Property Restitution in Colombia

Article excerpt

Fragility of land tenure and property rights has both caused and exacerbated displacement in Colombia. In response, the government has established a legal framework to address the problem and, ultimately, to prevent further displacement. The rebuilding of community relationships and institutional trust are central to the success of this approach.

The history of land dispossession and displacement in Columbia is rooted in various causes and has resulted in one of the largest displaced populations in the world. First, landowners' rights have been weakened by the sale of land whereby peasants and rural communities are put under duress - by force, misconduct or misinformation - to sell property titles and vacate their land. Land sales conducted in this manner rarely correspond to real market value. A second, recurrent form of land dispossession has been the abandonment of land by landowners as a result of conflict and its subsequent occupation. A third form of land dispossession has arisen through illegal forced transfers of property titles, with individuals using their government positions, and acting in complicity with local non-state armed forces, to subvert the protection offered by local government bodies. Some of these corrupt transfers have occurred through judicial or procedural fraud.1

The effects of land grabbing, occupation and forced displacement have been significant. The Colombian National Planning Department estimates that forced displacement has affected 700,000 households (more than three million people). More than 3,200,000 hectares - 5% of Colombia's agricultural land - have been taken by land grabbing or abandonment by persons forced out of the area.2

Government measures to prevent dispossession and displacement

The Colombian government has developed a set of policies to facilitate land restitution and strengthen landowners' rights, and thereby to prevent further displacement and enable the return of those who have been forced to leave their homes. Since 2003, the government has implemented the Land Protection and Displaced Population Legacy Project, aimed at helping to diminish the risk of impoverishment of displaced populations.3 The Project has worked in 21 regions of Colombia to guarantee the full exercise of property rights, establishing asset protection measures. It has also promoted the formalisation of land rights, including the formal recognition of rights for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and has implemented management processes for land restitution, both in situations of dispossession of land and where people have been forced by violence to abandon their land. The Project has supported land-titling processes in nine regions of the country, producing over one thousand titles giving formal rights to occupant farmers, some of whom had already been displaced while others were at a high risk of displacement.

The current government, under President Santos, has included a land restitution policy in its 2010-14 National Development Plan. This policy reasserts the rights of displaced populations, focuses on access to justice for those who have lost their property due to armed violence, and lays the groundwork for addressing other issues of human rights violations and transitional justice.

Under Colombia's Victims and Land Restitution Law 1448 of 2011, land restitution has been integral to the strategy to proactively prevent mass forced displacement. The Santos government hopes to settle 160,000 claims for restitution in the period of 2011-14 by: 1) promoting landowner rights and resolving land disputes; 2) discouraging land grabbing and occupation in Colombian rural society; and 3) providing a mechanism of redress for persons forcibly displaced and dispossessed of their land. Some of the steps taken to achieve this include:

* no longer placing the burden of proving previous ownership on the dispossessed person but placing the burden of proof instead on the new 'owner'

* establishing a registry to investigate and declare which land was dispossessed and abandoned as a result of force

* introducing a new two-part procedure to provide restitution of dispossessed land, consisting of a special administrative unit dedicated to land restitution and a judicial body comprising specialists in land issues

* establishing a compensation programme, providing inkind restitution of land when applicable and monetary compensation when land is not directly available (drawing on a fund also established by this law)

* gradually and progressively implementing the law's programmes, with each of 364 municipalities prioritised according to the extent of land dispossession. …