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'Too Scared to Return': Millions of Displaced Colombians Failed by Land Restitution Efforts, Report Says

Amnesty International says efforts to restore stolen land are falling apart due to violence, threats and ineffective legislation — an issue which could derail Colombia's fragile peace process.

by Kayleen Devlin
Nov 27 2014, 5:15pm

Image via Reuters

Killings, threats of violence, and flawed legislation are preventing millions of Colombians from reclaiming stolen land, a report has found — further imperiling the fragile peace process aimed at ending the world's longest running civil conflict.

In 2011, the country's government implemented the Victims and Land Restitution Law, hailed as a historic opportunity to restore land to the forcibly displaced, many of them peasant farmers, indigenous people and Afro-descendent Colombians. But the measure is failing the vast majority, according to the study released on Thursday by Amnesty International. 

Of the estimated eight million hectares of land that have been illegally acquired — largely at the hands of Colombian paramilitaries and security forces — less than 30,000 hectares have been returned to their rightful owner.

'I love the countryside. But I love my life more.'

Now, more than three years towards the law's 10-year deadline, Amnesty International warn that land restitution — and with it the peace process — is in danger of failure, and millions of people risk being left in a precarious state of limbo.

Colombia and FARC Negotiators Begin 25th Round of Peace Talks. Read more here.

Alicia (not her real name) was forced to flee her home in Tamarindo in November 2013.

She was working her plot of land with a friend when she alleges that the army and private security companies came, pulled her away from her home, and trashed everything inside it.

"The day I was thrown out my house was so painful," she told VICE News.

'To be as poor as I am, 54 years old, and to have everything you own taken from you.... I had to leave everything I'd sown, all my plants, my animals —the chickens, pigs and turkeys I had there. I lost it all. They killed me, to be honest. It is like they killed me the way they threw me from my home."

In half a century of conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian military and right wing paramilitary groups, millions of people have been made to flee their homes —  often to the benefit of powerful criminal, political or business interests. According to figures from the United Nations Development Program, land distribution in Colombia is one of the most unequal in the world. A UNDP study from 2011 found that 52 percent of the country's farms were owned by just 1.15 percent of landowners.

Colombia now counts almost six million people as refugees, most of them internal, according to UN figures.  The country has more internally displaced people than any other apart from Syria, which overtook it last year. In 2013 alone, nearly 220,000 were forcibly displaced.

For those who do try to return home serious threats, violence and death are among some of the risks they face. Returning landowners, human rights campaigners and state officials involved in the restitution process have all fallen victim to violence.

Paramilitaries Likely to Continue Terrorizing Colombia Even After a Peace Deal. Read more here.

By the end of August this year, the Office of the Attorney General was investigating at least 35 killings of individuals who were involved in the land restitution process, although Amnesty International says the number of people killed is likely to be much higher.

For 41-year-old Manuel, the risk of violence and lack of protection are all too real.

He arrived in the town of Carpintero in 1997, after leaving his home due to attempts by guerillas to make him and his brother to join their ranks. Three months after his family moved to Carpintero, paramilitary groups began settle in.

"The first time I saw them I remember being very scared," Manuel told VICE News.

"These guys do what they like and no one can stop them."

At one point, Manuel and his cousin were stopped at gunpoint, but managed to calm the situation down and return to their homes.

Shortly after this incident, a neighbour of his disappeared — an event which prompted him to flee for a second time.

For those, like Manuel, who have been forced to flee their home due to violence, the issue of impunity is a big one.

In 2006, Uribe's government demobilized the paramilitaries, but many of these former fighters never went to jail, and instead embedded into other criminal groups.

Speaking to VICE News from Bogota, Amnesty International's Spain Director Esteban Beltran says that the issue of impunity affects the confidence of people in the restitution process.

"Only 65 paramilitaries of 30,000 have been put in jail.

"There is crisis of confidence in people wishing to reclaim their land. And that lack of confidence has to do with no prosecution for those who stole the land.

"When it arrived the law was a good thing. But there's been a poor implementation of the law, and a lack of political will from the government to address the issues."

The report claims that most of the land restitution cases that have been settled have involved families who have already returned to their land prior to the restitution process.

"It is not proper land restitution," said Beltran.

"It's mainly giving formalization of land ownership to people who have already returned to their land. This is not addressing the problems of people who have been forcibly displaced from their land and cannot go back.

"Radical changes need to be made in terms of implementation of the law, security of the people who want to return to their land, and we need to warn the international community that they cannot benefit from lands secured through human rights abuses."

Amnesty's claims come at a time of increased tensions in the peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. There are still a number of outstanding issues to be settled in the process, but FARC's recent kidnapping of five hostages, including an army general, has led the negotiations to be suspended. Despite the rebel group's release on Tuesday of two soldiers,  the government insists that talks will not resume until all five are freed.

Land reform and restitution has been one of the most contentious points in the peace process. A plan was agreed in Havana in May 2013 providing for the reallocation of land to poor farmers and the displaced; Amnesty now warns that the talks could be derailed if the problems surrounding restitution are not resolved.

"The issue of land is one of the central components of the negotiations, and the success or failure of the talks could ultimately rest on the ability of the Colombian state to effectively return land to those victims of the conflict who were forced to abandon or were dispossessed of their lands and homes," the report states.

For Alicia, returning to her land is not yet an option.

"It's too dangerous," she told VICE News.

"There are still vigilantes all over the place and we are too scared to return."

Her fears were echoed by Manuel.

"I love the countryside," he said.

"But I love my life more."

Follow Kayleen Devlin on Twitter: @KayleenDevlin