynasties flush with wealth and power have arisen from plantations and cattle ranches owned by a select few families. For those left on the margins, taking over a tiny, fallow plot long forgotten by its owners may be the only thing keeping their family alive.

Until someone pushes them out.

Gustav Arvidsson has been following the plight of landless peasants in Colombia, where bureaucracy, chicanery and deadly force have been used to dislodge entire villages of subsistence farmers. Where families once grew rice, cassava and other basic crops, large corporations have swept in with palm oil plantations, cattle ranches and mines. The result has been devastating, Mr. Arvidsson said, in a country where armed conflict and economic hardship have displaced four million people — the second-largest number of such internally displaced people after Sudan.

Resolving the complexities of land tenure in the developing world has been seen by some policy experts as critical to uplifting the most impoverished sectors of society. Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, has long argued that finding ways to grant land titles to subsistence farmers and others can set them — and their country — on the path to stability and growth.

“A farmer once told me, ‘a farmer without land is not a farmer,’ ” Mr. Arvidsson said in a telephone interview from his native Sweden. “This is all about inequality.”

He started his project in 2010, when he was living in Bogotá while freelancing for Swedish publications. He read an article in The Guardian about a palm oil plantation whose owners had evicted 120 families from the land they had farmed for more than 10 years. Outcry over the eviction, which had been carried out by the police in riot gear, led the Body Shop cosmetics company to drop the firm as a supplier.

Soon, Mr. Arvidsson traveled to the area to track down the displaced families, who had moved to a spit of land along the Magdalena River, about an hour away on horseback. Where they once fed themselves, they had to rely on foreign relief groups for basic nourishment.

“It’s so tiny they can’t grow anything,” he said. “They don’t have space to grow their crops or be self-sufficient. To make it worse, they’re on this peninsula which gets flooded every year when the river rises and kills their crops.”

Mr. Arvidsson’s project has expanded in subsequent trips to look at other communities of displaced people. In the country’s western region he visited “peace villages,” settled by people who have declared their community off-limits to firearms and violence. Last August he went to a region where a huge open-pit coal mine is set to expand — but only after having to relocate several communities.

Even for long-established communities, convoluted contracts and bureaucracy have often made it difficult to sort out who the rightful owners are. And for those who acceded to pressure — either financial or physical — what they get in return often is never enough to make up for what they once had.

The Colombian government has passed legislation to help people who have been dislodged from their land. But human rights groups have voiced concern that the law is insufficient in its scope and benefits. People may get papers saying they own a particular plot, but that means little if those who pushed them out in the first place are still there, or nearby.

“If you want to be cynical, you can say this law was created to make all these land takeovers valid,” Mr. Arvidsson said. “People have papers, but many of them will be forced to sell the land anyway because they dare not return. Then everything gets validated.”