From Academia to Action: My journey with engaged research on Land Grabbing in Colombia

Blogpost by Jovana Paredes
Jun Borras in Colombia in March 2024
Jovana Paredes

In March 2024, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Colombia with Erasmus Professor Jun Borras, a leading expert in the field of Critical Agrarian Studies at International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). My mission as a communication advisor? To attend and document the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) International Conference on Global Land Grabbing at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, and participate in two eye-opening site visits. 

The conference was partly co-organized through and with support from the European Research Council Advanced Grant project RRUSHES-5 and the EUR Erasmus Professor Program. This wasn't your typical academic conference – it was a powerful exchange of knowledge and experiences between 700+ researchers, social activists, international and national policymakers and the very communities most impacted by land grabbing. This experience deeply transformed my understanding of engaged research and its profound impact on communities. Here's what I learned from these experiences and why they matter for anyone involved in research, activism, or policy-making. 

What is land grabbing?

Before we get into details, let me briefly explain to what “land grabbing” refers. It is the large-scale acquisition of land, often by governments, corporations, or wealthy individuals, typically for commercial agricultural production, industrial development, or infrastructure projects. This practice often involves displacing local communities, small-scale farmers, and indigenous peoples from their land, leading to loss of livelihoods, environmental degradation, and social unrest. Land grabbing can occur domestically within a country or involve foreign investors acquiring land in other nations, often in developing countries where land is relatively inexpensive and regulations may be lax. It is a complex issue with economic, social, environmental, and political implications, and it is often associated with issues of land rights, resource exploitation, and social justice. 

An electric mix at the LDPI conference

The 3-day conference buzzed with energy and lively discussions between participants. One panel discussion that particularly resonated with me focused on the concept of land grabbing evolving beyond large-scale land acquisitions. The conversation shifted towards understanding broader trends of land concentration, driven largely by market forces, and even some well-intentioned policies, especially those related to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Panelists acknowledged the role of legal frameworks but emphasized the need for new solutions that address the underlying economic model. A recurring theme was the importance of moving beyond blame placed on population growth narratives, as articulated by Morgan Ody, General Coordinator, La Via Campesina: "We need everywhere a strong impulse to stop the financialization of land and advance public policies for one goal: land for the people."

Ugandan farmer at San Joaquin Farm, Colombia, see image caption
On this Ugandan farmer's shirt it reads: "Providing capacity, capital and market for small-scale farmers' agroecology business to thrive"
Jovana Paredes

Reciprocal visit

But the most transformative moments happened outside the conference halls. A small delegation of 50 agrarian researchers and social movement activists from 26 countries traveled by bus for five hours from Bogota (including three stops/searches by Colombian police!) to the location of our first site visit at San Joaquín Farm. This is a former property of a drug trafficker, recently handed over to peasant farmers by the Colombian government. Meeting the members of the Cooperativa Multiactiva Frontera Sur (Coomfrosur), who received this land was humbling. They spoke of their long struggle for land rights and their plans to use the farm for sustainable agriculture and livestock production.

This initiative is part of Colombia's broader efforts to address the scars left by decades of armed conflict and drug trafficking through land restitution and agrarian reform. The visit to San Joaquín offered us a firsthand look at the government's commitment to transforming seized assets into tools for peace and rural development, as the recipients of the land were also signatories to the 2016 Peace Agreement. It's a vivid example of how policies can reshape the countryside based on peasant economies, contributing to the democratization of rural assets and the modernization of agriculture.

It's important to mention that this was more than just a one-sided site visit. Representatives from the Coomfrosur community had attended the LDPI conference in Bogota where they participated in discussions. And now, here we were, visiting them to have a real and meaningful exchange.

After a long discussion, tour of their farm and delicious home made lunch, we boarded the bus to travel another 3 hours to Girardot to spend the night.

