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COLOMBIA: Return of Land to Displaced Farmers Picks Up Steam

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Mar 16 2011 (IPS) - “Wholesale land titling” Colombia’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Juan Camilo Restrepo announced Tuesday, adding that titles would no longer only be handed over to individuals who file land claims, but to entire groups of people in specific rural areas.

The awarding of formal title deeds to farmers whose property was seized from them over the last half century of armed conflict has been a central focus of the government of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos since he took office in August.

According to official figures, there is no proof of ownership or land titles to 40 percent – nearly 1.2 million – of Colombia’s farms.

The government’s goal is to formalise land tenure over half a million hectares, in a country where the recovery and distribution of land is crucial, according to local and international organisations, which point however to shortcomings in the government’s plans.

Some 5.2 million people were displaced from rural areas of this South American country of 46 million between 1985 and 2010, according to a February report by the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a leading human rights group.

Restrepo explained Tuesday that a special article would be included in the National Development Plan currently under debate, which will bolster the land tenure formalisation process by shifting away from a system under which farmers must file claims to their land.

The measure, which the minister said has the backing of Congress, will make it possible to establish blocs of land in which all farmers who had lost their property would receive titles to farms.

Under the new system, it will no longer be necessary for each individual or family to file a formal claim.

Between October and March, titles to “more than 290,000 hectares, including land in indigenous reserves and Afro-Colombian communities,” were awarded, Santos said Mar. 10, when he presented a comprehensive policy for rural, agricultural and technological development for Orinoquia, another initiative forming part of the land legalisation and recovery programme.

Described as Colombia’s “last agricultural frontier,” Orinoquia is a region covering 310,000 square kilometres to the north of the country’s Amazon jungle, stretching from the eastern range of the Andes mountains to the Venezuelan border.

It encompasses the departments (provinces) of Arauca, Meta, Casanare, Vichada, Guainía and Guaviare and has a population of 1.1 million people.

The regional plan for Orinoquia is to involve granting titles to 70,000 hectares of land.

Santos launched the plan at the Carimagua Hacienda, a vast rural property in the central department of Meta, in a ceremony in which he was accompanied by Restrepo and other officials.

Carimagua, which covers 22,700 hectares of land, was acquired by the Colombian Agricultural Institute in 1970, to serve as a research centre. Of that total, 2,000 hectares belong to the army and 3,000 are used for research by the government institute. Of the rest, 17,000 will be dedicated to farming and 500 to housing for farmers.

The new use of the land contrasts with the aim of the administration of Santos’s predecessor, rightwing President Álvaro Uribe. In 2008, then agriculture minister Andrés Arias attempted to turn over Carimagua to private investors – planters of African oil palm – on a 50-year lease.

Arias argued at the time that the dividends would be used to provide assistance to displaced persons.

But the plan was denounced in Congress and thwarted by the action of legislators.

Besides the land in Carimagua, 15,000 hectares amassed by Pedro Oliveiro, a drug lord killed by the army in December 2010, will be distributed to displaced farmers. Oliveiro was also a powerful leader of the far-right paramilitary groups, one of the parties to the conflict that also involves government forces and leftwing guerrillas, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Another 38,000 hectares seized by the government from former senator Habib Merheg, to whom they had been illegally awarded, will be handed over to farmers.

But the government’s enthusiasm over the land distribution plan contrasts with doubts expressed by different organisations.

For instance, a report to be launched in May by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – the 2011 Human Development Report on Rural Development and Land, whose technical director is Absalón Machado – points out to the government that land recovery and titling will not be effective until the problem of violence, the root cause of forced displacement of people from rural areas, is resolved.

The report’s conclusion is backed up by the number of people leading land-reclamation efforts who have been murdered: 46 in 2010 alone.

And eight have been killed so far this year, Santos acknowledged in Carimagua.

In the ceremony, the president announced the creation of an elite group of investigators who will work to curb such killings, which is to begin operating in the next few days.

The UNDP report calls for overcoming rural poverty and making basic infrastructure and services available to marginalised populations.

Meanwhile, Congressman Iván Cepeda of the leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole party told IPS: “The campaign that supposedly benefits farmers by returning their land to them is a front for an aggressive agrarian, agribusiness and mining policy that will end up favouring big business and transnational corporations.”

During a Mar. 11 march on behalf of the displaced, organised by the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), Cepeda – the movement’s spokesman – said “the policy is presented as progressive, but it actually only favours big capital.

“The Santos administration uses circuitous, diplomatic language, but it does things that hurt the country, more daring than the previous government,” he said.

Alexander Ariza, a peasant farmer who works as a street vendor due to a lack of opportunities in the countryside, told IPS in Carimagua shortly after Santos left that “you end up feeling kind of negative towards the government, when they promise so much and deliver so little.

“I hope to God this is real, and that they won’t forget about it all when they leave. That they will help people like me, who having absolutely nothing,” he said.

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