The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia: Léon Zamosc

Sociologist Léon Zamosc’s The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia, looks at the development of agrarian capitalism and peasant land struggles in Colombia between 1967 and 1981. In ten concise chapters, Zamosc analyzes differences in agrarian strategies, changes in peasant-state relations, and what he calls the politics and ideology of the “peasant challenge,” by which he means peasants’ receptivity to “leftist influences” and the mid-century social movements that sought to force government action on land reform.

Beginning with the rise of the liberal Frente Nacional in 1966, led by Carlos Lleras Restrepo, the author highlights how liberals tried to both organize peasants into a national party framework as well as retain their traditional control over the party. Unlike Howard Handelman’s and Cynthia McClintock’s work on Peru, Zamosc more seamlessly ties agrarian land struggles into the wider political and economic machinations of national leaders, using regional and global market events, such as demand for marijuana, as well as migration movements and violence to build his argument.

According to the author, during the Frente Nacional years, limited external markets for Colombian exports led liberals to attempt to grow internal markets by absorbing agrarian peasants into the formal economy as wage laborers and market consumers. One of the government’s vehicles for achieving this was the creation of the National Peasant Association (ANUC), which Zamosc says was designed to be limited and dependent on the state for organization and support. However, this policy was made obsolete by 1972 as President Misael Pastrana Borrero sought to re-orient national production to supply foreign markets with agro-exports as international demand surged. Zamosc’s work sheds light on how this early experience with peasant organization raised expectations that were later unfulfilled, contributing, Zamosc argues, to the radicalization of peasant movements in later years.

This monograph supports interpretations that emphasize the role of outside organizations in the building of peasant consciousness. Compared to Peru, where travel to work in mines and cities exposed rural movements to outside tactics, in Colombia this role was played by the ANUC. Both countries experienced a period of growing peasant radicalization that led to land invasions, but the movements had uneven success in different regions. Zamosc is careful to note the different interests and goals of each group, including peasant minifundios, landless workers, and more traditional indigenous communities. It is precisely by identifying multiple peasant groups and then tracing their relevant histories that pushed them into the land-reform movement that Zamosc contributes most to the historiography of this period.

Léon Zamosc. The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia: Struggles of the National Peasant Association, 1967-1981. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1986.

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, Feb. 3, 2019

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