People at San Joaquin Farm, Colombia
Jovana Paredes

Voice of a community

Our second site-visit day began at 5 am. After traveling for three hours from Girardot to Venecia we were warmly welcomed by the Venecia town Mayor and treated to a delicious breakfast Casa Tr3bol. This restaurant serves food grown by the peasant community established in the Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRC) of Venecia High Lands. Following breakfast, we swapped busses to “smaller, more appopriate ones in order to go up the mountain” and traveled for another hour up a trecherous, winding mountain road to the remote highlands of Venecia. The ZRC’s land use plan prioritizes community management of the territory and protects not only their livelihoods but also the fragile ecosystems in the Sumapaz region.

Cesar Alfonso Huertas Chaparro, a young sociologist who returned to his home community after completing a university degree from Universidad Nacional to advocate for their rights, shared a story that truly embodied the power of engaged research. He explained how the community collectively authored a paper to be presented at the LDPI conference. Some members wrote on laptops, others on paper, and some simply shared their stories verbally. Cesar then wove these voices together, creating a powerful document that spoke to their collective struggles and aspirations.

This collaborative approach to writing the paper further exemplified the essence of engaged research. By incorporating the perspectives of ten community members through various means—whether typed, handwritten, or spoken—Cesar demonstrated how academic work can honor and amplify the collective voice of a community. This method not only enriches the research but also strengthens the bonds between researchers and the subjects of their study, fostering a shared commitment to finding solutions.

The impact of engaged research

What struck me most was not just the complexity of land issues in Colombia but the power of engaged research or scholar-activism to make a real difference. Engaged research goes beyond academic interests, embracing a participatory approach that values the voices, knowledge, and expertise of community members. This was vividly illustrated in our interactions with the people of San Joaquín and Venecia, where the enthusiasm and openness of the communities reminded us of the human dimension of research.

People taking selfies in Venecia, Colombia
Jovana Paredes

In Venecia, the excitement of children asking for selfies and autographs underscored the significance of our visit. It was more than an academic endeavor; it was a gesture of solidarity and recognition of their struggles and aspirations. This interaction highlighted the transformative potential of research that engages with communities on their terms, listens deeply, and values their contributions.

The experiences at San Joaquín and Venecia High Lands offer invaluable lessons for anyone involved in research, activism, or policy-making. They remind us that at the heart of engaged research lies a commitment to understanding the lived realities of communities, respecting their knowledge and experiences, and working collaboratively towards sustainable solutions. This approach challenges traditional academic boundaries, urging us to rethink how we generate knowledge and whose voices we prioritize.

As I reflect on these visits, I am convinced that engaged research holds the key to addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time. By fostering genuine partnerships with communities, we can not only enhance the relevance and impact of our work but also contribute to a more just and equitable world.

In Colombia, the journey toward peace and social justice is ongoing, and engaged research plays a crucial role in this process. Researchers, activists, policymakers and citizens must continue to listen, learn, and act in solidarity with those fighting for their rights and the preservation of their environments. Together, we can build pathways to a brighter, more inclusive future. This experience completely transformed my understanding of engaged research. It's not just about academics studying communities; it's about collaboration, listening, and amplifying the voices of those most affected by social injustices like land grabbing. The passion, resilience, and commitment of the Colombian communities we met were truly inspiring.

Embodying the Erasmus Professorship

I witnessed Prof. Borras embody the role of the Erasmus Professor in "creating positive societal impact" during our journey by facilitating collaborative efforts that amplify voices, fostering partnerships, and contributing to justice and equity. He demonstrated Erasmian values of leadership through multidisciplinary social impact, and translated EUR’s mission into tangible actions, making a difference in communities worldwide.

A call to action

Land grabbing is a global issue, and its impacts are devastating. But there are solutions, and engaged research plays a crucial role in finding them. I encourage you to learn more about land grabbing and support organizations working to empower communities and promote sustainable land use practices. 

Some papers discussed at the conference are published in the LDPI 2024 Working Paper Series.

Jovana "Jovie" Paredes in Bogota, Colombia in March 2024
Jovana Paredes

About the author

Jovana “Jovie” Paredes is a communication advisor at Erasmus Research Services, who loves using the magic of storytelling on social media to make academia relatable and foster societal engagement. She loves the challenge of turning complex concepts into click-worthy content.

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