The Agrarian Question:

The agrarian counter-reforms and peasants’ food (in)security in Colombia, 1961-2013



An Interdisciplinary Environmental Historical Research Project by Diana Valencia



About Me

My name is Diana Valencia. I am currently a PhD History candidate at the University of Exeter, UK. My research is focused on the Agrarian Question - which I re-named as the "Food Question"- in the Modern History of my country, Colombia. I will show how the agrarian counter-reforms have caused peasants' food insecurity through the loss of food sovereignty. I am an engineer, project manager and I have an MSc in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. My main goal now is to deliver an interdisciplinary investigation using historical methods of research, which has practical impact and will inform the current debate from the perspective of the peasants and their territory.  

Mi nombre es Diana Valencia. Soy actualmente candidata a PhD en Historia en la Universidad de Exeter, UK. Mi investigación gira en torno al tema de la Cuestión Agraria - que he denominado aquí la "cuestión alimentaria" - en la Historia Moderna de mi país, Colombia. Demostraré cómo las contra-reformas agrarias han caudado inseguridad alimentaria en el campesinado, mediante la pérdida de soberanía alimetaria. Soy ingeniera, gerente de proyectos y MSc en Seguridad Alimentaria y Agricultura Sostenible. Mi principal objetivo es entregar una investigación interdisciplinar usando métodos de investigación histórica y la cual tiene impacto práctico e informará el debate actual, desde el punto de vista de los campesinos y su territorio.


General information




The agrarian reforms and counter-reforms and peasants’ food insecurity in Colombia, 1961-2013


This research explores the impact of Colombian agrarian reforms and counter-reforms on peasant communities’ food sovereignty and, consequently, on their food security. The term counter-reform encompasses actions that triggered monopolisation of agrarian resources, following the land redistribution actions traditionally known as agrarian reforms. These are mainly caused by internally contradictory policies, but also by other stressors such as land grabbing, limited access to water, seed monopolisation, violent conflict, international influences and market pressures. This thesis will analyse how they contributed to Colombian agriculture development, as well as its decline and deformation, between the 1961 Agrarian Reform Law and the 2013 great agrarian strike. This is an interdisciplinary research project where principles of agricultural sciences and environmental history are used to investigate and analyse the counter-reformist impact on local food systems affecting both peasants and their territory. The methodology I will explore combines: 1) a systematic archival and jurisprudential examination of agrarian policies, land use, agricultural transformations, territorial conflicts and displacement; 2) an environmental history study of periods of scarcity, changes in soil use, nutritional traditions or indigenous agriculture losses, and food security indicators in general; and 3) a series of oral history interviews to build a chronicle of the main distortions in agriculture and diet from the peasants’ own perspectives and memories. Transformation of the Colombian landscape varied according to the region and climate zone. Therefore, this investigation will cover three case-study regions: Montes de María (warm-land), the coffee region (temperate-land), and Santurbán (cold-land). This dissertation will review the history of the rise and fall of agriculture and food sovereignty in Colombia, making the case that agrarian counter-reforms during the twentieth century have unsettled socio-ecological systems; this has consequently altered biological cycles, harvests, and food supply, and has thereby caused negative long-term impact on peasants’ sustainable practices and food security.



The purpose of this research is to analyse the impact of agrarian counter-reforms on the food sovereignty and consequently, the food (in)security of Colombian peasants, between 1961 (Law 135: Social and Agrarian Reform SAR) and 2013 (2013 Great peasantry strike and Law 1448/2011: Victims’ and land restitution law)

Since the 1930’s, Colombia has tried and failed to consolidate sustainable agrarian reforms through equitable land redistribution policies; in contrast, policies favouring agrarian resources accumulation, violence against peasants, market dumping and land dispossession have operated as recurrent agrarian counter-reforms. Even more, this limited understanding of agrarian reform just in terms of land has led to neglected access to other necessary elements in the food chain such as water, seeds and market. Consequently, rural policies became utterly regressive for the survival of the peasant-landscape and food sovereignty in the last decade of the last century.


Although many studies around “Colombia’s agrarian question” have been published, very few have looked at its food sovereignty and food security implications. The purpose of this research is to assess the transformations in agri-food systems (feeding, nutrition, production) as part of the man-land metabolism in three different peasant agro-ecosystems in Colombia: warm-, temperate-, and cold-land, caused by the combined outcomes of historical land use, rural development policies and conflicts over rural resources. To do so, the contemporary concept of “food security” linked to “food sovereignty” will be applied to Colombia’s late twentieth century environmental history. 

Current stage

  • UPDATE (23/01/2019): I have been confirmed my upgrade. It means that the University confirms support to this project and the research funding is granted. I am currently preparing the fieldwork, which will take place in Colombia from February to July, 2019.

  • The first chapter writing stage have concluded.  However, the oral history contributions to this are substantial to present the peasants' voice. My mission in Colombia during 2019 will be to collect, process and articulate the peasants and their land's testimonies and incorporate them to my work.

  • My Literature review, conceptual framework and methodology plans have been confirmed. 

  • My conceptual framework uses modern concepts like peasantry, peasant landscape, food insecurity and food sovereignty.

  • In my literature review I have addressed the way historians and non-historians have told the Colombian agrarian and food question history, from the first works by Orlando Fals Borda and the Colombian annals authors in the 1960s, to the contemporary environmental historians such as Bucheli, Nieto Olarte, Claudia Leal and Sophia Gallini, and Latin-Americanists like Reinaldo Funes Monzote and Christopher R. Boyer. Other scholars inspire and provide theoretical framework and inspiration to my work such as Phillip McMichael, Angus Wright and Germán Palacio. Special mention to: The recent essays "Home cooking" by John Solury and "Indigenous Imprints" by Nicolas Cuvi, which have been key environmental historical references as well, since they touch the "food sovereignty" as historical subject. 

  • I have determined the case-studies that will feed my project: the coffee corridor (The "Old Caldas"), Montes de María (in the Colombian Caribbean) , and the páramo de Santurbán (highland moor).


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