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The Colombian Caravana hosts a blogspot for our Members to post their articles on Colombia and write about their experiences. You can find the blogspot here http://caravanablogs.wordpress.com/ If you would like to write your own blogpost please email colombian.caravana@gmail.com

Our current blog is below:

Land Restitution in Colombia: the gulf between paper and practice

article by Katherine Barnes, member of the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers’ Group

Hernando Pérez Hoyos had high hopes when he first returned to his farm in early 2010. He and his family had been forcibly displaced from their land in Antioquia by paramilitaries in 1997 during Colombia’s armed conflict.  Hoyos’ attempts to rebuild his life, however, were short-lived. The local mayor ordered the family’s eviction in June 2010, making them homeless for the second time. The family moved to the main town in the area, Totumo, where Hoyos continued to campaign for his land. On the evening of 19 September 2010, when Hoyos was returning from a land restitution ceremony, he was forced onto the back of a motorbike by two armed men. The next day Hoyos was found dead with an open wound on his head in a remote area about two kilometres outside Totumo’s town centre.[1]

Far from being an isolated incident, Hoyos’ murder is representative of the violent backlash experienced by those attempting to reclaim land under Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law.[2] Enacted in 2011, the law was designed to return to their rightful owners the six million hectares of land (an area the size of Ireland) that were stolen and abandoned during Colombia’s armed conflict.[3] This phenomenon of land-grabbing has given Colombia the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world – 4.8 million people were driven from their homes in the past 30 years.[4]

While the Land Restitution law may seem promising on paper[5], its effective implementation is proving problematic because of the opposition of certain members of Colombian society. Human Rights Watch have documented 17 killings (in which 24 people have died) directly linked to land restitution since 2008.[6] Government statistics indicate that the rate of killings is even higher. According to the Government’s Ombudsman’s Office, 71 land restitution leaders were killed between 2006 and 2011[7] and as of August 2013 the Attorney General’s Office reported that it is investigating 49 killings of “leaders, claimants, or participants in land restitution matters”.[8] Death threats are also common; with Human Rights Watch having documented threats against more than 80 land claimants since 2008 and government data indicating that least 500 people have reported such threats to the authorities since January 2012.[9]

It is not only land claimants who find themselves subject to these attacks but also the judges and lawyers who facilitate their claims. In a March 2013 several specialised land restitution judges from across the country wrote to President Santos requesting protection measures and expressing serious concerns for their safety: “The attacks against victim claimants, their leaders, and members of the organisations that have supported them are well known. As justice officials, we are equally or even more exposed [to attacks], because we are the ones who order the legal and material restitution.” [10]

Much the same applies to human rights lawyers who represent the claimants. For example, the Caravana has denounced the attacks suffered by lawyers representing the Pitalito community in the region of Cesar. The community was displaced in June 2010 due to violence inflicted on them by the Colombian army, riot police and armed guards acting on behalf of a major palm oil plantation owner, Fernández de Castro. The community began returning to their lands accompanied by their lawyers in May 2013. Since then Fernández de Castro has filed criminal complaints against the group consisting of false accusations. Two of the group’s lawyers were also arbitrarily detained by police who accused them of being members of the guerrilla.

The reasons for this violent response to land restitution lie in, on the one hand, the importance of land ownership to wealth creation, and on the other hand, the unequal distribution of this vital resource. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 52% of rural property lies in the hands of just 1.15% of landowners.[11] Rather than becoming more equal, concentration of land ownership is on the increase: the Gini index worsened from 0.841 in 1960 to 0.885 in 2009.[12] This figure puts Colombia in eleventh place worldwide among countries with the worst distribution of land.

It follows that land is a cause and a consequence of tension in Colombia both today and in the past.  During the armed conflict landowners created paramilitary groups to protect their land from attacks by left-wing guerrillas. These paramilitary forces not only protected landowners’ interests as they were, but also drove hundreds of thousands of peasants from their homes. Much of this land has been sold to large national and international mining and agricultural corporations, or is retained by paramilitary leaders or farmers with close links to paramilitary groups. Given that vast areas of fertile land have been left uncultivated, there is also strong evidence that great quantities of land have been used to launder profits from the drugs trade.[13]

Those who have benefitted from these atrocities will stop at nothing to protect their interests. After over half a century of violence in Colombia in which 220,000 lives have been lost (8 out of 10 civilians) and 25,000 people have been disappeared, it is perhaps not surprising that recourse to violence has been normalised amongst some members of the Colombian elite. This ruthless sense of entitlement is accompanied by the means to carry out threats. The failure of the 2005 Justice and Peace Law[14] to effectively dismantle the paramilitary infrastructure has meant that paramilitary groups remain despite not being recognised as such by the government.[15]  Hundreds of kilometres away from Bogotá, often in remote areas, these armed groups are free to intimidate civilians with little risk of interference from bona fide state officials.

There is no question that the obstacles blocking implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law are formidable. The scale of the challenge becomes even more apparent when one considers that so far less than 1% of the total number of land restitution cases have been decided by the courts. Violence is therefore set to become more widespread as powerful groups find their interests increasingly threatened. Nevertheless, violence is not inevitable if the right steps are taken at an early stage. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out in its recent report on the subject, body guards and bulletproof vests can only go so far.[16] Instead, the real emphasis must be on prosecuting those responsible so that, little by little, the current climate of impunity is eliminated. Such an approach not only ensures justice to past victims but also looks to the future. By holding the guilty to account the gulf between law on paper and law in practice narrows, thereby replacing lawlessness with state control. Clearly, the costs of failing to do this are enormous.  But there is also a great deal to gain from doing it well.





[1] The Risk of Returning Home: Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia (Human Rights Watch: September 2013), p.63.

[2] Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras (Ley 1448).

[3] The Risk of Returning Home: Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia (Human Rights Watch: September 2013), p.4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Amnesty’s excellent report for an assessment of the law’s strengths and weaknesses: Colombia: The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Amnesty International: 2012).

[6] The Risk of Returning Home: Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia (Human Rights Watch: September 2013), p.8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Statistics quoted by Sibylla Brodzinsky in “Colombian farmers risk death to reclaim lost land” (The Guardian: 16 October 2013). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/16/colombian-farmers-death-reclaim-lost-land

[12] Divide and Purchase: how land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia (Oxfam: September 2013), p.7.

[13] Tom Feiling, Short Walks from Bogotá (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p.204.

[14] Ley de Justicia y Paz (Ley 975).

[15] Surviving paramilitary groups or successor paramilitary groups are known as “emerging criminal gangs” (“bandas emergentes criminales” or “BACRIM”).

[16] The Risk of Returning Home: Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia (Human Rights Watch: September 2013).