First, Liria Rosa and Carmen Palencia lost their husbands to murder amidst the violence that engulfed the northwestern part of Colombia while it was under the control of right-wing paramilitaries. Then, they lost their land. Now, they’re risking their lives to get it back.
Over the course of the last two decades, right-wing paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas have taken control of at least 16 million acres of land, according to government estimates, by violently displacing peasants or causing them to abandon their land due to threats and intimidation. Many peasants were forced into selling their farms to armed groups or their front men at rock-bottom prices after hearing a warning that became familiar in many regions: “sell to us, or your widow will.”
In a daring new policy, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos seeks to return five million acres to landless peasants over the next four years.
“A law that defends peasants can have a great impact in eroding the power of criminal groups and bringing this country closer to peace,” said Alejandro Reyes, a land expert who is a lead adviser to the government on land restitution.
The stark inequalities in land distribution are at the very root of Colombia’s conflict – half the country is in the hands of 1.15% of the population, according to a recent United Nations report. By putting violently acquired lands back into the hands of the peasants from whom it was stolen, and supporting them with agricultural subsidies, the government hopes to ebb the violence in the countryside and reduce incentives for disenfranchised peasants to turn to armed groups.
Colombia, unlike much of the rest of Latin America, has never had a comprehensive land reform program. Instead, since the 1980s, the countryside experienced what’s been called a “counter-reform,” as drug-trafficking, paramilitary and guerrilla groups violently stole huge swaths of territory. The massive land grab is a large part of why Colombia has the highest number — an estimated 4 million — of displaced people in the world behind the Sudan.
The new land bill, which was signed by Santos in June and is part of a broader Victim’s Law that aims to compensate victims of armed conflict since 1991, reverse the amassing of ill-gotten acreage and put land in the hands of the landless. It also mandates distributing almost 10 million acres of unoccupied government-owned property to the displaced.
The law’s potential is great. So are the challenges in applying it. Determining rightful ownership is complicated by the fact that most displaced peasants never held legal titles to their land, and armed groups used front men to purchase titles under a legal guise. The law puts the burden of proof on current owners to show they acquired the land legally, without violence and in good faith.
More than anything else, the government’s efforts may be thwarted by ongoing conflict in regions slated for land return and where the criminal interests that displaced the landless in the first place still persist.
“The biggest challenge in applying this law is security,” said Reyes.
Since 2005, 54 leaders of displaced peoples and grassroots land restitution efforts have been assassinated. It’s been made clear to Carmen Palencia, who heads the National Association of Victims for the Restitution and Access of Lands, that she could the 55th. Palencia said she’s received an “uncountable” number of death threats. Aside from acting on the behalf of 9,000 displaced victims trying to recoup their land, Palencia is named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit trying to recoup money her and other families had to pay paramilitaries for their land titles in the northern region of Urabá. She fled Urabá in 2008 when she learned of an assassination plot unfolding against her. More have followed, she’s learned.
Though paramilitary forces officially demobilized in 2006, many of their commanders and members recycled into new incarnations. “Until [the government] destroys these criminal groups, I can’t go back,” Palencia said. She fears the risk is also too great for others who have been displaced. “The majority will not return. They want to return, but they are afraid,” Palencia said.
To see the perils of land restitution in the midst of conflict, one need only look to the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiendó on the northern Pacific coast. Successive paramilitary invasions that started in 1997 forcibly displaced 4,000 people from these Afro-Colombian communities. There’ve been 146 murders since then.
Liria Rosa returned to Curvaradó with a handful of families in 2006. She found a landscape completely transformed. Over 20 cattle-ranching and palm outfits had taken over took over the area, destroyed many houses and planted vast expenses of African Palm. Rosa made a new house with plastic sheets. She and other returnees were greeted with threats by paramilitaries whom inhabitants have long claimed work on behalf of the palm companies. “They said they were going to disappear me or mount my head,” Rosa recalled. But Rosa didn’t budge. “I had decided: I came here to die or take back my land.”
The communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiendó had collective titles to their land, but the palm companies, government authorities later determined, had served as fronts for paramilitary forces expanding their ill-gotten territory, and with the help of corrupt regional authorities, illegally obtained many titles.
Returnees to Curvaradó and Jiguamiendó launched a legal process to recuperate their land. In 2007, the Constitutional Court ordered the immediate return of 100,000 hectares of land to the two communities and the eviction of the companies occupying them. Following the court decision, three community leaders were murdered.
Now, the government is prosecuting at least nine companies for forced displacement and aggravated criminal conspiracy. Evictions of several palm and cattle-ranching companies still haven’t happened – they continue to occupy about 23,000 hectares of land, according to Justice and Peace, an ecumenical organization that has supported the communities’ land struggles.
“They’re occupying us and keep on doing us harm,” said Rosa. Residents estimate that 500 paramilitary members they claim work on behalf of the companies have entered the area since April, despite army presence. Two inhabitants leading efforts to reclaim collective territory were assassinated in July and 32 leaders have received threats (causing eight of them to flee), according to Justice and Peace. Recent threats warn of plans to trigger a massive displacement of the population.
The reality on the ground throws the land bill’s potential into question. “If communities aren’t protected on their land, what kind of land restitution will this be?” asked Father Alberto Franco of Justice and Peace.
The government recognizes more needs to be done to ensure the security of displaced communities if its land policy is to have success. It is redrafting strategies on how to protect high-risk leaders and communities at large who are slated to return, according to an email statement from the Ministry of Justice.
So far, the government has formalized land titles for close to 1.2 million acres of land. The law will come into full effect in January.