Category Archives: Land/Tierra

Environmental Crisis in Casanare- 20,000 animals dead; What caused it?

Since last week, dryness in Colombia’s eastern Casanare state have resulted in the environmental devastation and the death of over 20,000 animals, mostly chiguiros, alligators, cows/cattle, pigs, turtles, deer, fish and birds. The crisis has centred around northern Casanare in the municpality of Paz de Ariporo.

chiguiros in Casanare. Photo credit: RCN La Radio.

The environmental crisis in Casanare has hit a nerve in the Colombian media and in social media networks. Generally, the crisis has been attributed to varying degrees to land use and climate change, although there is controversy about what actors bear what responsibility. Here  is a brief overview of what is being said and by whom.

According to local authorities, the crisis has killed off almost 10% of the animals in the region. There hasn’t been any rainfall in the savanna since December. Some environmentalists have attributed the crisis to cattle-ranching activities, others to the exploitation of oil in the region; the National Entrepreneurs Association (ANDI) President Bruce Mac Master says that climate change, and not oil companies,  is the culprit.

Whereas government environmental agency, the IDEAM, is saying that is is a ‘normal’ part of the dry season, environmentalists Wilder Burgos and Leon Paz says that usually the dry season leaves some water, and that this is unprecedented.

The Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy, Amylkar Acosta Medina, says that its would be premature to blame oil companies; Acosta said that the main agent here is the State, and he reminded that there are other activities in the region which leave a significant environmental footprint such as agribusiness (particularly Palm Oil cultivation). Acosta defended the presence of oil companies in the region, arguing that oil extraction can actually help the water supply as “for each barrel of crude that is extracted, approximately 10 barrels of water are being extracted”.  

Acosta also mentioned that should an extractive project threaten an aquifer or a zone of “hydric re-charge”, it would be protected by the Ministry of the Environment.

The Minister of the Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, for her part, attributed the crisis to an overexploitation of the land (particularly agriculture and large-scale cattle-ranching), a lack of care towards water deposits, and local climate change. Breaking from Acosta, Sarmiento mentioned that oil exploitation “may be” also having an impact.

The President of Colombian Petroleum Association (la Asociación Colombiana del Petróleo), Alejandro Martínez, said that given the “industry standards” there should not be an impact on bodies of water or their sources. Martínez also cited that the oil industry accounts for “only 0.35% of national water consumption”.

However, others are pointing fingers at the oil industry. According to Norbey Quevedo Hernández at El Espectador, since 1973 large-scale rice cultivators in Casanare switched to cattle-ranching/pastoralism due to the armed conflict, and an economic crisis related to contraband. In 1991, Quevedo tells us, oil deposits were found in Cusiana and Cupiagua, and the presence of oil companies followed, leading to significant environmental changes in the region. Citing the government’s Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology, and Enivronmental Studies, Quevedo argues that oil exploitation led to soil erosion due to deforestation.

Although the responsibility of oil companies is still in dispute, many sectors of the local population are attributing the environmental crisis to them.

It’s estimated that the crisis will take around 1 billion pesos (COL) to be properly addressed; oil companies in the region have promised to donate around 205 million. One Colombian lawyer has argued that companies should not have to take on the cost of the crisis at all, given how these are “speculations withou basis” to the claims that oil exploitation is contributing to the prolonged dry season. The Governor of Casanare, Marco Tulio Ruiz Riaño, called the companies collective offer “ridiculous” and countered that each company should pay 100 million. Representatives from the oil companies are apparently going to meet internally and offer a new proposal.

There is uncertainty around whether or not CORPORINOQUIA, the a local government agency, did the proper diligence in terms of planning to mitigate a potential emergency like this. The Minister of the Environment said that state agencies like Corporinoquia have been focusing solely on attending extractive companies in the region, and not on the stewardship of natural resources.

At the same time, an advisor to the Governor’s office in Casanare, Carina Rojas, has criticized the national Environmental Ministry for excessively giving out environmental licenses, that it has enabled deforestation, has insufficient controls, and is ignorant of what oil companies are investing in terms of compensation. Sarmiento has argued that there has been no excess in environmental licenses.

The Agustín Codazzi Geographic Institute (IGAC) has given five “sins” culpable for the crisis: excessive cattle-ranching, the lack of ground-water retention, oil exploitation activity, and the little productive resources of the soil/its acidic nature and low-fertile nature which has a delicate organic surface layer.

