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'FARC Responsible for 38% of Colombia's Stolen Land'

Colombian Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo Colombian Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo

Colombia's agriculture minister stated that the FARC are responsible for 38 percent of displacements pertaining to stolen land, something that will likely prove to be a major theme in upcoming peace talks.

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To date, Colombia's Land Restitution Unit has received 23,199 land restitution claims totalling 1,754,275 hectares. Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo announced that almost 8,000 of the claims --amounting to 662,468 hectares, or 38 percent -- identify the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as the cause of displacement, reported EFE. The greatest concentration of lands stolen by the FARC is in the departments of Meta, Caqueta, Guaviare, and Tolima.

According to El Tiempo,at the end of last month, the government kicked-off a country-wide campaign to take back the nearly 700,000 hectares illegally appropriated by the FARC. The first step in this plan was the presentation of a demand for the restitution of 200 hectares by 33 families in a court in Ataco, Tolima. The government reportedly chose this municipality to begin the process due to the fact that while Ataco is one of the regions with the highest concentration of land stolen by the FARC, authorities believe that security has improved enough for residents to return safely.

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Since 1985, nearly 12.9 percent of Colombia's agricultural land -- 7 million hectares -- has been seized illegally and over four million people displaced in Colombia. To begin returning land to displaced citizens, Colombia's Victims Law, passed in June of 2011, included a land restitution program, which came into full effect in January of this year.

One of the principal reasons for the FARC stealing land has been to shore up control over coca producing regions and trafficking corridors in their strongholds. The guerrillas are also estimated to own 66,595 animals, including 26,500 cattle, according to statistics released in January.

Land restitution and victims rights have been included on the agenda for the upcoming peace talks between the government and the FARC that are set to start in Oslo, Norway in mid-October. The discussions over land and the issue of drug trafficking will likely be intertwined.

Despite the FARC's considerable role in illegal land seizures, the worst offenders remain right wing paramilitaries (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia - AUC) and their successor groups known as "bandas criminales" (criminal bands - BACRIM). In many areas, the paramilitaries were deeply intertwined with larges businesses, particularly in the palm oil industry, thus adding a veneer legitimacy to the displacement and presenting the government with an extremely complicated bureaucratic task.

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