Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

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As Colombia moves forward with a peace process, the government’s ability to deliver on restitution and reparations to victims is crucial for construction of a just and lasting peace. Lutheran World Relief and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, along with our partner Agenda Caribe, toured the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the provinces of Sucre, Bolívar and Córdoba, in June 2012 to investigate whether displaced communities are starting to be able to return to their land and whether the Colombian government’s landmark initiative, the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law, has gotten off the ground. This law aims to provide reparations to victims of the conflict and land restitution or compensation for some of the more than 5 million people who were displaced by violence. It has generated enthusiasm in the international community and raised hopes among survivors of violence in Colombia’s brutal, decades-old conflict. See our full report, Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, here.

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. As of June 2012, a year after the law’s passage, no land has yet been restituted via the Victims’ Law, according to USAID. Although the Colombian government estimates 360,000 families were forced off their lands, only 15,208 land claims nationwide as of June had been filed under the Victims’ Law, and none had yet been ruled upon by a judge.

It is important to recognize that the Colombian government has made some progress in the last year in titling land for campesinos and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that are not currently displaced. As we learned in our investigation, this is a critical step to help prevent further displacement. But the harder task of removing illegal occupiers and supporting returning communities is yet to come.

In interviews with local government officials, human rights groups, displaced communities and campesino associations, we found that land restitution faces enormous obstacles. It was encouraging to see that some local officials view the Victims’ Law as a tool for addressing injustices and are grappling with how best to use it for that purpose. However, we found that:

  • Local governments are receiving little orientation from the national government regarding how to implement the Victims’ Law;
  • Local governments are so far receiving few additional resources for implementing the law;
  • The Victims’ Law and its implementing institutions are perceived as replacing the existing institutions serving the displaced.  A system barely beginning to function is being scrapped and replaced with yet another; and that under-resourced programs for internally displaced persons now have to be broadened to serve additional kinds of victims without necessarily having greater resources;
  • Interpretation of “who is a victim” is crucial; there is a risk that some local authorities can stack Transitional Justice Committees and Victims Roundtables to avoid authentic victims’ representation and thus fail to address the needs of the full range of victims;
  • There is a temptation for the government and international community to emphasize symbolic acts of reparation in ways that are neither meaningful to victims nor do much to address the broad community of victims; and
  • There is a concerning lack of legal assistance to victims to help them defend their rights and access restitution and reparations.

The most serious obstacle, however, is that victims are not being provided with the protection necessary to be able to reclaim lands. More than 25 land rights leaders have been killed since the Santos Administration took office in August 2010. Without real protection, even the very institutions intended to return land to victims can become generators of new dangers and new displacements. For example, we heard concerns that victims who presented information or requests to Transitional Justice Committees then received new threats.

We also found that displacement is hardly a problem of the past. On the Caribbean Coast, there is still a ferocious reverse land reform that is occurring right now, today: mining, cement, lumber, teak and palm companies, large-scale farmers and ranchers, hotels, and other land purchasers are continuing to buy up or take over land, using means both legal and illegal, including the use of illegal armed groups to threaten, abuse and kill community leaders. This report provides recommendations about how to improve the still very weak implementation of the Victims’ Law. However, it is equally urgent for the Colombian government to increase its efforts to provide secure titles and protection to campesinos and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities who are not currently displaced and have lived on land for decades or centuries without title, and to provide protection for communities with title that are still under assault, to prevent the “reverse land reform” that is ripping like a tropical storm through the Caribbean coast—and many other areas of Colombia. 

The U.S. government is funding and promoting the Victims’ Law. This is a worthy choice. However, it is essential to fund this initiative with open eyes, close monitoring and, especially, careful consultations with victims’ associations, humanitarian agencies and human rights groups. Otherwise, U.S. funding can end up financing symbolic actions that are more publicity stunts than real reparations, line the pockets of corrupt officials, or create islands of land restitution while displacement continues to grow. 

See the complete report, Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast here.
Véase el informe, Aún un sueño: Restitución de tierras en la costa Caribe colombiana, aquí.