'Subtle' and 'ordinary' mechanisms of peri-urban land grabbing in Colombia

New publication

A recent study co-authored by Utrecht University researcher Giuseppe Feola reveals the subtle and ‘ordinary’ mechanisms of urban land grabbing in peri-urban spaces of small Colombian cities, and argues that policy incoherence and governance problems drive land grabbing in these areas.

Land grabbing is most often associated to dispossession of land in rural spaces. This is frequently to the advantage of large actors such as multinationals and governments and often includes the use of violence. And when we think of land grabbing in Colombia and Latin America, it is usually large infrastructure development, natural resource extraction, cash crop plantations, environmental conservation, and armed conflict that come to mind.

Land grabbing also seen in urban areas

In Colombia land grabbing has generated environmental injustices, exacerbated social vulnerability and conflict, and generally disrupted the social fabric of communities. But it doesn’t only occur in rural areas. It is a problem also faced in urban areas, and especially at the urban-rural border - peri-urban space - where urban expansion, agriculture and other land uses clash in the name of diverging visions of development. In urban contexts land appropriation is often more hidden, subtle and difficult to detect. It usually involves the appropriation of smaller areas of land, does not involve large, visible actors, and does not necessarily include the use of armed force.

A peri-urban spaces in the small Colombian city of Sogamoso. Photo: Giuseppe Feola

Urban land grabbing in small cities poorly understood

Urban land grabbing is largely overlooked in Latin American cities. And although more than half the world’s urban population lives in cities of less than 500,000 inhabitants, the studies of urban land grabbing that exist are mostly focused on large world cities. This is problematic, because the influences of global-scale economic processes are much less relevant to the socio-economic contexts of smaller and more marginal cities.

Subtle and ‘ordinary’ mechanisms of land grabbing in peri-urban spaces

A recent publication co-authored by Giuseppe Feola, Associate Professor of Social Change for Sustainability at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University sheds light on the subtle and ‘ordinary’ mechanisms of land grabbing in peri-urban spaces in the small Colombian city of Sogamoso. Here, urban expansion, agriculture, mining and ecosystem conservation compete for the same, relatively small peri-urban space. Many farmers have seen mining render their land unsuitable for farming and tough conservation laws challenge many of their practices. This has led to land becoming too expensive or unsuitable for farming. Farmers and residents end up unwillingly selling their land, which in many cases had depreciated, and many lose their livelihood.

Urban expansion, agriculture, mining and ecosystem conservation compete for the same, relatively small peri-urban space. Photo: Giuseppe Feola

Incoherent policies and governance root cause of land grabbing in peri-urban spaces

Feola’s research suggests that combination of incoherent policies and governance problems is at the root of these issues. In Sogamoso, national mining and conservation legislation clash with local planning. Local policies within or across sectors like housing, agriculture and tourism often pursue incompatible goals with respect to issues such as climate change mitigation and mining, with sometimes contradictory regulations and incentives.

The situation generates social tensions which tend to be resolved outside the democratic, transparent, deliberative governance system. This often results in the more powerful, better organized or informed acquiring advantages, including land appropriation. While land appropriation in peri-urban spaces is often of small scale, it is very impactful on the livelihoods of the citizens involved, who tend to be the already less powerful and politically unrepresented.

Further reading

Feola, G., Suzunaga, J., Soler, J. & Goodman, M.K. 2019. Ordinary land grabbing in peri-urban spaces: Land conflicts and governance in a small Colombian city, Geoforum. doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.05.018