Amnesty International (AI) on Thursday accused the Colombian government of allowing powerful corporate giants to plunder the country while six million citizens remain displaced, and more continue to be forced from their land.
In a scathing report, Amnesty International pinned the failure of Colombia’s land restitution process on government apathy, misplaced priorities, and a failure to address the cause of violent displacement throughout the country.
FACT SHEET: Displacement in Colombia
While the international human rights body recognized Colombia’s 2012 Victims Law as a step in the right direction toward returning six million victims of forced displacement to their land, a recent investigation of the process led one senior researcher to say that “implementation of the law is so poor, they should be ashamed. They are putting the whole thing at risk.”
According to AI, less than 1% of displaced Colombians have been returned to their land since the Victims Law was enacted, and many are afraid to risk applying for titles in fear of reprisals.
“Since 2012, the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) has sought to help return illegally acquired land to some of its rightful occupants. However, only a tiny percentage of the millions of hectares stolen has been returned. By 1 August 2014 fewer than 30,000 hectares of land have been returned to peasant farmers. Restitution judges and magistrates have ordered the return of only one 50,000 hectare Indigenous territory to its rightful occupants,” said AI.
The Prosecutor General’s office is investigating 35 murders in 2014 alone linked to land claims, said AI, adding that the NGO believes the number to be much higher.
According to Esteban Beltran, director of Amnesty International in Spain, the fault lies in the failure to carry out the restitution law from beginning to end, and the absence of one governing body responsible for the process.
While violence remains an enormous obstacle, there has curiously been no effort to prosecute those responsible for the forced evictions, Beltran told Colombia Reports. Moreover, violence has not stopped powerful national and international companies from grabbing land, all under the cover of armed conflict.
Although many Colombian and international companies have benefited from the illegal acquisition of large tracts of land, to date the restitution process has focused largely on land returns on a relatively small scale, according to the AI statement.
Lack of rigor applied to weak legislation
While Amnesty International welcomed the 2012 Land Restitution Law as an important step toward recognizing victims’ rights, the report cites a failure of will to either effectively implement the law or to address its shortcomings.
Right now, the Ministry of Defense has sole control over deciding which land can be returned, ostensibly for reasons of security, and and only a small percentage of stolen territory has been designated as land to be restituted. This is precisely where the procedural bottleneck occurs, according to Beltran. Only people living within these “secure zones” identified by the ministry are allowed to apply for land titles.
The result: less then 1% of Colombia’s six million victims of forced displacement have acquired titles to their land, three years after the Land Restitution Law was enacted. To date there have been only 800 court decisions in the land restitution process, which have benefited 2,867 people from rural areas. Only 50,000 hectares of indigenous land have been returned, benefiting 1,500 people.
And here is where the failure to implement the law is most blatant: among those who now have legal titles to their land, as well as other provisions for housing and farming tools, even fewer have actually been installed. The restitution process effectively ends with the court decision.
According to IA, “the clock is ticking” for those hoping to have their land returned. “Law 1448 is in force for only 10 years. Almost three years have already passed.”
According to Beltran, there are a number of agencies involved in land restitution, all of whom blame each other, but in the end there is no one responsible for the implementation of the law.
AI recommended that the the government open up the process and allow all displaced people to register a claim, whether or not restitution is immediately feasible. This would not only allow the process to be set in motion, but provide data on where land has been stolen.
Although Beltran said that AI requires more data before commenting on which corporations might be guilty of acquiring stolen land, he points to the mining sector as a key area of concern. And without claims, without a thorough understanding of the extent and location of stolen land, there is room for ambiguity in a legal system which already favors economic interests over human rights.
Meanwhile, the government has recently declared a number of “strategic mining zones” throughout the country, allowing for the expansion of exploitation projects by international companies.
Government not addressing paramilitary problem
The overwhelming majority of forced displacement has been caused–and continues to be caused–by paramilitary organizations, which Beltram claimed are still acting in concert with national security forces.
Farmers and peasants want to return to their land, but face threats, intimidation, and murder. The Prosecutor General’s office is investigating 35 murders in 2014 alone linked to land claims, though Amnesty International believes the number to be much higher. Meanwhile,”The people who have stolen their lands haven’t been accused or investigated. Even the judges have asked the Prosecutor General to prosecute them,” said Beltran.
“The obligation of the state is to protect the people, and the best way to protect the people, to protect the families, the landowners, is to end impunity. The problem is that impunity is widespread, even in areas controlled by the government,” the investigator said.
A call to the international community
AI is calling for international government cooperation in land restitution “if the Colombian government decides that land restitution is a priority in government policy. Right now it is not a priority,” said Beltran.
Additionally, the human rights body is calling on the international community not to give any money to development projects that will occupy land that has been taken illegally.
The total amount of land stolen from Colombian citizens is over 8 million hectares, which is 14% of Colombia’s national territory, or an area roughly the size of Costa Rica.
- Amnesty International press release
- Interview with Esteban Beltran, Director of Amnesty International in Spain