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.
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”.