Farmers deny faking displacement, as Colombia opens investigation

Farmers living in Las Pavas, Caldas department, have vigorously denied lying about forced displacement, as Colombia’s Prosecutor General announces an investigation.

Viviane Morales, Colombia’s top prosecutor, is to visit the estate on Thursday to “personally” confirm what has happened during its long and troubled history.

The Prosecutor General’s Cartagena office last week accused the Las Pavas community, who were given rights to the estate earlier this year, of lying about being forced off the land by paramilitaries various times during the last two decades.

The case is complicated, as the last time the farmers were removed from the land (in 2009) it was by Colombian riot police, not by paramilitaries. The eviction followed a court order obtained by palm oil company Daabon, who had bought the land from its previous owner, Jesus Emilio Escobar, Pablo Escobar’s uncle.

At the time, the community were trying to gain official rights to the land through a forfeiture process being implement by Colombia’s Institute for Rural Development (Incoder), the organization which oversees land restitution. Their basis for the forfeiture claim was alleged abandonment of the land by Escobar – though they do also claim to have been displaced by paramilitaries several times in the 15 years prior to this abandonment.

The July Constitutional Court ruling declared the 2009 forced eviction illegal and ordered the Incoder forfeiture process to be continued – a process which led to the farmers being granted rights to the land and awarded financial compensation from the presidential welfare fund Accion Social.

Myriam Martinez Palomino, the Prosecutor General’s Cartagena officer, last week accused the community, and the international NGOs which have supported it, of fraud, following claims by a man named Pedro Moreno Redondo that he lied about paramilitary threats during the forfeiture process. He has been described in the press as one of the leaders of the community – but the community and NGOs who worked with them deny this.

A statement released by the farmers says, “The paramiltary presence (…) has been corroborated by, among others, the Independent Commisson of Investigation formed by The Body Shop in 2010, and has been plainly established by the Prosecutor General’s Unit of Justice and Peace, on the basis of testimony from former paramilitary commanders.” It also claimed that Moreno, whose recanted testimony sparked last week’s allegations, has links with the palm oil company which still claims rights to the land. The statement said Moreno could be being “pressured or manipulated to give testimony against the community.”

Father Francisco De Roux, a religious leader who has worked with the community, criticised the authorities for failing to talk to the farmers before making such serious public allegations. He said, “I was very surprised by the prosecutor’s approach. (…) I am very worried by the insults of the Cartagena prosecutor against our organization and that her decision [was made] without listening to the farmers or any of the various people involved.”

De Roux added that nobody had claimed there was displacement in 2009. The farmers had simply testified that they were poor people, who did not have a means of subsistence or defending their rights, and “people with a lot of money had arrived to usurp the land.”

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