Daily Archives: September 21, 2010

Restitution gets a fresh chance in Colombia

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Economist has picked up on a positive trend in Colombia, where the new administration of Juan Manuel Santos has issued draft legislation proposing special courts to address the restitution claims of over 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) driven from their land over decades of conflict.

The bill incorporates a number of administrative shortcuts in favor of victims that have been proposed by various restitution wonks, including myself in a 2006 presentation for Fundación Ideas Para la Paz and a 2008 analysis for Displacement Solutions (as well as more broadly in the discussion of ‘facilitated procedures’ in Chapter 12 of the 2008 IDP Law and Policy Manual):

On September 7th Mr Santos’s administration published a bill to create special courts to oversee land restitution. It would also reverse the burden of proof, requiring owners to show they acquired land legally and without violence or threats. The aim is to restore 2m hectares to the dispossessed over the next four years. ….

It will not be easy. Some 70% of displaced people hold no formal title, and many worked the land under unwritten sharecropping arrangements, according to Ana Maria Ibáñez, an economist at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. The bill proposes a new land registry based on testimony by the displaced and their neighbours. The broader aim is to formalise land tenure in a country where only 40% of farms have titles and only half have been valued. The registered value of Colombia’s national territory (of 114m hectares) is just $279 billion, of which property in Bogota, the capital, accounts for 40%.

Its low value encourages owners of land to leave much of it fallow or sparsely grazed by a few cows. Juan Camilo Restrepo, the agriculture minister, wants to induce more productive use of land. Almost half the 38.6m hectares devoted to ranching could be used for intensive farming, the ministry reckons. It also wants to turn some fallow or confiscated land over to landless people, as a way to reduce Colombia’s high unemployment rate. A new “peasant-farmer reserve zone” will be created near the Montes de Maria, an area where agribusinesses have been buying land from indebted small farmers at bargain prices. And once land is properly valued it could be duly taxed.

A note of caution is in order as Colombia has been a graveyard of reparations plans in the past. My own report for DS (above) begins by listing ten laws and decrees with provisions on both the narrow issue of property restitution and broader questions of victims’ reparations and land administration reform, most of which remained largely unimplemented. Indeed, the report itself was intended to facilitate a draft Victims’ Law that was launched with great optimism but quickly fell afoul of the politically polarized legislature. However, Santos’ new mandate may provide a conducive atmosphere for passage of the draft law, and if so, the early and serious attention being given to this issue bodes well for its implementation.

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