How Opportunistic Land-Grabbing Causes Displacement during Armed Conflict

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Juan Fernando Tellez, University of California, Davis, “Land, Opportunism, and Displacement in Civil Wars: Evidence from Colombia.

One of the great tragedies of armed conflict is its effect of uprooting and displacing the population caught in its path. As of the end of 2020, the UN’s Refugee Agency counted more than 80 million people who had been displaced from their homes by conflict. In a new article in American Political Science Review, Juan Tellez offers fresh insight on why conflict causes displacement. Using the case of Colombia, he develops a theory of displacement in which local elites exploit an ongoing conflict to displace civilians for private gain.

Why does armed conflict displace civilians? In some instances, displacement is an incidental byproduct of conflict: civilians flee their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire. In other cases, displacement is strategic: armed groups deliberately target civilians they suspect of collaborating with their enemies in order to consolidate their control over territory. In his article, Tellez identifies a third category of displacement, which he terms opportunistic displacement. This type of displacement is neither incidental nor part of a broader strategy but is motivated by private interest. Here, elites like land or business owners ally with armed groups to displace civilians from valuable land they seek to expropriate.

Tellez’s study focuses on a period of the Colombian armed conflict between 1993 and 2005, a phase in which violence between left-wing guerrilla groups, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian state was particularly intense. During this period, Colombia also saw a rapid expansion of African palm-oil crops, a highly profitable but also highly land-intensive industry. Tellez argues that the opportunity to profit from this industry created an incentive for elites with power and wealth to take land from peasants in order to expand palm oil crops. These elites formed opportunistic alliances with paramilitary groups, which they used as “hired muscle” to violently displace peasants and take control of their land.

Tellez offers two sources of evidence for these claims. First, he uses data tracking the introduction of palm oil at the municipality level to test whether this crop is associated with higher displacement. He estimates that the adoption of palm oil crops increased a municipality’s displacement rate by roughly 23 cases per thousand residents, a substantial effect given that the national average was 14 cases of displacement per thousand. He further demonstrates that this effect on displacement was strong in areas with paramilitary groups, which often had links to local elites, but weak or nonexistent in areas with left-wing guerrilla groups, which more often relied on peasants for support.

“Tellez finds that both geographic patterns of displacement and surveys of displaced people in Colombia support the idea that elites drove peasants from their land to make way for profitable palm oil crops.” The second source of evidence for this theory comes from a survey of 1500 rural, conflict-affected households in Colombia, roughly 40% of which had been displaced. The survey, fielded by Colombia’s government in 2017, asked respondents a variety of questions about the circumstances of their displacement. Tellez combines these survey responses with his data on the location of palm oil crops and finds that respondents from palm oil-producing areas were more likely than others to report being forcibly displaced, more likely to blame elites or paramilitaries for their displacement, and more likely to say they were displaced for their land.

In sum, Tellez finds that both geographic patterns of displacement and surveys of displaced people in Colombia support the idea that elites drove peasants from their land to make way for profitable palm oil crops. This result has important implications for scholarship on armed conflict as well as policymaking in post-conflict settings. For conflict scholars, this finding suggests that theories of violence that focus exclusively on armed groups and their strategies may miss the important roles played by non-combatants and broader societal conflicts over land and resources. And for policymakers in countries emerging from armed conflict, the study highlights the need for legal and judicial remedies to help victims of displacement recover their land from powerful elites.