Several social and environmental activists have written to the UN and the Organization of American States, in which they attribute to the crisis to cattle-ranching and resource extraction in the region.

Finally, Carlos Victoria at Las2Orillas shares an interesting reflection on the crisis. Victoria asserts that the crisis is but one of many in Colombia, and a product of colonial and neo-colonial concepts of seeing the Earth as a “resource” to dominate, destroy, and profit off of. Victoria says that this logic of trade liberalization, and ‘globalization’, is a concept of development that benefits elites and is in the service of accumulating capital. Victoria also argues that the apolitical and “neutral” response from environmental sciences have only served to legitimate the government’s narrative around the Casanare crisis. He calls on them to no longer be “co-opted by neoliberalism” and to assume an ethical responsibility to the citizenry.

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Human Rights Watch alerts over humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura

Since the time of Alvaro Uribe Velez, where security was perceived to be improving, Colombia’s most important port, Buenaventura, has been plagued by violence from the army, drug trafficking groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s economic gate to the Pacific and to Asia. It’s strategically vital for narcotrafficking groups to move drugs, and weapons, but also for Colombian and international designs around importing foreign goods and exporting Colombian resources to the world.

Buenaventura’s poverty, its invisibility and marginality are not only part of the institutionalized racism and classism of Colombian society or the armed conflict, but also an acute example of how the promise of “trade” and globalization has been empty for the people there. More needs to be explored on the confluence of drug trafficking, international trade, and structural and imposed poverty and violence in Buenaventura.

Nevertheless, bonaverenses are by no means helpless. As told by VerdadAbierta.com, over 30,000 people marched last month against violence in the city.

Only then did the President pay attention to the situation by visiting a few weeks ago.

Check out HRW’s press release and the video below which includes testimonies from local organizers resisting the violence.

This was originally published on HRW’s website on March 20, 2014.

“(Bogotá) – Paramilitary successor groups have abducted and disappeared scores, and possibly hundreds, of residents of the largely Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Thousands of residents have been fleeing their homes in the city each year, making Buenaventura the municipality with the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia today.

The 30-page report, “The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port,” documents how many of the city’s neighborhoods are dominated by powerful criminal groups that commit widespread abuses, including abducting and dismembering people, sometimes while still alive, then dumping them in the sea. The groups maintain “chop-up houses” (casas de pique) where they slaughter victims, according to witnesses, residents, the local Catholic church, and some officials.

“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Simply walking on the wrong street can get you abducted and dismembered, so it’s no surprise the residents are fleeing by the thousands.”

Paramilitary successor groups emerged in Buenaventura after the deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Currently, the Urabeños and the Empresa are the main successor groups operating in the port city. The groups restrict residents’ movement – attacking people if they cross invisible borders between areas controlled by rival factions – recruit children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.


More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and “disappeared,” twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher. One major cause of underreporting is the widespread fear of reprisals.

Buenaventura residents told Human Rights Watch that they had heard people scream and plead for mercy as they were being dismembered in “chop-up houses.” In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected “chop-up houses,” the police announced the discovery of several locations in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered alive.

“In Buenaventura, there are chop-up houses,” said Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the Catholic bishop of Buenaventura. “People say that in the middle of the night you can hear the screams of people saying ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Don’t be evil!’ These people are basically being chopped up alive.”

In 2013, violence drove more than 19,000 people from their homes in Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in the country, according to official numbers. Decades of violence and armed conflict have forced more than 5 million Colombians to flee their homes, giving the country the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Buenaventura also led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced people in 2011 and 2012. Displacement caused by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has also been a serious problem in Buenaventura’s less-populated rural areas, according to official numbers.

People living in parts of the city where the paramilitary successor groups have a strong grip reported that the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Several residents reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.

Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of “disappearances” and forced displacement in Buenaventura committed by a range of groups or individuals over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. No one had even been charged in 509 of the 512 investigations for which prosecutors provided Human Rights Watch information about the status of the investigation.

 

“There is a pervasive sense of defenselessness among Buenaventura residents, who have seen how the authorities continually fail to protect them from atrocities or bring to justice those responsible,” Vivanco said.

On March 6, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would intervene to address the city’s security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces, President Santos promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions in the city.

