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Land and loss

Land struggles in rural Colombia.

Colombia’s internal armed conflict has segmented itself as a backdrop for daily life in the country over the past 60 years. An armed dissension alongside turf wars within the lucrative drug business have forced farmers off of their land into the lawless outskirts of the bigger cities for decades. Forced displacement of peasants by illegal armed groups is a newer phenomena. Often hired by national and multinational companies to make more room for the growing Colombian export industries such as mining, cattle farming or large scale agricultural projects. As the country’s largest guerrilla group and the Colombian government agreed to engage in peace negotiations in 2012 the issue of land rights was at the top of the agenda.

The withdrawal of a huge palm oil contract by a major European cosmetics manufacturer in 2010 opened my eyes to the land issues in Colombia. The company had pulled out as a response to the blunt forced displacement of 127 families to make way for the Colombian provider’s palm oil plantations. It should be of little surprise that Colombia ranks among the most unequal countries on the planet. 37% of the population live below the national poverty line while 1.15% of the population own 52% of the country’s arable land according to a recent UN study.

Later on, an elderly man named Luis from north-eastern Colombia would sum up one of the key issues in one sentence. “A farmer without land is not a farmer”, he uttered with a deep sigh. Seated on a plastic chair in his back yard he had used the wooden stick to scrape out two rectangles in the dirt. One for the land he currently owned and another—much smaller— referring to the land he would be able to buy with the money a nearby coal mine had “offered” to pay for his land.

Violence and abuses have displaced more than 4.8 million people from their homes over the past 30 years according to the Colombian government. It is estimated that they have left behind 6 million hectares of land—an area larger than Costa Rica—which is now in the hands of the perpetrators or their collaborators. The majority of displaced persons have ended up in the ever expanding outskirts of Colombia’s larger cities, where opportunities for adequate housing and a steady income are slim. The displaced peasants rather take their chances in the shady suburban outskirts than return to their land where the direct threat is even greater.

A law instituted in June 2011 aim to help people reclaim their stolen property. Cynics might say that the law only is there to make land takeovers legit, giving investors confidence and security. The perpetrators are often still in control of the land. Even though the people now can get a paper stating their ownership they do not dare to return and rather sell at bargin prices. As the government started handing out owners certificates in 2012 many landowners and entire villages are still expulsed to make way for more industrial investments. As of July 2013—a full year and a half after the implementation of the law—only one family had dared to move back to their lawfully granted land.

Land and loss —NYT Lens Blog, March 2013