Since the new government of Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated at the start of August 2010, the number of land rights activists murdered is heartbreaking. At least eight leaders of displaced communities directly involved in advocating for return of their families’ or their communities’ land have been assassinated, presumably by paramilitary or criminal gangs that benefited from stolen land.
In part this increase in violence was sparked by the positive national debate on return of land to a portion of Colombia’s more than 4 million internally displaced persons. (For historical background on Colombia’s stolen land, see our report Longing for Home.) The new government kicked off this debate by introducing groundbreaking, if flawed, victims reparations and land legislation. But this debate, and initial measures to return a tiny fraction of land stolen violently from Colombia’s rural poor, takes place as the government still absolutely fails to protect the population.
And protection is urgently needed from the reenergized paramilitary and criminal gangs that have regrouped following the partial demobilization of paramilitary forces in 2005, as well as from continued guerrilla violence. After years of denial from the Uribe Administration about the threats, murders and violent displacement rearmed or never demobilized paramilitary groups continued to cause in large parts of the Colombian countryside, as well as some urban areas, the Santos Administration has a chance to own up to its responsibility to protect all the citizenry, including the rural poor. There are some signals that the new administration is willing to try harder.
The current draft of the land and victims legislation, while positive in many ways, unaccountably fails to provide mechanisms and funding to protect those who land is returned. Nor does it provide specific mechanisms and funding for transitional aid to ensure those who receive the land can afford to keep it.
In promising developments, the Colombian government recently said it will work with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights office on measures to protect land rights activists, and the police announced it would create measures to protect those returning to land. But it is not yet clear what concrete actions will be taken.
Let’s take a moment to hear the names of those land rights activists who have lost their lives in the last six months:
- Hernando Pérez, leader of the Association of Restitution of Property and Land of Urabá Antioqueño, killed after a Colombian government ceremony returning land to his community;
- Oscar Maussa, to whose community land was returned in 2005 but who faced continual threats and new displacement;
- Edgar Bohórquez Palma, leader of the Association of United Displaced People of Sarare;
- Beto Ufo Pineda, the coordinator of Nueva Florida Organization;
- Ana María Moreno, representative of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Asti;
- And Andrés Alfonso Arenas Buelvas and brothers Yonnel and José Alfonso Delgado Villamil, three young members of the Land Rights Working Group in Tolima department.
The Santos Administration’s focus on land return is commendable. But it must be done in a way that protects the people it intends to assist. A land bill that returns people to their land only to have them be killed, face new displacement or lose their land quickly due to lack of transitional assistance is not the kind of justice that these victims, who have suffered so much, deserve. Serious protection policies must be put in place, right now.