Dying for a promised land

Susan Abad

Attacks increase on campesino leaders demanding their seized land.

Since 2002, 50 campesino leaders have been killed in Colombia for trying to recover their lands that had been seized by armed groups. Three leaders were murdered in April alone.

On March 29, 23 social organizations presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington documents that detail cases of harassment, murder, arbitrary arrests and torture suffered by 1,000 human rights activists and campesino leaders, some of whom were killed for trying to recover their lands.

President Juan Manuel Santos said last year that by the end of his term in 2014, at least 2 million of the 5 million hectares (5 million of 12.5 million acres) of land that had been seized from campesinos by paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug-traffickers and corrupt politicians will be returned to the owners. The trend has increased the need to ensure land titles, and the process has brought with it a backlash against those campesinos trying to recover and formalize their land ownership.

In early April, a Senate committee approved the “Victims´ Law,” a 10-year legislation that if passed by the general Congress in May will help protect victims of the armed conflict, dating back to January 1985.

“Land is at the crux of the Colombian armed conflict,” said Ana Teresa Bernal, a civil society representative of the National Reparation and Reconciliation Commission that was created in 2005. “For many years, people have been evicted for various reasons: land use, hydrocarbons, mining, territorial control for the war and enrichment. It is so tied to the conflict to the point that the figures are between 3 and 6 million hectares (7.5 and 15 million acres) evacuated and 3 and 4 million people displaced.”

Fraudulent process

For his part, Sen. Iván Cepeda of the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole and the spokesman for the Victims of State Crimes Movement says the murders are undermining the land title process.

“The fact that they are trying to silence those who denounce the fraudulent character of this process but also killing those who are receiving land titles that this government is offering, is inciting the violence, which is to say, they are simply trying to stop those who are going to denounce them in the institutions, international community, to the courts, to human rights organizations,” said Cepeda.

Carmen Palencia, director of the Association of Victims for Land Restitution and Access that has helped 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) be returned to campesinos in Uraba in northern Colombia, says that Bogota ignores the real magnitude facing displaced persons.

“In the regions, threats, pressure, victimization and re-victimization are every day occurrences,” she said.

The government announced in March that it would create a special body to monitor the land restitution process, run by the Defense Ministry and the Attorney General´s Office with the aim of providing security to the highest-risk areas where land is changing hands.


But the affected sectors and their defenders argue that government measures are falling short and they question the government´s political will.

“It´s not enough to make an announcement,” Cepeda said. “You have to go in and affect the interests of very powerful people. Those people are big national consortiums that are interested in large-scale agriculture, palm oil projects, for agro-fuels. On the other side are mining companies and transnational companies that have interests in Colombia.”

“So these powerful groups are not going to watch the restitution process with their arms crossed,” he added. “They have violent groups, paramilitaries, people in the government, public security, the police, the army, who do the dirty work coercively, and as long as there is a political problem, it is not an issue of simple good intentions.”

Others recommend more protection for the victims. Rafael Pardo, director of the Liberal Party, proposed creating a national guard — a special unit, not armed civilians — to protect the threatened campesinos.

Francisco Gutiérrez, a professor at the National University, proposed an anti-crime commission that would include industry groups, business owners and the government.

Meanwhile, many campesinos don´t even want to return, fearing retaliatory attacks. Citing the last report by the Public Policy Monitoring Commission on Forced Displacement, in October 2008, Edwin Tapia, an analyst in the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, said that nearly 80 percent of the displaced population prefers to stay where they are rather than face safety risks that could hinder the chance of their establishing themselves in their old homes.

Palencia resists fear. “Our motto has always been to insist, persist and resist even though for many, [the killings] are a reason to step aside,” she said. “For us, continuing is a duty. We are clear that he who died died, but we are still alive and we have the obligation to continue with this. The deaths are not making us retreat. On the contrary, they are making us continue until they return the last hectare.” —Latinamerica Press.