In our December report on U.S.-funded counterinsurgency programs in Colombia, we discussed a major threat to these programsâ€™ success: populationsâ€™ fear of a â€œland grab.â€
Much hinges on land tenure in places like the Montes de MarÃa, a region near the Caribbean coast where USAID has been supporting a Colombian government â€œFusion Centerâ€ for about a year. This small zone saw some of Colombiaâ€™s most intense violence in the early 2000s, when paramilitaries carried out a string of massacres whose names (El Salado, Chengue, MampujÃ¡n, Macayepo, and dozens more) remain notorious today.
The paramilitary offensive displaced most of many communitiesâ€™ populations; nine or ten years later, only a minority have returned to their lands.
These lands are fertile, and with the near-total disappearance of leftist guerrillas from the zone since 2007, the Montes de MarÃa have become much less violent. As a result, land prices are skyrocketing, and speculators are looking to buy up the small parcels held by displaced, or recently returned, farmers. According to a March 6 article in Colombiaâ€™s Semana magazine:
Some years ago, large investors – the majority from MedellÃn – arrived in the Montes de MarÃa to buy parcels from campesinos who had been displaced and had become indebted to banks. In a town-hall meeting with President Ãlvaro Uribe in El Carmen de BolÃvar, several farmworkers denounced that intermediaries are massively buying land at low prices. The campesinos said that the buyers or middlemen arrive shortly after visits from bill-collectors announcing to them that their lands could be foreclosed upon. Cornered, with no other choice, the campesinos were selling.
At the August 2008 town-hall meeting, President Uribe exhorted the local citizenry, â€œDonâ€™t sell your land!â€ Meanwhile Colombiaâ€™s Constitutional Court has ruled that loans to landholders who were displaced should be renegotiated or forgiven. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons, from the lack of necessary paperwork to farmers being unaware of their rights.
In response to this situation, the authorities in Montes de MarÃa have temporarily prohibited the sales of thousands of hectares of landholdings. Most of these are small parcels handed out in the 1970s-1990s by Colombiaâ€™s normally ineffective land-reform agency. Semana reports:
As an official of the BolÃvar departmental government explained, the intention of these restrictions on land sales is to keep land from concentrating in few hands, thus affecting thousands of campesinosâ€™ return after being expelled by paramilitary violence in the zone. And the philosophy of protecting those lands not only has to do with legal buyers; it also seeks to keep illegal groups from obligating campesinos to sell at low prices. Throughout the country about two million hectares are protected for the same purposes.
This â€œfreezeâ€ in land sales has modestly allayed farmersâ€™ fears that the U.S.-funded â€œIntegrated Actionâ€ program might pose a threat to their landholdings. Although the stated goal of the U.S.-supported â€œFusion Centerâ€ is to assist the return of displaced communities, fears of a â€œland grabâ€ are rife in the Montes de MarÃa. For many, the prospect of a stronger state presence in the zone implies the stronger presence of institutions not only tied to the elites who sponsored the paramilitaries 10 years ago, but also tied to the shadowy groups of investors who are buying up land right now. The freeze in sales offers some security from the threat of a â€œland grab.â€
But that freeze may not be in place much longer. At the beginning of March, a judge in El Carmen de BolÃvar, one of the biggest municipalities in the Montes de MarÃa, set a very troubling precedent. At the request of a group of displaced campesinos who wanted to sell their lands, the judge lifted the â€œfreezeâ€ for 40 landholdings, totaling about 1,000 hectares, so that they could be sold to two MedellÃn investors from a company called Agropecuaria Tacaloa.
With the decision of the El Carmen de BolÃvar judge comes the possibility of the massive sale of thousands of hectares that until now were protected by the Departmental Committee [for attention to the displaced], and the possibility of these lands ending up in the hands of large businesses or, even worse, warlords, while the idea of these campesinosâ€™ return, or of their reparation as victims, is truncated.
The Montes de MarÃa are at risk of witnessing an all-out land grab, at the expense of victims who were forced to flee the region for their lives a decade ago. If that happens, the stated goals of the U.S.-supported â€œIntegrated Actionâ€ program will be undermined. Displaced populations will not return, the region will undergo a â€œreverse land reform,â€ and the population will be even more distrustful of the state. Last monthâ€™s court ruling sets a dangerous precedent.