Colombians Threatened Upon Attempting to Reclaim Lands

October 20, 2016

Although a 2011 law promised the recovery of land to displaced Colombian farmers, the government has failed to follow through on its word. Many peasants of this country have lost their lands and homes due to expulsion by armed paramilitary organizations and drug traffickers. According the the Human Rights Watch (HWR), since 1985, 4.8 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes, the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Miguel Serna is a local leader that has been a victim of displacement and has lead efforts to regain land for his community. He and his neighbors lost their land to a paramilitary group in 1997. When militia members violently ordered him and his family to leave, he lost not only his home and witnessed the murder of two neighbors, but he also suffered the loss of 7,000 unharvested cassava plants and “a beautiful way of life.” After the land was taken over by a militia leader, it was turned into a single cattle ranch and the title was illegally transferred to his name. This leader continues to control this area, which makes it difficult for those who rightfully own the land to return without being harmed.

Under the Victims and Land Restitution Law, four out of 80 families in Serna’s community have received positive verdicts from government land tribunals. As of November, only 2 percent of the total 46,000 land claims had been decided. The families that have been fortunate enough to receive responses, however, do not have enough funds to clear and farm the lands and therefore have not reoccupied their homes for fear of a counterattack. The law does not provide significant economic support and security, and therefore has not been successful in reinstating farmers with lost properties. One member that has been granted his land to be returned to him was promised $12,000 but months later has seen no money from the government. Families who attempt to return to their homes have been met with violence and threats from those who wish to use the land for other purposes. Over the past three years, 49 claimants have been killed. Serna himself has survived two assassination attempts.

In September 2013, The United Nation’s HRW issued a report that states that repression and violence against displaced farmers continues despite the efforts of the Victims and Land Restitution Law. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of the HRW stated, “President Santos is making a serious and unprecedented effort to return land, but violence and intimidation against displaced families attempting to return home threaten to sabotage his banner human rights initiative. Unless Colombia starts to ensure justice for abuses against land claimants, they will continue to be killed, threatened, and displaced for seeking to reclaim what’s theirs.”

Drug traffickers and militia groups claim these lands in order to form routes used for smuggling and escape. President Santos has expressed his opinion that too much land is held in the hands of too few and states that this law recognizes that. Although this law is a large step in protecting the people of this region, it fails to hold the drug lords and militia leaders responsible for their violent actions. The law instead provides victims with bulletproof vests and bodyguards, and relocates those who cannot return to their lands to safer places. Critics of the law suggest that the Colombian government must develop larger land management policies in order to break the cycle of land concentration. They also must encourage respect for the law through development programs that deal with technical and infrastructural problems. The government cannot ignore the fact that those who control the land do so with armed force, jeopardizing the lives of innocent farmers and their families.


About Author(s)

Madeline Townsend's picture
Madeline Townsend
Madeline is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a degree in Spanish and Global Studies, with a focus on the Latin American region. She plans to present an honors thesis on visual representations of the internal conflict that occurred in Peru between 1980 and 2000. She also studies Portuguese and Film Studies as minors and works as one of the Panoramas interns.