Santos’s Land Bill

November 1, 2011 | Nadja Drost
Formerly displaced people in Curvaradó, Colombia. Photo by Stephen Ferry / violentology.com

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.


  1. kelly Brunell says:

    I am glad the government FINALLY stepped in, weather or not laws will be upheld or not ??????????. A whole lot late for millions of people, I have my thoughts on Gorilla warfare, and these animals that kill to take what-ever they want, I’m sure everyone else does as well. I have a question, not only for this particular country but others as well, why does it cost so much to adopt the orphans of this type of tragedy? I would think, the children could use that money and have a better life with adoptive parents, a college fund perhaps, my husband and I wanted to adopt an orphan, unfortunatley we were not rich enough to give 11,000.00. so these children go with no parents !! Kind of off the beatin trak of the story-but still……….

  2. KwusuAakhu ShepsHeru says:

    Violentology is exactly what this is! Shame shame on Humanity for doing this to Each other. What humans have fail to realize is that we all are Human-Beings here on this planet with enough sense to want to live a good life. How dare ‘some’ – the 1% – of human-beings to think that only they should live a good life. Calling other people ‘peasants’. What the hell is a peasant?? We all are Human-Beings and that’s it!!! Calling yourselves by any other title is just cause to be divided and foolish. All of the governments of this earth are Corrupt and Weak and Evil. You all will not stand-up for the people because you’re totally narrow-minded and evil and everyone involved with the Colombian people want for themselves First and want for the people who have already been displaced there Last or Never. Your actions are sick and I Wish I had the power to punish each and every one of you!!! This is just wrong wrong wrong and in this day and age, it’s a damn shame! Every human-being on earth deserves to live a good life no matter what colour they are; no matter what race they think they are. And the people who think they are the owners of the land and it’s resources, need to think about sharing all that wealth with each and every human-being who live in Colombia. But, of course, your minds are waaaay to small to even consider such a Right thing to do. You all involved are cursed right now and you don’t even see it. Get it together and stop hatin on each other! Tefnut Elbey.

  3. KwusuAakhu ShepsHeru says:

    And whoever said that they are glad that the government stepped in — give me a break!! None of the governements on earth care about The People. They only care about themselves, just as the true owners of the Colombian Lands only care about theirselves and not the rest of the Displaced People of their lands. There is no reason for over 2 million people in Colombia to be in such a state except for Greed coming from everyone there. You all don’t want to share the wealth and that is the sole problem. Obviously there is enough for everyone – can’t you see that? Oh, you can’t. Hmmmmmmm. Many will continue to die there if you all don’t See what I can see clearly. I’ve studied the Histories of this world and I know that there is no solution for this situation unless everyone involved Learn To Share The Wealth with each other. Afterall, that is what it is there for. Truly what is on earth belongs to all of us and what is found or discovered on your land, is for you First to decide what to do with it. But, high-intelligence decree that it would be Best that Everyone shares what is Already here. Isn’t that so??? Why am I the only person on earth who can see this?? Why are Humans so cruel to one another?? We are all that we got. No gods anywhere else is going to help you – you are all that you got! And if you think some god somewhere is going to come and help you, you’re all wrong. They ain’t come yet and they ain’t gonna come because they don’t exist. It’s only you and you’ve got to solve your own problems that you have made for yourselves, including the governments. This is a Human-Made-Problem and all the humans have to solve it. We have the Abilities, so just do it. Do it for All. The Earth has given it all to you, so share it right and share it with Care for All. It’s that simple. However, will you get it or do you still want it All for yourself and just your family and nobody else?? Hmmmmmmm.

  4. KwusuAakhu ShepsHeru says:

    Will I have to come to Colombia to Set The Record Straight and get it cronk??? I will……Tefnut Elbey/Kwusu Aakhu ShepsHeru!

  5. Casey says:

    What if the villagers were given heavy weapons and trained in tactical defense?

  6. KwusuAakhu ShepsHeru says:

    Casey, who’s gonna give them heavy weapons and train them? Give?? They are sitting on gold mines and mineral mines. No one is gonna give them anything. They’ll have to neogiate everything with their best minds. And more fighting is only gonna cause more death and we as intelligent Humans should not be killing one another. We’re not bugs and flies and things of that sort whereas you can’t communicate with them to leave your space before you swap them. We are Human and that should mean ‘something’ and we ‘should’ stand for a higher standard of Life and Living for all of Humanity. The Colombians need only to look at the bigger picture and include all of the Colombians in solving and sharing what is on and within their land. Their government should assist them with great concern and care for themselves and everyone else. That’s Intelligence. That is what is being called for in this day and time. We’ve done Enough killing of one another down through the ages. We’ve lived through the Dark Ages already. When are we as a people gonna rise to the call of Every Human-Being on earth living good? Why should only 10% of Humanity (if that much) live the good life? This is exactly what causes killings and all other kinds of savage living. Is this all that mankind can strive for – killing one another and taking from one another? Damn it now! I swear I’m embrassed to be a human. I must be from another planet, another world or something because for the life of me, I can’t understand why humans can’t see where they’re going wrong all the time. Case in point: we teach our children not to fight, yet that is Exactly what we turn to doing all the time. We teach our children that it’s not right to steal, yet we steal from one another all the time. And what I’m saying isn’t coming from any religious materials, because I’m not into that either. (That’s all lies too, but that’s another topic all together). Overall, Humans create human problems and we should solve them. No god or alien from anywhere is going to solve our mess. Get real and open your eyes. It’s a new day and another opportunity for Change; change for the Better that is. TefnutUaRaet.

  7. Charo Mina-Rojas says:

    Unfortunately the promise of the Victims Law is not real for dispossessed Afro-Colombians. The Victims Law was passed by the government in violation of the right of the Afro-descendant victims to previous consultation, a right that will give them the opportunity to determine effectively how justice, reparation and restitution could be served. The law doesn’t include the Afro-Colombian victims, it contain an article (205) that gives the president exceptional faculties to develop a previous consultation process with the communities to define a decree with character of law (decreto con caracter de ley). Unfortunately this process never happened. The government limited its “consultation” to regional levels with people chosen arbitrarily, that doesn’t legitimately represents the victims, in a recurrent violation of the right of the communities to an effective process of consultation and consent. Furthermore, in the same process the government introduced other laws that are critical to the communities’ rights such intellectual property, genetic resources, and revenues, in its attempt to rush legislation that will facilitate the implementation of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), recently ratified by the US Congress. As many may know (or not) this FTA has grave implications and represents a serious threat to the territorial, economic, environmental and intellectual property rights of the Afro-descendant communities, many located in lands of government, armed groups and multinational corporations’ interest.
    If there is not respect and application of the Afro-Colombian victims right to previous consultation and previous and well informed consent, this law is another government’s rhetoric move regarding the rights of Black people.

  8. Nelson riveros says:

    When will this episode and the others on Colombia be aired?

  9. chacama says:

    The truth is half of these so called, self proclaimed victims, are nothing but ex-guerillas posing as victims of their own conflict. Mrs Carmen Palencia herself was a ELN guerrilla fighter in Uraba until she decided to let others shot the weapons while she formed a group to take over land from families or companies (aka “stealing” a la Chavez). Her first husband died in a combat between his group (ELN) and the FARC guerrillas over land for narcotics control, her second husband is also ELN guerrilla. Now that finally the people of Colombia has the advantage on this insanity build by these delinquents, the very same people that have trafficked drugs, killed thousands, kidnapped and tortured hundreds, are trying now to pose as victims of their own invention and organizations such as PBS take for granted every story they tell. I am an educated Victim of these animals and know what I am writing. Stop them!.

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