Colombia: theft of four million hectares

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forced off his farm by right-wing paramilitaries who use massacre, rape, torture and assassination to encourage people to leave their property, Rogelio Martinez Mercado led a small group of farming families to reclaim land taken from them.

Between three and five million people have been forced off their land in Colombia. Most are traumatised by barbaric cruelty, by bereavement and are left destitute. The scale of the displacement is difficult to imagine. Lower estimates are that an area the size of Switzerland has been cleared for palm oil and banana production, mining, logging, or for drug smuggling.

Rogelio led the return to the land that families had been forced from in the hope of farming peacefully. The land is a farm called Finca La Alemania, one of many farms where agricultural production is supported by ACT members, in this case by Lutheran World Relief.

Death threats were given to Rogelio, but he remained at Finca La Alemania with his family and other farmers. On May 18 he was shot dead by masked men using a pistol with a silencer - one shot in his heart, one in the back of his neck, an assassination military-style. Since Rogelio was killed, fresh and tangible death threats have been given to the new the leadership of the farming group.

Theft of land is the story behind Rogelio’s murder. How does between four and six million hectares of land get stolen? Armed groups are formed, trained and paid to clear areas of their own population. Huge areas, areas of economic value. Multinational companies like Chiquita Brands have been proven to be financing paramilitary armies. And then comes the legal part. Corrupt lawyers and officials falsify legal documents, force people to sign over ownership to others under threat of death, or to sell at undervalued prices. Often, titles change hands several times in quick succession to make it much harder to establish the identity of the legitimate owners.

How do landowners get stolen land back? The most daring of the dispossessed groups of peasant farmers, indigenous and afro-descendants have put in claims for their land to be returned. Most don’t dare. The courts dealing with the claims are swamped and move very slowly. They operate under a variety of pressures. Claimants are often met with death threats, intimidation and murder. Only a very tiny fraction of land seized with use of violence has been returned, less than one percent according to the Presidential Agency for Social Action.

And the violence hasn’t stopped. While paramilitary groups did demobilise in 2006 under the Justice and Peace law (ley 975), and some paramilitary chiefs were extradited to the United States, they are yet to contribute in any significant way to improving the situation in Colombia. Paramilitary structures continue to operate, for the benefit of landowners and big business.

ACT members work with displaced and returning groups of farmers, afro-descendents and indigenous people across Colombia. Lutheran World Relief continues to support the returned group of farmers in Finca La Alemania.

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Between 4 and 6 million hectares of land are estimated to have been stolen. Four million hectares is the size of Switzerland.

3.3 million people are officially registered with the Colombia government as internally displaced.
CODHES, an NGO working on human rights and displacement in Colombia, has documented 5,915,000 cases of people displaced by force in the last 25 years. “49% were displaced from their land since the beginning of the Alvaro Uribe government.”
UNHCR figures show nearly 400,000 refugees have left the country.

ACT Alliance and the World Council of Churches are represented on the Comisión Ética de la Verdad (Ethics Commission on Truth in Colombia).