Human Rights Watch outlined several steps the government should take to ensure the effectiveness of any intervention in Buenaventura. These include:

  • Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods were paramilitary successor groups are most active;
  • Establish an independent commission to evaluate the problem of “disappearances” in Buenaventura and develop a plan to curb the abuses and punish those responsible;
  • Create a special team of prosecutors exclusively tasked with investigating “disappearances” in Buenaventura; and
  • Vigorously investigate officials credibly alleged to have tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups there.

“President Santos made an important commitment to address the human rights disaster in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “To be successful, the government needs to ensure accountability for abuses in Buenaventura, and dismantle the brutal paramilitary successor groups terrorizing the city.””

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Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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El Pais: Land Restitution in Colombia – Little land, much death.

Originally published in the Blog of El País, written by guest author Gerardo Vega Medina, director of the Forging Futures Foundation (Fundacion Forjando Futuros) on January 10, 2014. This is part of a thematic series on the concentration of land tenure in Colombia, and was originally posted in Spanish.

An interesting analysis but the Ley 1488/the Land Restitution & Victim’s Law of 2011, is by no means potentially the “best law in decades”; it is historic but the law is rife with problems, particularly to the limitations on who gets to be considered a “victim”, and the cap on the amount of land to be returned, and how the restitution process can go for no more than 10 years.

Nevertheless, the fact that so many land community leaders continue to be murdered show not only the difficulties of trying to provide reparations during a conflict, but that land concentration and paramilitarism/armed groups working in the interests of large landowners are still alive and well in Colombia/despite the official discourse, Law 1488 by no means happening in a post-conflict or post-paramilitary context.


800px-Carretera_hacia_Urabá

Road to Uraba

Last November 17, a peasant named Gildardo Padilla was murdered. Eleven members of his family, among them his parents, have been murdered in recent years . All because of their claims to La Gardenia and five more hectares of land in the town of Macondo, both farms in Urabá region bordering Panama . In this same region and in the same period Juan Jimenez Vertel , Benigno Gil, Jaime Gaviria , Albeiro Valdés, Hernando Perez, David Goez , Ana Isabel Gómez , Alejandro Pino, Manuel Ruiz and Samir Ruiz have been murdered for trying to reclaim their land . Only one paramilitary commander has been convicted of these crimes and those responsible for sponsoring and financing paramilitary groups remain unpunished .

This family, along with others, were forced to abandon their farms .  A climate of generalized violence, with 15,000 people murdered in Urabá , caused the displacement of 216,346 more. Between 1995 and 2007  it was common to hear many people being dispossessed with the phrase “either you sell [your land], or your widow will”.  Those behind the displacements also falsified public documents. The displacement can be summarized as such: while the paramilitaries threatened and murdered, front men and entrepreneurs bought, and public officials legalized the dispossessions.

The forcible dispossession and abandonment of land paved the way for its concentration into the hands of a few front men passing as entrepreneurs, some in the businesses of bananas, African Palm Oil, and cattle-ranching. The Attorney General of Colombia has a list of over 400 businessmen who financed right-wing paramilitary groups and to date there have been zero judicial decisions. An example is the banana multinational Chiquita Brands which funded paramilitary groups to the tune of $20 million. Consequently, Chiquita has been sanctioned by the U.S. to pay a $25 million fine. However the multinational has not taken on the responsibility of compensating victims , much less recognizing any criminal responsibility.

Since 2008, at a national level, 64 people have been murdered for demanding the restitution of their land. The dispossession and forced abandonment of land amounts to about 8.3 million hectares, which is equivalent to twice the total area of ​​Switzerland. The number of persons subject to this phenomenon of displacement would amount to the populations of the urban centres of both Madrid and Barcelona. However to date, the judges and the government have just returned less than 20,000 hectares.

The Land Restitution and Victim’s Law of 2011, , which regulates the current restitution process , represents a historic breakthrough and could be the best law enacted in decades given its recognition of victims and their right to compensation. However, if its implementation is not achieved, it could be the worst law as it could turn into more frustration and despair for a country that has suffered 50 years of conflict . The first and most important step is that the Colombian government and the judicial authorities ensure the protection and safety of land claimants so they do not continue being killed, displaced or threatened. Undoubtedly, a greater effort is needed from the government and from  judicial authorities to dismantle the criminal structures that today are attacking victims. Achieving the restitution of land would be a significant step towards peace and reconciliation in Colombia”.

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