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Uribe and Other Hurdles for Colombia’s Land Law

BOGOTA, Oct 22 2010 (IPS) - Although it was to be expected, former president Álvaro Uribe’s return to politics in Colombia has caused a stir and has a clear aim: to block two of his successor Juan Manuel Santos’s pet projects — reparations to victims of the armed conflict and the restoration of land to displaced peasant farmers.

Juan Manuel Santos explains his land restitution plan on Wednesday Oct. 20. Credit: Office of the Colombian President

Juan Manuel Santos explains his land restitution plan on Wednesday Oct. 20. Credit: Office of the Colombian President

“We have gone back to the simplistic formula of whether or not Uribe agrees,” columnist María Teresa Ronderos exclaimed, adding that “It’s as if Santos’s presidency had come to an end and his predecessor had come back, eager to take the reins.”

The same sense of bitter surprise was expressed by columnist Francisco Gutiérrez: “The eight-year ‘Uribista rumba’ is still marking its rhythm.”

And Gustavo Petro, the leader of the centre-left opposition party Alternative Democratic Pole, quipped “As far as I can tell, he hasn’t left.”

Surprising or not, Uribe’s reappearance on the public scene has an immediate objective: blocking two draft laws pushed by Santos since he took office on Aug. 7.

The laws would return to their original owners millions of hectares of land stolen during the armed conflict and pay reparations to victims of the war, regardless of who victimised them: the far-right paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, or government forces.

Uribe continues to insist on the same argument that he already used last year to sabotage an earlier draft law on reparations: that the victims of the illegal armed groups cannot be put in the same bag as the victims of the so-called “false positives” scandal — young civilians killed by the army and passed off as guerrilla casualties in the military’s counterinsurgency campaign.

The way things stand now, the families of the “false positives” victims will have to wait for a legal ruling before receiving any compensation at all.

But the bill that Santos personally presented to Congress — a sign of the importance he attaches to it — on Sept. 27 would compensate all victims.

With the same obstinacy, the former president is fighting a change that the government draft laws would introduce: in land dispute cases, the burden of proof of demonstrating ownership would no longer fall on the peasant farmers who were forcibly displaced, but on the current landowners, who would have to show that they legally acquired the land in question.

Under the present system, it is the displaced farmers, many of whom have no formal deed to the land that was passed down in their families for generations, who have to prove ownership.

Uribe argues that this aspect of the bill “could undermine investment in the countryside.”

Former senator Petro says the former president’s attempts to interfere with the land restitution and victims’ reparations bills are not the result of a personal crusade, but are ideological in nature.

“The extreme right, the hard core of ‘Uribismo’, is the political expression of ‘latifundismo’ (vast land tracts in the hands of a few) ready to sabotage the reforms, through a combination of all forms of struggle: political and violent,” he said.

This is only one of the difficulties faced by the flagship policy initiative of the government of Santos — a member of the former president’s right-wing Party of the U, and a former defence minister under his predecessor, who has been distanced however from Uribe, his mentor, since taking office.

The ambitious plan is looked at with scepticism by critics like former finance minister Rudolf Hommes (1990-1994). “These are just, popular measures, but fervour is not sufficient to implement them effectively, if funds are not available,” he argued.

The problem of funds becomes abundantly clear when taking into account the cost that full compensation to victims would entail, because merely handing back their land is not sufficient – the property must be returned free of debt. But the accumulated debts on the land claimed by displaced farmers amount to 188 million dollars.

Speculators and investors have come flocking, offering indebted displaced farmers a deal: they take on the debt, after purchasing the land at a low price.

In an attempt to fight this new land grab, Agriculture Ministry officials are facing down a powerful group of investors in the Montes de María in northern Colombia.

So far, peasant farmers have sold 75,000 hectares at an average of 275 dollars per hectare, which are resold by the buyers at 715 dollars per hectare. But the massive purchases have come under government scrutiny, in an attempt to prevent fraudulent transactions.

Sociologist and historian Darío Fajardo mentioned another serious obstacle: “As long as those who benefit from the present situation (the unequal distribution of land) and from the resources of the state continue to form part of the power structure, the concentration of property ownership will continue to expand.”

Fajardo, a former representative of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), was alluding to the large number of legislators who are landowners and who will stand in the way of any bill that threatens their interests or those of their friends.

One of the steps taken by the lawmakers was to combine the land restitution and victims’ reparations draft laws into one bill, which Petro said was a tactic aimed at hindering their passage.

In a laborious legal operation, the government has begun to track down and annul fraudulent land titles that had been issued with the support of judges, notary publics and land registry offices.

And to all of these difficulties is added another problem pointed to by Petro: although victims may get their land back, they will go under in two months because the current economic model does not favour food crops, but the large-scale production of biofuels.

The murders of 40 rural activists since 2002, who were fighting for the return of land to displaced farmers, are an alarm bell and an indicator of another hurdle, which Petro described as one of the tactics used by “latifundistas” or large landowners: the continued wave of violence.

Eduardo Pizarro, director of the government Reparations and Reconciliation Commission, said the situation was so bad it had been necessary to draw up a map of risks faced by people in 1,102 municipalities, where the restitution of land was a factor involved in the level of criminal violence.

The precedents for the current land restitution policy were premonitory: in the 1950s, attempts at land reform were drowned in blood.

What Santos is now trying to do raises fears of another violent backlash, because of the breadth of his aims, which would affect the land ownership structure.

“This would be the biggest leap made in overcoming poverty and inequality in decades,” Petro maintained.

According to the government, there will be a “reorganisation of the countryside” and “benefits for ethnic minorities” — indigenous and Afro-Colombian people who have often been forced off their land.

Although he has reservations, Fajardo admits that the changes that would be brought about by the land restitution and reparations laws would make property structures in the country more democratic.

Despite the obstacles that are emerging in the ambitious undertaking, the Colombian press has begun to highlight the government’s progress.

On Oct. 16, the front-page headline in the El Espectador newspaper was “Land Restitution Plan Underway”, with the article reporting on the return of 312,000 hectares to some 130,000 families.

Another paper, El Tiempo, reported that day that “300,000 hectares will be handed over to peasant farmers” in the next six months, when 130,487 families will receive title deeds to land that was being returned or distributed to them.

However, Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo said the programme was moving ahead “at a snail’s pace.”

Three hundred thousand hectares are a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.5 million hectares that have been taken from peasant farmers.

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