Displaced Campesinos in Colombia Want a Say on Land Restitution Bill

(IPS) – The Colombian government has been extolling a bill on Victims and Land Restitution which is being debated in Congress and is receiving extensive media coverage. But the demands of the victims themselves, forcibly displaced campesinos, are falling on deaf ears.

The mainstream media took little notice when representatives of eight organisations of campesinos or farmers displaced from their homes and lands handed a document to each of the members of the Senate First Permanent Constitutional Commission, which is studying the bill, expressing their misgivings over shortcomings and omissions in the draft law.

“So far, we have not been consulted about the provisions of the bill,” Orlando Burgos, head of the National Bureau for Strengthening Internally Displaced People’s Organisations (MNFOPD), an advocacy group for the displaced victims of the internal armed conflict, complained to IPS.

The land restitution law could benefit some 400,000 campesino families, a total of about two million people, who lost their homes and their farms in the violence that has been tearing this South American nation apart for nearly five decades.

The armed conflict, which began in 1964 with the emergence of leftwing guerrilla groups, took a new turn in the 1980s when drug traffickers and far-right paramilitary groups entered the fray, preying particularly on the rural population and escalating the forced uprooting of small farmers and their migration to the cities.

The land restitution plan is a cornerstone of rightwing President Juan Manuel Santos’ government programme, and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo is pushing for its implementation.

If the law is approved, legal titles will be restored to the original owners of the lands that were misappropriated by far-right paramilitaries with the support of large landowners and cattle ranchers, local politicians and members of Congress, many of whom have been sent to prison for their involvement since 2006 in the “parapolitics” scandal.

The term “parapolitics” refers to an unholy alliance of regional and national political elites, drug traffickers, the armed force and paramilitaries, acting in concert to consolidate power in their hands, according to Claudia López, co-author of a report titled “Parapolítica:La ruta de la expansión paramilitar y los acuerdos políticos” (Parapolitics: The Path of Paramilitary Expansion and Political Agreements).

Forcible dispossession of small farmers in rural areas has occurred frequently in contemporary Colombian history, linked to different episodes of political violence. The practice dates back to the second decade of the 20th century, when campesinos first formed associations to defend their rights.

In 1928, banana plantation workers for the U.S.-based United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International), went on strike for decent labour conditions. They were massacred by Colombian government troops in Ciénaga, in the department (province) of Magdalena on the Caribbean coast.

Leftwing senator Luis Carlos Avellaneda, of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA, the Alternative Democratic Pole), wrote in March in his blog that the worst period of bipartisan violence in Colombia took place “from 1948 to 1958,” between supporters of the rival Conservative and Liberal Parties. The decade is known simply as “The Violence”.

The conflict was sparked by the assassination of a populist Liberal presidential candidate during an election campaign. Some 200,000 people were killed out of the total population of 13 million at that time, “especially in rural areas, and some two million campesinos were displaced” by the violence, Avellaneda said.

The 1961 Agrarian Reform approved by the government of Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962) raised hopes among small farmers, who at the time comprised nearly 70 percent of the population.

The national association of campesinos, ANUC, founded in 1967, “reached one million members, and carried out land occupations on approximately 2,000 haciendas between 1971 and 1975,” according to Avellaneda, a member of the Senate First Commission that is analysing the Land Restitution bill.

However, under the administration of Conservative President Misael Pastrana (1970-1974), a 1973 “counter-reform” policy was adopted in order to dismantle what the agrarian reform had achieved. “Laws were repealed or reversed, dispossessions of rural farmers were resumed, and members of the campesino movement were persecuted and imprisoned,” the senator said.

According to a report published in February by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a leading human rights group, “at least 5.2 million people have been displaced as a result of violence in the last 25 years.”

In the eight years of the administration of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, whose term of office ended in August 2010, more than 2.6 million people were victims of forced displacement, equivalent to 51 percent of the official figure for the period 1997-2010.

“People were forced to abandon their home regions because their lives were in danger and their lands unprotected,” the CODHES document says, spelling out the historical precedents that will have to be overcome by the future law on Victims and Land Restitution, and underlining the demands for guarantees, participation and security made by leaders of small farmers’ organisations.

Burgos, of the displaced people’s defence organisation MNFOPD, said Senator Manuel Enríquez of the rightwing Party of the U has offered to back the PDA’s advocacy on behalf of the dispossessed. “We have entered into a dialogue with the senator, but we still have some doubts,” he said.

The main concern of the bill’s detractors is that “campesino leaders are still being murdered,” Burgos said. Since President Santos took office in August 2010, 21 peasant leaders have been killed, and a total of 60 were murdered last year, he pointed out.

Burgos remarked on a video broadcast Apr. 10 by Noticias Uno, a local television channel, about the murder of displaced campesino Álvaro Sánchez, allegedly by former paramilitaries who were officially disbanded in a 2003-2006 demobilisation process negotiated with the Uribe administration. The video shows Sánchez confronting ex-paramilitaries in the act of seizing his lands; their response was to shoot him dead.

“It’s unthinkable to try to put things right in Colombia without dealing with the fundamental causes of the conflict, and when so many economic interests are in play,” he said.

Burgos said that, shockingly, “the law, which contains 208 articles, is being put to the vote whole sections at a time, which clearly demonstrates the minimal attention being paid to a bill of vital importance to the country.”

He pointed out that article 61 of the draft law states that victims displaced since 1986 would be eligible for reparations, while article 76 says those displaced since January 1991 would have the right to land restitution.

“Does that mean that lands usurped between 1986 and 1991 will automatically become the legal property of those who seized them?” Burgos queried.

“We think the land restitution law should recognise the rights of all those dispossessed since 1980, when the strategy of forced displacement really escalated,” he stressed.

“We are requesting that proper mechanisms be established to avoid under-registration of people eligible for land restitution; that humanitarian needs be met in a regulated way; that the return of campesinos to their lands also be properly regulated; and that no new bureaucratic government entities be created. We think it is more appropriate that the existing bodies function efficiently.”

One favourable development in the recent debates is inclusion in the bill of benefits for victims of bands of criminals, which experts say are successors of the paramilitaries demobilised under the Justice and Peace Law passed by the Uribe administration.

The Victims and Land Restitution bill is facing a tortuous passage through Congress. The text approved by the house of representatives was sent to the senate, and any amendments made there will have to be reconsidered by the lower chamber. If the final text meets with the approval of the full parliament, it will be promulgated by President Santos and forwarded to the Constitutional Court, which will then have 60 days to issue an opinion.

The arduous passage of the bill could take until the end of the year. Meanwhile, campesino leaders and organisations representing displaced people and other victims will continue to insist that their voices be heard.