The Third Displacement

“It’s the problem,” the pastor said, “of land.” 

On an accompaniment visit to Apartadó, Colombia in August 2021, two of us from PPF had the chance to sit down with the Peace Commission of the Presbytery of Urabá. Sitting around a square of tables in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church in Apartadó, we listened deeply to the experiences, reflections, and observations of our Colombian colleagues. Writing this from my home, two months later, I’m still unpacking what was shared. For today, I am reflecting on what we heard about a new kind of displacement.

Rev Diego shared about one of the biggest phenomenons around land they’re seeing right now: land being sold multiple times and then the restitution law being used to take the land from the last owners — restoring the land to the “legitimate” owners, but ignoring displacement that has happened in between the “original” displacement and the most recent displacement. (If you’re as confused now as I was first hearing this, stick with me.) The folks in the IPC called this “the third displacement” – when legitimate owners of land are displaced through application of this law, even though they arrived on the land without violence. 

The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) was passed in 2011.This law “addresses issues around the rights of victims, including compensation and the return of land from which they were forcibly displaced.”  (source) It is meant both to recognize the victims of violence and to facilitate the return of land to displaced persons. People trying to use this law to reclaim their land have to prove both ownership of the land and their victim status according to specified criteria.

I had trouble tracking this in the conversation, so I started thinking about this fully fictional example to try to make sense of it. 

Imagine it this way: Family A has owned the land forever. They are forcibly displaced and Family B moves in. Perhaps the land is vacant for a while, and Family C moves in. At some point, Family C starts a sale of the land to Family D. But Family B goes to a judge and uses the Land Restitution Law to say, “hey, that’s our land, restore it to us.” The judge stops the sale of the land, leaving Family D without land and causing Family C to be displaced  This leads to Family D not being able to buy the land, and causes Family C to be displaced, even though neither Family C or D was responsible for the original displacement, neither used violence to claim the land, and furthermore this process does not restore Family A to their land. The whole thing is messy and complicated.

A contributing challenge to this process is the state or lack of documentation. If land has been in your family for generations, perhaps since before there was an organized government, you might not have a legal deed or title to the land. So how do you prove it’s yours? If someone took your land with violence, but then organized the paperwork to show it belongs to them, how do you prove it doesn’t? 

Our friends in the IPC have both witnessed and experienced this third kind of displacement. A pastor in Uraba shared the story of how they were trying to buy a parcel of land on which they could build housing for retired pastors: They talked about  how they found the land for sale, got the money together, and when the sale was about to go through, a judge stopped the sale to “restore” the land to a previous owner. They are certain that the owner to whom the land has been restored is not the original owner, but the intermediary owner has the right paperwork to reclaim the land. So they’re back on the search, to try to find another parcel of land to buy – and hope that the process does not get disrupted again. 

Another pastor told the story of a family with 19 years of living on a parcel – who, the Tuesday before our visit, had been evicted by a judge in a third displacement. He said, “This phenomenon is impacting all regions where the first displacements took place. There is such instability and insecurity the rug can get pulled out from under people because they buy a house doing things the right way, and then a judge can suddenly say, “you have to hand over that house because it belongs to this person or that person.”  Reflecting on the situation, the complications families are facing in trying to seek justice under the law, this pastor asked, “Is the law just the strong hand of the rich?”

It seems like the answer is yes. The IPC keeps pushing for peace with justice, and keeps accompanying the victims and survivors of violence. Our role is to keep listening, keep learning, and keep walking alongside the IPC as they raise these questions. 

Written by: alison wood, PPF Accompaniment Coordinator