A law returning stolen land to farmers is not yet working in the north of Colombia, said a U.S. think tank Wednesday after visiting the region that has been one of the hardest hit by forced displacement.
The Latin American Working Group and the Lutheran World Relief visited Colombia in June to observe if the Victim and Land Restitution Law was starting to bring relief to displaced people in the Caribbean area, but found that little had changed since their visit the previous year.
“Despite the shining promises of the Victims’ Law, we found … that land restitution has not begun on the Caribbean coast, except for cases in which brave and organized displaced communities decided to return on their own,” the organizations said in a report.
According to LAWG executive director Lisa Haugaard, people still live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in an area that for years has been ravaged by internal conflict, and controlled by paramilitaries and drug-traffickers, both economically and politically.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos‘ Victim’s Law, seeks to compensate victims of guerrilla and paramilitary violence and help them to rebuild their lives, as well as provide land restitution’s to people displaced by the armed conflict which has wracked the country for nearly 50 years.
However according to government figures, out of an estimated 360,000 displaced families, just over 15,000 claims have been filed. This is due to two elements. “Fear and lack of outreach by the government,” Haugaard told Colombia Reports.
“There is very little interest at local government level. Some officials are interested, but they receive no support and no resources so that they can begin to resolve the issues.” In fact, said Haugaard, her team had to specifically search for officials interested in the program in order to observe how it worked when attempts were made put it into practice.
However there are bigger problems at local level aside from apathetic officials. According to Haugaard “what is most difficult is that some of the people and forces behind the displacement are still there in power, ready to prevent the restitution of lands.”
The Victim’s Law requires that committees be set up and that victims be involved in drawing up action plans for reparation and assistance for victims. These committees however, have been infiltrated by “bad actors,” according to the director, who are seeking to use the committees to “open up land sales which had been frozen.”
In fact, in some towns the committees were deliberately “stacked full of people who weren’t victims,” and this gave officials and the elite of the municipalities advantages in buying up land, often threatening and intimidating the victims who were supposed to be receiving their help.
There is still a strong presence of armed gangs and neo-paramilitaries, which sprang up after the 2004-2006 paramilitary demobilization in the area. “We spoke to an official in a mayor’s office who burst into tears while we were talking. A boy in the town had been killed that day because he had broken a paramilitary curfew,” said Haugaard, adding that “these curfews are quite prevalent in both rural and urban areas of the region.”
But all the intimidation and displacement is not just the result of illegal armed groups according to the director. Mining, lumber and hotel industries in the region are muscling in on the campesinos, armed with money, lawyers and threats. “Campesinos are paid minimal amounts for their land or are threatened so much they give it up for nothing.”
“The big companies buy up the land and then deny public access to it. They cut off access to water supplies and to roads, making it difficult for the campesinos to survive in the communities they have lived in for years,” said Haugaard.
“We heard stories that ex-paramilitaries were being employed by these big companies as security guards,” adding to the intimidation felt by the local people. “There also seemed to be collusion between these companies and the current paramilitaries,” said the executive director.
However the team did notice that campesinos who had not been displaced were increasingly being awarded titles to their land. “So much land is informally held. Afro-Caribbeans and indigenous campesinos have been living and working the land, sometimes for 200 years and they don’t have legal titles to it” making it easier for their land to be taken from them.
Some displaced people are returning to their land by themselves according to Haugaard, who gave the example of an Afro-Caribbean community who were forced to displace after they were invaded by a faction of around a hundred paramilitaries who established a camp there. “They made slaves of the people, they threw parties on the farm with local politicians and even buried their victims on the land.”
According to Haugaard, the community tried to reclaim their land after the paramilitaries demobilized resulting in the death of their leader and public outrage which forced the government to act. “Now they have armed forces camped outside the cooperative to protect them against returning paramilitaries or the local elite who don’t want restitution encouraged.”
However not that many displaced people are returning, which causes problems for municipalities in another way, said Haugaard. “A mayor in one town told us that it is very difficult now as there are fewer people in the area and fewer people on the census. This means the area gets less money from the national government.”
“The local authorities were getting resources for displaced people and now the law covers other types of victims of the armed conflict as well, but the funds have not been increased,” which seems to make the authorities all the less inclined to seek out victims.
The farmers however, are getting on with it despite not seeing much benefit from the Victim’s Law. “Nobody’s waiting for the government to solve their problems, if they return or not to their land they want to get on with their lives,” said Haugaard, who hopes that this government will learn from the mistakes of the last and seek not only peace but “emotional peace and truth-telling.”
“There needs to be an opportunity for truth-telling. The victims of paramilitary violence were excluded during the last demobilization. That is still affecting people even now. We hope that this government can do things better.”
During her research trip around Colombia’s Caribbean coast Haurgaard said that the Victim’s Law “gave us great concern for the peace process, but we are hopeful for peace, you have to hope. And it it’s still early – this is just a snapshot of what can be.”