Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos promised to process 35% of the total applications for land restitution within a year. Could this be a hopeful change for the heavily criticized process?
The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) was enacted in 2011 with the chief purpose to reclaim around 8 million illegally stolen hectares, an area larger than Costa Rica, that have been forcefully seized from millions of Colombians since 1985.
Since 2011 almost 100,000 acres, or 1.25%, have been returned to the legitimate owners, helping 3,000 families.
According to government data, there have been over 70,000 applications. 24,000 of which are still pending before the Unit of Land Restitution, the government entity responsible. According to local media, less than 2% of land requisition requests have received court ruling to date.
Strategy 20-15, Santos’ new plan, seeks to resolve the administrative formalities of the pending claimants so that they can be transferred to judges, paying particular attention to 400 municipalities in the center and towards the north coast of the country.
The president also urged courts ruling on restitution to “advance with more agility.”
Last November Amnesty International released a report highly critical of Law 1448, concluding that it is defective and applied far too slowly.
Within Law 1448 is a hierarchy of victims, in which eligibility of reparation depends on the date when the abuses took place. Any land stolen before 1991 is not eligible for land restitution.
In addition, little protection is offered for those who have returned with the Judge’s favor to areas still occupied by those who took them in the first place. Mainly paramilitaries and farmers protected by armed actors.
Amnesty International noted that the Office of the Prosecutor General’s Office had investigated at least 35 killings related to the process of restitution, with the actual number likely being much higher.
On Wednesday, Santos declared that “not a single claimant of land can lose their life or be threatened for demanding respect for their rights,” adding that the National Protection Unit protects over 350 claimants who have expressed being at risk.
Despite Law 1448’s shortcomings so far, the president appears resolute in his aims to protect claimants and speed up the process. Yet will he target the powerful organisations in possession of much of the stolen land?
To date the land restitution process has focused largely on relatively easy, small-scale land restitution, according to Amnesty International (AI).
“The armed conflict has repeatedly been used as a means by powerful national and international corporate giants to advance, consolidate and protect their economic interests, including through the illegal acquisition of large swathes of land. However, to date the land restitution process has focused largely on relatively easy, small-scale land restitution,” the human rights group said.
Marcelo Pollack, AI’s Colombia researcher, reported that “the land restitution process has so far failed to ensure that powerful national or international economic interests do not benefit from investments on lands secured through human rights abuses and profit from the spoils of war.”
In response to this criticism, Santos stated that “we are the first to recognize that the process of restitution can improve, and we are always open to listening to ideas and receive criticism.” But generally described its progress as “positive”.
The government estimates almost 6 million Colombians have been displaced since 1985, 13% of the entire population. Last year aolone, a quarter of a million people were displaced by the violence.
Even if Strategy 20-15 should be successful, the remaining 5,976,000 displaced citizens may find it difficult to relate to their president’s positivity.
Gobierno anuncia nuevo plan para agilizar restitución de tierras (El Espectador)
Colombia’s land restitution process failing those forced off their land (Amnesty International)