Land and Conflict in Colombia

From Ian McGarr, our Country Coordinator on Colombia.

As the decade long armed conflict has raged between government forces, paramilitary organisation and guerrilla groups in Colombia, civilians have borne the brunt. During this time, paramilitary organisations – and their backers in politics and business – have accumulated untold wealth by stealing land. 

In 2011 a law was passed that should help return this land to its rightful owners. But it is not that simple – making a claim can cost you your life. In January paramilitary groups in Northern Colombia issued death threats to dozens of people trying to reclaim their land, and those helping them. Those threatened include human rights defenders, state officials, journalists, community leaders, trade unionists and human rights organisations. 

Take action: call on the Colombian authorities to investigate death threats

The context

Across decades of armed conflict, land theft has been carried out on a grand scale. Estimates suggest that up to 6 million hectares of land has been stolen from hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers. Over 5 million Colombians have been forced to flee from their homes and land. 

Some of this land is now occupied by multinational companies and large landowners who are suspected of having ties to paramilitaries. These death threats come as Northern Colombia has just started dealing with claims on land involving them. Similar death threats have been made previously, but investigations have not progressed and land these individuals remain at risk.

The Law

In 2011 the Victims and Land Restitution Law was passed. It contains mechanisms to return millions of hectares of stolen land, and for victims of violations to claim compensation from the state. 

But while some Colombians will see recompense through this process, many victims of the conflict will be excluded. Those benefiting from stolen lands could continue to do so – at the expense of the rightful owners.

Those that win their case still face difficulties in accessing their land, finding huge palm plantations now cover it. Others regain their land only to find that it is unsuitable for cultivation, illegal occupants having diverted water for other purposes. Many do not return at all, receiving rent from occupants instead.

For more information about the land restitution process and its obstacles read Amnesty’s report A land title is not enough: Ensuring sustainable land restitution in Colombia

Take action

Colombians reclaiming land that is rightfully theirs face threats from paramilitary groups as they seek justice in their cases. Leaders of displaced communities and those seeking the return of stolen lands have been killed or threatened, and the situation has worsened since the passing of the Land and Victims Restitution Law. 

Colombian authorities must do more to protect these land claimants and human rights defenders. Write to the Colombian authorities and urge them to provide effective protection for all individuals threatened, and to order a full and impartial investigation into the death threats made on 21 January.

Please note - the action says appeals must be in by 6 March but we have had confirmation that they are still needed so please continue to write to the authorities. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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