InSight: Colombia’s Land Reform Plan Targets Trouble Spots

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Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has been widely praised for his grand plan to return swathes of land to the country’s massive population of internal refugees, forced off their land by violence in the country’s long armed conflict. InSight looks at where this project will meet its biggest challenges.

This ambitious land reform plan, if successful, could be the president’s biggest legacy to a country where land issues have long been intertwined with the armed conflict, and which counts 3.7 million displaced people, according to the United Nations (UN). But the project faces huge obstacles, particularly in economically strategic regions of the country identified as the top priorities for reform, which have for decades been the areas worst-hit by displacement and continue to be dominated by illegal armed groups.

The government has identified key areas where land restitution is to begin, based on where the most displacement has taken place (see El Espectador’s map of priority areas). These are located in the north and west of Colombia, and include north Choco, Uraba, Magdalena Medio, Montes de Maria, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, southern Bolivar, Cordoba, and northern Nariño. These areas coincide in large part with the old paramilitary heartlands of the northwest and the Caribbean coast, where paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) was responsible for mass displacements in the 1980s and 1990s.

Displacement in these economically strategic areas, rather than being politically motivated, or a by-product of fighting, was often purposefully carried out by the paramilitaries to gain territory for themselves or on behalf of powerful groups seeking to gain or consolidate control of valuable land. These groups included big landowners and farmers seeking to expand their properties for large-scale monoculture, and drug lords fighting to gain control of trafficking routes. The process has been referred to as an “agrarian counter-reform,” with Colombia’s land in recent decades becoming more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, through the displacement of small-scale farmers. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a 2007 report that Colombia’s conflict “is above all a tool to oblige families (especially campesinos) to leave their land so that the illegal armed actor (generally paramilitaries) can take possession of the land abandoned by families who flee.”

La Silla Vacia reports on one such case which it says will be “the acid test” of the government’s land reform measures. It involves the late-1990s mass displacement by AUC paramilitaries of some 4,000 members of Afro-Colombian communities from their land in Curvarado and Jiguamiando, north Choco. More than 100,000 hectares of land was then taken over by business interests including palm oil entrepreneurs and cattle ranchers, who received loans and support from the government.

This pattern of economic displacement can be seen repeated across the government’s priority areas for land restitution, with populations moved out and business interests moved in. Examples include palm oil companies in Nariño and Montes de Maria, banana plantations in Uraba, and hydroelectric plants in Antioquia. This convergence between political violence and violence motivated by land concentration was particularly strong in Uraba, Choco and the Caribbean coast, where much more conflict over land took place than in Colombia’s northeast, Andean region, or southwest, according to one 2003 report by the Colombian National Comission for Reparation and Reconciliation.

Displacement of peasants from valuable land was the motive behind much paramilitary violence, particularly in the areas the government has earmarked as the first targets for land reform. “Today the country is facing painfully that in fact farmers were displaced in Choco, in Montes de Maria, in eastern Antioquia, to seize lands that were good for certain products,” Michael Reed, director for the Colombia International Center for Transitional Justice, has said.

The economic aspect of displacement in these key zones means that for the Santos government to carry out land reform it is not enough to secure an area, driving out guerrilla groups and making it safe for people to return to their homes, as the land must be taken from its new owners, often powerful interest groups who have developed it, while many high-value properties have now passed into the hands of multinational companies. InSight has reported on the difficulties of returning stolen land, as much of it is registered in the name of proxy owners, making it difficult to seize and redistribute. In addition many of the land transfers in these economic displacements were technically legal, with peasants pressured through threats into selling at low prices.

In many of the government’s “priority” regions for land reform, displacement continues today. The latest report by Colombian NGO the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Consultaria para los Derechos Humanos y Desplazamineto – CODHES) says that more than 280,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2010, and lists among the regions worst-affected Nariño’s Pacific coast, Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and southern Colombia.

Paramilitary successor groups, labeled “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIMS) by the government, have a strong presence in these areas, which are old zones of paramilitary influence. These gangs share much of the modus operandi of the demobilized paramilitaries, and continue to control their old territory. These areas are likely to present the biggest problems in terms of restoring stolen land, as they are still controlled by the criminal interests linked to those who took the land in the first place. The Urabeños, descended from the Castaños’ AUC, are present in key areas where the government intends to carry out land reform; along the Caribbean coast, including Uraba; Antioquia; Choco; and Nariño. The Rastrojos and Paisas are also powerful in much of this region.

Another problem for reform efforts is that the stolen land continues to be sought-after, meaning that there are a lot of interests opposed to its transferal to small farmers. One example is Montes de Maria, in the Sucre and Bolivar departments. Adam Isacson at Just the Facts details the ongoing “land grab” in this region, where big landowners and investors in large-scale projects like palm and bitter yucca are buying up land at a rapid rate, often from returning displaced farmers who don’t have a choice but to sell as they are deep in debt after being away from their land for years.

The presence of armed groups and of these economic pressures in the priority land reform regions presents a big problem for the restitution project. As well as removing stolen land from those who own it, it is crucial to the government’s plan that they can guarantee the security of those who return their old land.

Between March 2002 and January 2011 CODHES says that 44 displaced leaders linked with land restitution campaigns were killed, and the organization has highlighted the cases of 8 individuals involved in the reform process who were murdered in Cordoba and Uraba. The UNHCR warned in February 2011 that the BACRIM are committing both individual and collective forced displacement, as well as murdering and harassing those working for land restitution, particularly in Cauca, Sucre, and Uraba.

In one recent case activist Hernando Perez was beaten to death in September 2010, the day after taking part in a government ceremony in Uraba in which a number of displaced families were given the rights to their old land. Until more fundamental change takes place, with the defeat of armed gangs and provision of economic support to returning farmers in these key areas, it will be difficult for the government to put its land reform plan into action.

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