The Challenges of Land Restitution

This accompanier report was received June 25, 2013 from Urabá-based accompaniers Alison Wood and Bemene Piaro.

Jaime (pseudonym) refused to sell his land to the members of the paramilitary who made him the offer. He left town the same night, because refusing meant certain death. He left, but he took the title to his land with him. Now, after 13 years farming rented land in a different place, Jaime has applied through the Law of Victims to reclaim his land. 

More than 30,000 petitions for land restitution have been filed since the passing of the Victims and Land Restitution Law in June, 2011. In a country of over an estimated 4.9 to 5.5 million displaced people, the number of cases will likely continue to grow. The process is a slow and uncertain one; Jaime told us that he just has to wait, but he has no idea how long.

Another man told us that he and most of his community were displaced from their lands under threat of violence: “If I was the head of a household I might have been told, ‘you can sell the land to us or we’ll buy it from your widow.’”

Some members of his community have returned to their family homes, in the 17 years since the displacement. Others cannot return home, the lands which they once cultivated to feed their families have been converted to grazing land for cattle. The Law includes a provision for lands which are currently in productive use; typically these lands cannot return to their rightful owners until after the natural life cycle of the product ends. This could be decades for crops such as oil-palm.  But whatever the use, the rules are complicated, and subject to “manipulation.”   

There is an intergenerational facet to the impact of displacement on land ownership that goes beyond the life cycle of crops. It has been 20 years, most tell us, since the worst of the violence. Some people have been displaced for that long or even longer. When Jaime went back to visit the land that is legally his, he found that the man who had originally forced him out had died: now the man’s daughter lives on Jaime’s land. Jaime has to wait for an indeterminate amount of time. In the meantime another family continues to establish a life on his land and may be displaced themselves if Jaime ever receives his land back. Or perhaps, the land struggle will be passed on to the next generation.

In some places, we have heard that the land restitution process is indeed moving along. Some families are being granted back their lands. However, we have also heard that when the official restitution happens, the process is still not over. Families have to get together the financial resources to move back to their lands and have to complete mountains of paperwork. For many, the requirements are too hard to meet and the bureaucracy moves too slowly. People are tired. The system is intractable. So when an offer comes from an unscrupulous person with money to buy the land for a fraction of its true worth, people are selling.  Some might only receive one-fifth of what their land is worth. The man who was telling us about this sounded tired himself. He sounded resigned, saying “The same thing is still happening. People are still losing their lands, but often by means other than force.”