On Sunday, The New York Times reported on an issue in Colombia that has long been on LWR’s priority list. Along the northern, Caribbean coast of Colombia, paramilitary forces rounded up hundreds of residents in early 2000 and forced them to leave their lands. The paramilitary believed these residents were sympathizers of the leftist guerrillas. This followed a decade of removing Colombians from their land; currently, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Colombia number
over 4 million (or close to 10% of the population).
In April 2011, the Colombian government attempted to correct these injustices, passing the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras). We championed that effort, but were critical of gaps that we saw existed within the framework.
This past June, a year after the bill was passed, LWR staff — along with staff from the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, and Agenda Caribe — returned to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, to investigate whether displaced communities are starting to be able to return to their land. The New York Times writes:
The government has received more than 27,000 claims for close to five million acres of land, and more are pouring in. Each claim must be investigated, and then considered by a judge. Many are dauntingly complex, involving ownership disputes with little or no documentation.
In Theory, a Law for Good
We have found the implementation of this promising law to be woefully lacking. Local governments are receiving little orientation from the national government regarding how to implement the Victims’ Law and have few resources for implementing the law.
The Victims’ Law and its implementing institutions are perceived as replacing existing institutions serving the displaced. This means that a system barely beginning to function is being scrapped and replaced with yet another, and that underresourced programs for internally displaced persons now have to be broadened to serve additional kinds of victims without necessarily having greater resources.
We have found that 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. There is also a concerning lack of legal assistance to victims to help them defend their rights and access restitution and reparations.
We applaud the New York Times for shedding the media spotlight on this ongoing issue. We are working hard in these areas to help farmers advocate for restitution. We are also advocating with the Colombian and U.S. Governments to provide the necessary support for this law to be implemented properly, providing adequate resources and protecting those communities most at risk of exploitation.
The New York Times:
Those who have recovered their land still face challenges.
In Mampuján, there is no electricity and no schools or health clinic. Even if residents return, they will face the same problem holding back small farmers across Colombia: lack of capital, machinery and modern farming methods.
When farmers are able to return to their land, LWR is providing support to replant their crops, design new farming businesses, install and manage improved water systems and to develop community protection plans in the face of threats and continued pressure to abandon their land.
We believe that in the long run, returns, restitution and rural development will succeed in Colombia when action and investment by the government comes together with support and sustained investments by national and international civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like LWR.