by Stewart Vriesinga
Christian Peacemaker Jenny Rodriguez and I visited the community of Las Pavas last month (May 2011). It was good to see them back on their land, where I first met them in March of 2009!
The Colombian Constitutional Court has recognized that the community’s claims on these lands have merit and must be re-examined, so the likelihood of further displacements seems remote.
Nevertheless much remains to be done: Despite the court ruling, and despite the Ministry of the Environment’s assessment that these lands would be adversely affected by palm oil cultivation, the palm oil company Aportes San Isidro continues occupy these same lands. Some of its personnel, protected by police, are living not ten meters from the community’s homes. Aportes San Isidro is unlikely to cease its operations until its tittle to the land has been annulled. Only after this can the community be registered as the legitimate tittle-holders.
Las Pavas claim to these lands is based on land forfeiture by the previous tittle-holder and their right of possession. Under Colombia’s land reform laws, a landlord forfeits his tittle to lands which he or she fails to cultivate or otherwise occupy for an extended period. These same land reform laws grant squatters rights—the right of possession—to third parties who have occupied and cultivated such lands (or state-owned lands) for period of five years or more. It was under this criteria that the community of Las Pavas applied to the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) for the the right of possession back in 2006. The Constitutional Court’s ruling in favour of the community requires INCODER, which so far has denied the community’s claims to the land, to reopen the case.
However INCODER has a conflict of interest. They are simultaneously responsible for both land reform and rural development in Colombia. Aportes San Isidro’s palm oil cultivations complement INCODER’s neo-liberal economic development plans for the area, since they are likely to contribute to economic growth by supplying global demand for bio-fuel. The Las Pavas community’s development plans, on the other hand, are not focused on national economic growth, but rather place a strong emphasis on food security, the environment, the future well-being of the community and community development of the local population. These factors could very well make INCODER sympathetic to Aportes San Isidro’s palm oil production, and therefore reluctant to comply with the Constitutional Court’s ruling that requires the reopening of the Las Pavas community’s claims to these lands.
The Miracle of Las Pavas: Even so, here in Colombia the return of the community of Las Pavas to their land is described as a miracle. Indeed very few of the four-million-and-something million internally displaced Colombians have regained access to their land. Testimonies indicate that much of the forced displacement was not collateral damage due to armed conflict, but in fact a very deliberate organized effort to usurp Afro-Colombian, indigenous and campesino communities of their land:
“The paramilitaries are not subtle when it comes to taking land,” said Nutt, a British specialist with Christian Aid who recently visited Colombia. “They simply visit a community and tell landowners, ‘If you don’t sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow.'” (Source: .The Global Report “Massacres and paramilitary land seizures behind the biofuel revolution” Also see Inter Press Service “Palm Planters and Displaced People Wait for New Government” & The Sunday Times “Biofuel gangs kill for green profits”)
The Uribe government’s Peace and Justice Law –truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation—was to result in the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary groups back in 2005. Today the vast majority of the dispossessed have yet to receive reparation, compensation or justice, and threats of extra-judicial killings, intimidation and internal displacement continue. Impunity for past crimes continues. The Peace and Justice Law has failed on all counts.
President Santos’ not-yet-ratified Land Restitution Law is equally unlikely to produce results as long as those responsible for past displacements have not been brought to justice and continue to act with impunity. Intimidation and extra-judicial killings continue to ensure that the majority of dispossessed campesinos, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities remain landless. Those few who dare to identify themselves as victims and demand land restitution are often killed:
Since the new government of Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated at the start of August 2010, the number of land rights activists murdered is heartbreaking. At least eight leaders of displaced communities directly involved in advocating for return of their families’ or their communities’ land have been assassinated, presumably by paramilitary or criminal gangs that benefited from stolen land.(Source: Latin American Working Group, Feb. 18th 2011, “Dying for Land: Colombian Displaced Leaders Murdered”. See also Colombia Reports’ “Leader for the displaced killed in Cordoba, northern Colombia”; Some estimates of the number of leaders killed are much higher.)
Given these realities the return of Las Pavas is indeed a miracle. The combined political and legal efforts of a host of national and international allies—campaigns against Body Shop, Daabon Organics (which many of you contributed to), pressure on INCODER, judicial processes, media coverage, support from various embassies–helped raise the community’s profile, ensuring that the community leaders were not killed despite threats against them, allowing the community to physically return to their land. Furthermore the Constitutional Court of Colombia, unlike the lower courts, aligned itself with the court of public opinion and ruled in favour of the community.
More miracles are required: The Constitutional Court’s ruling must be followed up by the annulment of Aportes San Isidro’s land title, and their removal from the lands in question; Land titles must be issued to the community; and the community must be compensated for all the environmental and property damage done by the Daabon and Aportes San Isidro consortium. Only then will the community be empowered to begin the work of rebuilding their lives and a better future for their children.
And even greater miracles are required if the land restitution of the community of Las Pavas sets the standard for land restitution for the other four-million-and-something dispossessed Colombians.
By continuing to raise the profile of targets and victims of forced displacement and their struggle for justice you can help bring these miracles about!