Colombia: The odyssey of Chocó’s displaced

Land restitution to the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in the jungles of the department of Chocó is emblematic of the complexity of the process and serves as a model for other communities.

PARTADÓ, BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The case of land restitution to the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in the jungles of Chocó is one of the most emblematic examples of President Juan Manuel Santos administration’s land restitution project, which began in 2012.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law (1448 of 2011) seeks to restore in 10 years the rights of all citizens, who beginning in January 1991, were stripped of their land or forced to abandon it because of the armed conflict.

About 5.7 million Colombians have been displaced by violence, and each year at least 150,000 people are forced from their homes, leaving the Andean nation with the world’s second-largest internally displaced population, according to Human Rights Watch. Colombia is second to Syria, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In 1997, following the resurgence of paramilitary violence, 100 rural residents of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó basins were reported dead or disappeared, leading to the displacement of about 4,000 people from 23 communities, according to the UNHCR.

In 2000 in Bajo Atrato in the department of Chocó, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform awarded 46,084 hectares to the Curvaradó Community Council and 54,973 hectares to the Jiguamiandó Community Council as collective territories. Communities of African descent settled on barren, rural and coastal lands along the Pacific Basin and other areas of the country.

However, between 2001 and 2004 the communities were dispossessed of their land by companies and individuals that had commandeered the property fraudulently, according to a ruling by the Constitutional Court, the Superintendent of Notaries and Registries and the Colombian Institute of Rural Development, among others.

A total of 25,479 hectares were illegally occupied, according to the Superintendent of Notaries and Registries.

Large areas of the Chocó rainforest – one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions – were cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, as part of the production of plant-based fuels.

“All of the judicial proceedings have ruled in favor of the communities, but the material recovery has not been completed,” said Abilio Peña, the vice president of the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace, an NGO that’s conducting ongoing field monitoring of the communities and has provided protection and legal guidance to those attempting to recover their lands.

In 2006, nearly all of the residents from Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó moved to so-called “humanitarian and biodiversity areas.” The initiative is supported by the Peace Brigades International and other NGOs that defend human rights.

There are five humanitarian areas and 23 biodiversity areas in Curvaradó, in addition to four humanitarian areas and eight biodiversity areas in Jiguamiandó, which are home to 211 families, according to the NGO Memoria y Dignidad.

In many cases, the residents of the humanitarian areas have remained in precarious conditions, without access to electricity or schools, and harassed by paramilitary groups supported by the business owners with whom they have land disputes, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In the more advanced humanitarian areas, wooden houses and schools have been built, and subsistence crops have been planted.

Several courts have ordered the return of the occupied territories to their rightful owners, as evident by Ruling 0073 of the Administrative Court of Chocó and the Constitutional Court’s Judicial Decree 227 of 2009.

The Constitutional Court’s Judicial Decree 384 of 2010 expanded the timeframe to conduct the census, characterize the population and hold an assembly for the election of community representatives of Curvaradó, which are the prerequisites for the restitution of the collective territories.

“The community has become divided into a majority that’s seeking to make autonomous use of the land and a minority that’s influenced by the business owners who want to make large investments,” César Acosta, the coordinator of the Apartadó Regional Office of the Land Restitution Unit, said.

In 2014, three illegitimate occupants were evicted by the authorities from 21 buildings requested as part of the restitution to the communities, according to Giovany Pérez, the director of the Land Restitution Unit Fund.

The fund was commissioned by the Constitutional Court to manage production projects, promote sustainable businesses and deliver profits to communities while the restitution process is being implemented.

The case of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó is “the most advanced case of collective land restitution in Colombia, which has become a pilot model,” according to the NGO Lawyers Without Borders. “In a way, the other collective land restitution cases [in Colombia] depend on the results of this case.”

The problem of land

“Colombia is a country with the highest rates of inequality in land ownership, making the restitution project very important for achieving a solid and lasting peace,” Juan Carlos Monge of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.

The appropriation, use and possession of land are behind the origins and persistence of the armed conflict, according to the report “Enough is enough! Colombia, Memories of War and Dignity,” by the National Center for Historical Memory.

Authorities expected 360,000 land restitution claims, but 54,063 have been filed, according to the report “Land Restitution, Drop by Drop, Progress and Difficulties,” presented in March by the NGO Fundación Forjando Futuros. Of that total, 28.3% are being reviewed by the court, 1.7% have been approved by the court and 70% are being reviewed by the Land Restitution Unit – the step before a case is forwarded to the court – according to the report.

One of the biggest problems is the fear of threats and killings of land claimants. Between January 2008 and March 2014, 66 community leaders and claimants have been killed in Colombia, according to Forjando Futuros.

“We haven’t been displaced from our land due to the conflict – instead the aim of the conflict has been to displace us,” said Luz Dary Santiesteban, a representative of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.

Given the importance of the land restitution project, Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otálora has extended an “invitation to hold a roundtable and present a draft reform, in order to overcome the problems experienced by the Law (1448), which is so important to the future of the victims.”

“This is the Santos administration’s most important social program,” Peña said. “The fact it exists already is a major step forward, but putting the law into practice in a country that is still at war is a big challenge.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second report in a series on Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá. On 04/06/2014, Infosurhoy published a report on the role of women in the effort to prevent more young people from the Obrero neighborhood in Apartadó from joining the ranks of Colombia’s illegal armed groups. On 06/06/2014, Juan Carlos Rocha will report on how Capurganá, a village in one of the epicenters of Colombia’s armed conflict, attracts tourists from throughout the world.