According to local and international experts, a significant hurdle stands between thousands of displaced Colombians and the land they seek to reclaim: landmines.
“One of the biggest obstacles facing the land restitution teams is that they are all terrified of minefields,” Grant Salisbury, the director of HALO Trust’s mine removal program in Colombia told Colombia Reports.
Since 2011, displaced Colombians have had the legal pathway to reclaim the land which they were forced to leave, often under threat of violence. The Victims and Land Restitution Law gave the victims of illegal land seizures the right to pursue their property in court. However, few victims have found success in the legal system. NGOs cite bureaucratic policy and miles of red tape as one of the main factors in the delays.
Landmines, most often planted by left-wing guerrilla groups like the FARC, present a more lethal obstacle to the process. These leftovers from the nearly 50-year armed conflict, which government and rebel negotiators are attempting to end with the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, represent a major thorn in the flesh of the peace process. The landmines prevent displaced Colombians from returning to their land and thus prevent the society at large from moving towards reconciliation.
“Restitution could not be achieved … knowing that a region had been mined. That constricts … the return of the land to the people,” Diego Herrera, president of the Popular Institute for Training, an NGO advocating for social justice, told Colombia Reports in an interview on Tuesday. “The cost of de-mining is much greater than the cost of the mine itself,” Herrera said.
The Santos administration strives to clear all minefields by 2021 in accordance with the Ottowa antipersonnel mine commission. The Colombian strategy calls for a ratio of one-third military de-mining teams and two-thirds civilian.
“You talk to the regional administrations and their perception is very much that minefields are indiscriminately laid throughout the countryside,” Salisbury said. “So obviously civilian teams are quite concerned about setting foot in areas where land restitution is actually required.”
Halo Trust found relatively low numbers of actual minefields in comparison with the Colombian government’s database. From the 779 reports of minefields the HALO Trust surveyed that were listed in the national database, only 78 were identified as possible minefields. In fact, 359 of the 459 villages were free of landmines altogether.
The nature of the mines turned out to be a larger problem.
“The single biggest difference is that Colombia is the first country that we’ve worked in, indeed the first country that I know of, where all the mines used are improvised [explosive devices] – every other country where we work, the vast majority of mines come from state factories,” said Salisbury.
“We never imagined the size of the problem,” said Ricardo Saboga, director of the government’s land restitution task force, in an interview with La Silla Vacia. “When we begin the examination property by property we saw the seriousness of the matter and realized that it would not allow us to proceed at a good pace.”
NGOs critical of the government acknowledge the obstacle presented by landmines. However some, like Diego Herrera, remain unsatisfied with the efforts of the land restitution task force.
“There are problems with the task force,” Herrera told Colombia Reports. “We see that [the process] is very slow … so slow that justice cannot really operate.”
Of 34,000 land claims filed before the government by displaced Colombians just 24 cases have been settled by the “Land Judges,” according to the NGOs.
Map depicts the regional distribution of the 10,243 landmine victims in Colombia since 1993:
- Interview with Diego Herrera
- Interview with Grant Salisbury
- Las minas antipersonal amenazan con dejar coja la restitucion de tierras (La Silla Vacia)
- Victimas Minas Antipersonales (Accion Contra Minas)