The Benefits of Collective Titles
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Hoy estos campesinos están reclamando que las vendieron muy baratas, sí, pero las vendieron, y los empresarios, compraron, barato, sí, pero las compraron — El Alemán

This is a quote from Colombian paramilitary leader “The German,” remarking that “today the peasants are reclaiming the lands which they sold very cheaply, yes, but they sold them, and the businessmen, bought them, cheap, yes, but they bought them” often of course at gun point.

In our last post, we discussed how Afro-Colombian communities managed to get collective title to their lands. We proposed one hypothesis for why they demanded these titles in collective form, namely that it was a response to the incapacity of the Colombian state to deliver anything else.

Let’s discuss another example that may suggest a different motivation. In the north of the Chocó is a region called Urabá that also spills into the department of Antioquia. In this region between 1996 and 1997, 70% of the population of two Afro-Colombian communities Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó was displaced by paramilitaries and the army (see the report). The people were replaced by tropical palm, and by 2005 the palm plantations reached 35,000 hectares. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission of Peace and Justice reported that by 2005, 106 people in the area had been assassinated or were missing, 40,000 people were displaced from their homes; there had been 19 raids and burning of hamlets, and 15 cases of torture.

Interestingly in this case the displaced people used Law 70 as a tool to try to get their land back from the paramilitaries and the land grab (as the report Elusive Justice shows many elites were heavily invested in this as well). They managed to get the land that had been stolen declared to be their communal land and this has helped them get the state to intervene to restore some if not all of it. Thus another hypothesis about the demand for communal land rights is that this form of property rights, which cannot be sold, may be a better tool for defending the communities against expropriation and elite predation.

One of the most depressing parts of this story is that at some point the “left-wing” guerillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) appeared to fight against the paramilitaries and elites and immediately kidnapped some of the leaders of the Afro-Colombian communities since they did not want anyone other than themselves organizing the “peasants”. With friends like that who needs enemies?

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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