Colombia Is Charting a New Path Forward After a Brutal Civil War

The country experiments with settling disputes that arise when the displaced try to reclaim their home.

A mother and child displaced by Colombia’s civil conflict.

Photographer: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

The ravages of civil war are painfully clear: Apart from massive numbers of injuries and deaths, families and communities are forced to flee, abandoning their property and possessions. Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic show the depth of the crisis. Bringing the fighting to a close is difficult enough, but the legacy of discord can be tenacious, especially when it comes to land lost. Some disputes—such as those at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—have lasted generations.

In Latin America a critical experiment in land restitution is under way. On June 23 the government of Colombia agreed to a cease-fire with the armed leftist rebels called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), officially ending hostilities in a conflict that raged for more than 50 years. The fighting has cost about 220,000 lives (80 percent civilian), with more than 6 million people—about 1 in every 10 Colombians—pushed off their land or out of their home. The country has the world’s second-highest number of internally displaced people, only recently eclipsed by Syria’s 7.6 million. They are estimated to have lost a combined 19 million acres, an area roughly the size of South Carolina. Key to the peace that’s slowly taking hold in the nation is an orderly restitution of property.

The feelings are still raw for Maria Lisve Clavijo. On July 31, 1999, she and her family were celebrating the feast of the Virgen de Carmen when trucks with armed men arrived. Clavijo, 25 years old at the time, felt a jolt of fear when she saw the insignia of a notoriously brutal paramilitary group on their uniforms. Such groups were death squads often used by landowners, drug cartels, and politicians to combat the FARC. The men rounded up all the villagers, called out a list of names, and led those people away. “They told the rest of us that because we were allies of the FARC, we must leave immediately,” Clavijo says. She denies that she or her neighbors were aiding the rebels, but these weren’t men to be argued with. She quickly gathered her four kids, grabbed diapers for the baby, and abandoned her family’s 45-acre farm.

Today, Clavijo and seven of her relatives reside on the outskirts of Tuluá, a city less than 30 miles from her farm. They live in a two-room shack that she says was once used by a local gang for dismembering bodies. “No one should live like this,” she tells me, as she introduces me to her mother, a bedridden, skeletal woman; her mentally challenged sister; and that sister’s teenage daughter, born from a paramilitary rape. “The farm is where we should be, and we want it back,” Clavijo says.

Forced internal migration has created profound disorder and discontent. Families lost not only land and livelihoods but also their sense of place and belonging. In 2011 the government of the newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos, established the office of land restitution, promising that anyone who lost his home because of the conflict has a right to get it back. “It’s our job to, little by little, reconstruct the social fabric that was broken by displacement,” says Ricardo Sabogal, the office’s director.

The problem is, the government seems to have not realized how complicated this would be. “I know who lives on my farm now, and it’s not the paramilitaries,” says Clavijo, explaining that at some point, her land changed hands. Clavijo believes that the current occupants bought the property without knowing its history, but they refuse to leave without a government order. This is common, says Teo Ballvé, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University. The process of land restitution, he says, “is like bureaucratic archaeology—layers and layers of owners to figure out who the rightful owner is.” There are infinitely complex scenarios, and in many cases the current occupants are people as poor and vulnerable as those who were originally displaced.

The decision about who gets the land is made by a judge based on the findings of the office of land restitution’s special units dispatched to the countryside to investigate land claims. In most cases, title deeds, if they ever existed, have been lost or destroyed. The investigators dig into municipal registries, privately stored contracts, old utility bill records—anything that might indicate prior ownership. They then cross-reference the land claim with government intelligence about the presence of armed combatants in the area to make sure the family was evicted because of the conflict. “The entire process should take about a year,” Sabogal says.

Clavijo has been waiting for four. When I visit her home in April, she shoves several legal documents into my hands. The papers show that she submitted her claim in 2012 and that there’s no resolution yet. Slowness is the norm: As of April of this year, only 3,000 claims, or 3.4 percent of the total cases taken on by the office, have been resolved. Moreover, those who have been given their land back are supposed to receive agricultural assistance or small-business incentives to make rural life viable again. Studies have found these efforts are falling short, as well.

Experts say that for Colombia to develop, farmers must repopulate the abandoned countryside. According to the United Nations Development Programme, less than a quarter of the national territory suitable for food production is cultivated.

There’s also politics. What set the stage for the peace negotiations was, in part, the creation of the office of land restitution. The nation has always had a drastically unequal distribution of land, and displacement exacerbated that trend. Today, less than 1 percent of the Colombian population owns more than 60 percent of the land, one of the world’s most inequitable ratios. When the government showed a willingness to address this issue, FARC came to the negotiating table.

The government now says that giving back their land may make its citizens less restless, less inclined to support radical forces. This stability would help attract foreign investment. Unlike other Latin American countries, Colombia has been a loyal U.S. ally and reliably market-friendly. “What’s held back development has been the security situation. The war made many parts of the country ungovernable and, thereby, untapped,” Colgate University’s Ballvé says. With a peace agreement forthcoming, that will change. “The country has vast mineral and oil reserves in areas that will be newly coming online—in part, thanks to initiatives like the land restitution program.”

Although land restitution is key to long-term stability, it’s causing turmoil in the short term. Leading international human-rights organizations have documented intimidation campaigns targeted at those trying to return home. Families going back to their land have received death threats, and in 2015, 105 activist leaders were killed, a 35 percent increase from the previous year. Judges who issue land restitution decisions are given personal security details, says Sabogal, the director of the government office. Colombia’s landed elite used to employ right-wing paramilitaries to enforce their claims. Now they’re colluding with drug trafficking groups.

Clavijo is one of the persecuted. Over the years, she’s started helping other families with their claims and has emerged as a leading activist for land restitution in western Colombia. She’s faced repeated death threats and has had to change homes no fewer than six times since her displacement out of fear for her safety. “I fight so that the government gives us the rights that we deserve,” she says. “They made promises.”

Progress is slow, and results are slim. One day in the city of Buenaventura, women formed a long line waiting for entry into the city’s Victim’s Attention Center. These centers dot the country, outposts for promised stipends, training courses, vocational classes, job opportunities, and more. Every woman I spoke to was angry with the government for not fulfilling its promises.

Colombia isn’t the only country where people look to the state to redress the harms of war. But the nation is a living experiment because it began this process before the conflict ended. The world might well take heed of how Colombia’s efforts unfold.
Friedman-Rudovsky was a 2016 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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