Upcoming guest posting on the Colombian restitution process

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce another happy by-product of my recent participation in the Essex Transitional Justice Network’s recent course and seminar on land issues in transitions. In addition to Clara Sandoval’s upcoming guest-post on the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s recent ruling on Chile, I can now reveal that another seminar participant, Camilo Sánchez of the Colombian NGO Dejusticia, will be writing for TN together with his colleague Ilan Grapel.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Camilo during earlier work on property issues in Colombia, such as a UNHCHR workshop for the then-newly minted restitution judges precisely a year ago (for all the presentations including my own in simultaneous Español, see here). In the context of what is often a hopelessly prickly relationship between government and civil society, Camilo and his colleagues at Dejusticia deftly combine effective advocacy with sharp, independent analysis.

Camilo’s post will focus on the implementation of the current program of restitution of land aimed primarily at victims of Colombia’s right wing paramilitaries, arguing that improvements to the functioning of the restitution law should be accompanied by a broader commitment to distributive reforms. This is of course a crucial topic at the moment for Colombia, given the negotiation process with the Farc that resulted in a landmark agreement on agrarian reform last Spring.

One of the issues that has haunted both the current restitution process and the Government’s efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Farc has been the issue of whether it will truly be capable of ending a centuries-long tradition of failed land reform and resulting political instability. Ana Maria Ibanez and Juan Carlos Munoz captured this historical dynamic in their chapter of a 2010 Forum for International Criminal and Humanitarian Law volume on “distributive justice in transitions” (highly recommended and available here in pdf).

Ibanez and Munoz describe how Colombia’s vast interior allowed successive governments to buck pressure to redistribute land by encouraging the “colonization” of smallholder plots – only to have the big landowners swallow these plots up again, turning their cultivators into impoverished and aggrieved tenants. Cited in a recent article in the Economist, Ibanez has gone on to note how mass displacement and ongoing violence from the last round of ‘agrarian counter-reform’ have fundamentally reduced tenure security for all farmers, reducing the country’s agricultural efficiency: 

… farmers who have not been direct victims of the conflict, but who live with the presence of armed fighters, tend to favour fast-growing crops that offer several harvests a year. Many also turn cropland into pasture for cattle, which are easily sold if things become nasty.

They stay away from permanent crops, such as cocoa, coffee, rubber and fruit trees, which require more investment and time to yield a harvest, though they are more profitable in the long run. This strategy seeks to “minimise the risk of the conflict but does not maximise profits”, Ms Ibáñez says. That leads to low investment and low productivity.

One of the criticisms of the current restitution program has involved the idea that if it does not lead to sustainable return by the displaced in the face of both low productivity of land and continuing threats of violence, it may instead become a means of facilitating a vast expansion of industrial agriculture, providing compensation to dispossessed smallholders while simultaneously conveying clear title to investors and concessionaires.

These suspicions have been fuelled both by evidence that “colonization” policies meant to benefit small farmers are still manipulated in favor of large industrial investors, and by rumors that the government intends to give effect to the land reform agreed with the Farc through yet further reliance on colonization. Perhaps if Colombia can ultimately avoid re-fighting yesterday’s war, it can also prevent tomorrow’s.


One response to “Upcoming guest posting on the Colombian restitution process

  1. Right now INCODER –the Colombian Institute for Rural Development–is responsible for land reform, replacing INCORA–the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform. Unfortunately INCODER has the additional task of improving productivity of Colombia’s rural sector, and therefore favours agro-industry over campesino farmers. Campesino farmers are very productive, but since they operate in the informal sector, and don’t produce primarily for the global market place, their productivity goes un recognized.

    This, along with a great deal of corruption in INCODER and the fact the government is either incapable of, or lacks the political will to actually implement land restitution for displaced campesinos. Less than one percent under Uribe’s Peace and Justice Law in 2005 have been compensated, and Santos Ley de Victimas and Ley de Tierras have yet to result in returning stolen land to campesinos. These Laws do more to placate critics than they do to actually compensate victims. Impunity continues to be the word of the day, and land is more concentrated than ever.

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