Colombia: Land restitution amid the armed conflict

By Dialogo
September 11, 2014

The Victims and Restitution of Lands Law (1448/2011) – considered the most important human rights initiative of President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration – seeks to reestablish within ten years the rights of citizens dispossessed of their properties or forced to abandon them due to violence since January 1991.
“Colombia is the only country in the world that is going ahead with the restitution of lands in the middle of an armed conflict,” said Ricardo Sabogal, director of the Land Restitution Unit (URT). “Several illegal armed groups that were responsible for the dispossessions are still present in many regions of the country, and they are against restitution.”
To ensure the security of those who seek to return to their homes, in 2011 the Ministry of Defense created the Integrated Intelligence Center for Land Restitution (CI2-RT).
The CI2-RT facilitates the exchange of intelligence information among the Office of the Vice-President, the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER), the URT and the NGOs that represent victims. This information is used to create risk maps and promote permanent dialogue among the victims, the NGOs and community leaders.
Much of the territory to be returned continues to be coveted by guerrilla and illegal armed groups. Some is used for coca crops, while other parts serve as drug trafficking routes or strategic corridors for other criminal purposes, according to the URT.
Also, some of the properties to be returned were acquired by businesses through fraud, even though they currently house legal activities, such as stock-breeding, palm oil cultivation and logging.
Between January 2008 and March 2014, 66 claimants have been murdered, according to the Forjando Futuros Foundation report “Restitution of Lands, Progress and Difficulties.”
The National Protection Unit (UNP) received 764 protection requests in 2013 from victims of the armed conflict, mainly from persons who had been displaced and were claiming lands.
The Local Operating Committees for Restitution (COLR), in which law enforcement authorities participate, seek to coordinate the logistics of the land return process in order to prevent re-victimization of the claimants.
In the last 30 years, people have been displaced from 6 million hectares of land, an area equal in size to the U.S. state of Massachusetts, according to the report “The Risk of Returning Home,” published in 2013 by the NGO Human Rights Watch.
Between 1996 and 2002, there was a spike in forced displacements: 2,014,893 victims, as a result of the increase in violence by paramilitary groups, according to the Sole Victim’s Registry.
After the demobilization of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia paramilitary group in 2006, criminal structures in the region quickly rearmed themselves as emerging criminal groups (BACRIM), which are putting pressure on land claimants.
In April 2013, one day before President Santos traveled to Córdoba department to preside over the reinstatement of lands to owners who had been displaced by violence, Éver Cordero Oviedo, a well-known leader of victims in the region, was assassinated.
Three months later, 39 of Cordero’s relatives abandoned their homes due to threats from illegal armed groups.
“Wherever we (the URT) go, problems appear”, Sabogal said. “There are many interests behind some of the properties to be returned, groups that do not want to return them.”
On July 8, URT’s topographer Robinson Álvarez Quemba was murdered in the town of San Roque, Antioquia. Authorities are still investigating his homicide.
Authorities expected 360,000 land restitution claims, but 54,063 have been filed, according to the report “Land Restitution, Drop by Drop, Progress and Difficulties,” presented in March by the NGO Fundación Forjando Futuros. Of that total, 28.3% are being reviewed by the court, 1.7% have been approved by the court and 70% are being reviewed by the URT.
“Some families that were part of ASOVICA [Association of Farmers’ Victims of the Conflict] were returned to their lands by the government, but they had to leave again as their safety couldn’t be guaranteed,” said ASOVICA’s president Juan Domingo Collante.
In addition, in 70% of the municipalities with displacement claims, the presence of anti-personnel mines makes the farmers’ return more difficult, according to the HRW report.
From 1990 until June of 2014, there were 10,773 victims of anti-personnel mine explosions in Colombia. Of this total, 4,152 were civilians, according to the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Action against Mines.

Life far from home

On the second Sunday of each month, hundreds of families displaced by the violence of the guerrilla and illegal armed groups gather in the south of the capital, Bogotá, to unite around the dream they share: to return home.
There are currently about 400,000 victims of the armed conflict living in Bogotá, according to the High Commission for the Rights of Victims, Peace, and Reconciliation of the Mayor’s Office.
Sixty-three percent of the displaced living in Bogotá come from rural areas, so their adaptation to urban conditions is more difficult, according to the report “Displaced Persons in Bogotá and Soacha (2011),” published by the Peace and Conflicts Institute.
“We feel kidnapped in the cities, as if our freedom has been taken away,” Collante said. “Here we can’t grow corn, yucca, banana, rice, papaya, yam, mango, watermelon… Here we have to buy everything, and we don’t have anything. We’re farmers, and what we want is the countryside.”
Among the displaced persons currently living in Bogotá, there are 4,906 land claims, totaling 759,851 hectares, according to the URT.
In order to sign the peace agreement, the government has to have a strategy regarding the restitution of lands and employment for demobilized guerrilla fighters, otherwise if plans aren't made to keep these people busy, we'll be reinforcing the lack of security in the cities, with a rise in street crime and attacks on business entities. In the end this will be like the paramilitary groups turning in weapons, lots of them went back to the armed gangs, the so-called bactrin. One thing is to sign papers, and another thing is real peace, with all arms being turned in, in particular the AK47 that have caused so much damage to villages and ranches, like death machines. Twelve years ago I was forced off my property, displaced by the violence. 2 years ago I registered this at the land restitution offices but they told me there that I have to wait 10 more years. This is definitely an injustice because my property is located in a forest reserve and indigenous reserve and it is impossible to go back there. This is still a shame for Brazil. These politicians stay there while lying to the population. Justice must prevail. The farmers should have the utmost guarantees to be able to return to their lands to work. This would benefit the government, the people and the peace process. It is very important for this to be in Colombia At the rate this process is going, more than ten decades will go by and there will be no restitution for the victims. As long as we don't see a plan to return to the countryside with a joint fund, with government assigned resources, those who got rich from the war, such as: politicians, military members, banks, multinational and industrial corporations, foreign governments, communications media, the departments and the mayors' offices, nothing will happen. Watch out, a fund overseen by several including governmental associations, otherwise, it will go to the corrupt, who are on the lookout. This is very good for all the families displaced by this violence which has hurt us for over 50 years. What I mean by this is that the laws exist and we have to fight for it It's true to say that when you have more, you want more and that's called ambition.... Like in your country, in my country there are conflicts over land as well. Our families are left up to chance and neglected by the authorities, who in turn are subject to or coerced to obey big landowners. Our people are hopeful that one day, justice will be served and our rights will be respected. I wish you peace and love, and may faith prevail in your lives. Very good, broad and clear. This isn't a comment on this article, but it would be good if you would report on the judicial strike in several parts of the country, since it affects many people, given that they talk about a public service. I think the police needs to be more on top of things :D As long as Santiflaz continues to grade those of us who disagree with his crippled dialogues as enemies of the peace process, it won't go beyond the vacation time he's been giving those criminal terrorists! To intend to lessen the value of the truths stated regarding the 52 capitulations by the Centro Democrático using lies and diatribes as if it were an enemy of the peace process, does not just lay open his weak arguments but it also encourages more Colombians who mistakenly believed in his reelection to join with those who are not in agreement with the joke happening in Havana, because his ulterior motive is exposed and that of the clowns in the government and in Congress which is to toss Colombia to the catastrophic quicksand that Venezuela has been mired in with expropriations and installing 21st century socialism!