Corruption and crime impedes land restitution in northwest Colombia

A new report highlights the failures and shortcomings of recent attempts at land restitution in two of the northern Uraba region’s most vulnerable communities. The report stated political will is lacking to properly implement land restitution.

The report, entitled “Elusive Justice: The Struggle for Land and Life in Curvarado and Jiguamiando,”aimed to highlight the struggle of peasant and Afro-Colombian communities to return to their land after being displaced by paramilitaries and local banana and palm oil companies.

According to the report, the two communities “provided a tangible case study for understanding the bewildering phenomenon of displacement and violence in the country.”

In 1996 and 1997, armed AUC (Colombia’s United Self-Defense Forces) paramilitaries invaded both communities. It is estimated that 70% of the inhabitants of Curvarado and Jiguamiando were displaced by violence In the wake of the paramilitaries, oil palm and banana companies followed and by the early 2000’s, the land was in the hands of “the very businessmen and banana companies that were successful in violently maintaining their economic fiefdom in the region of Urabá.”

the report said the land grab required “the collusion of the oil palm companies, corrupt government officials, military, paramilitaries, and individuals falsely representing the communities.”

Some 35,000 hectares of land – more than a third of the total communal land in the communities — were believed to have been illegally obtained in this fashion just in Curvarado and Jiguamiando, aided in part by credits from the Colombian government’s Agrarian Bank (Banco Agrario).

“The government was giving huge subsidies to growers. It wanted to invest in oil palm in the region… It was a kind of closed-circuit relationship, where the government was giving credits and the industries were asking for them,” Anthony Dest, the author of the report, told Colombia Reports.

In 2003, displaced community members persuaded the government to send a fact-finding mission to the region. However, the 2004 report suggesting a comprehensive return plan for victims by the Colombian Rural Development Institute (INCODER) was largely ignored by the government “and the land dedicated to oil palm plantations and cattle ranching in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó multiplied eightfold.”

Dest said that “the patterns of the threats, intimidation and violence would suggest there are ties between local economic and political interests and paramilitary groups in the region.”

Due to the lack of action on behalf of the Colombian government, the restitution process in the two communities was largely spurred on by displaced individuals themselves and transnational actors such as the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IACHR).

“Every step towards restitution is the product of resistance and advocacy by the communities, organizations, and international networks that accompany them, not the political will of a benevolent state.”

Despite a wealth of court orders, including a Constitutional Court order from May 2010, siding with the communities, land restitution in the area remained incomplete, with two land claimants being assassinated in 2012.

“The land grab required the collusion of the oil palm companies, corrupt government officials, military, paramilitaries, and individuals falsely representing the communities,” the report said, while stating some 4,000 hectares of land continued to be occupied by bad-faith occupants as of 2012.

“I think the eviction of the bad-faith occupants, which the government has full knowledge of because it has been alerted about them since 2005, is a good place to start for the cleansing of that territory,” Dest continued.

The author said the main problem was not the complexity of the restitution process, but rather lack of political will coupled with the power of local corrupt elites.

“The failure to successfully return the land in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó is not an indication of the complexities of the scenario; it is a political decision to support an abusive economic development model instead of the communities’ rights to self determination and autonomy.”

“I think rhetorically, and in some cases with some individuals, there has been political will to implement these laws and return land to victims and recognize the rights of victims. However, I think there are still spoilers inside and outside the government that prevents transformative change from happening,” Dest said.

The restitution process in Curvarado and Jiguamiando predated the Law of Victims and Land Restitution, signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2011. The law seeks to give compensation and land titles to the victims of the armed conflict. In Colombia, more than 5 million people are listed as displaced and over 75,000 have been forcibly disappeared by armed groups and criminals.

The report concluded by saying the land restitutions in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó were among the most well-publicized cases in Colombia and “if [the state] is unable to properly return the land here, where it has invested significant financial and political capital, there is little hope for other communities that do not have the same profile or level of attention.”


Corruption and crime impedes land restitution in northwest Colombia: Report