In Colombia, Land Is the Future

Lutheran World Relief has worked in Colombia for decades, through war, demobilization, failed peace negotiations and more war. Our work has changed over the years as local conditions have changed. But we have always focused on marginalized, rural communities and worked through local non-governmental counterparts in an effort to invest in the strength and independence of indigenous civil society.

As a result of Colombia's long-standing armed conflict, many of the nation's farmers are violently displaced from their lands. Farmers who try to return often have no access to credit, lack farming irrigation systems and have little in the way of quality seeds or fertilizer. They also face long and convoluted administrative battles to get legal titles to their land.

At the same time, these farmers are responsible for feeding the nation. Colombia's small-scale farmers produce 70 percent of all food consumed by the country's more than 46 million people. They achieve this incredible feat under difficult circumstances and, until now, with little support, and little land.

In 2011, the Colombian government passed the Victims' and Land Restitution Law, commonly called the "Victims' Law." If implemented fully, this law will return 2 million hectares (about 4.9 million acres) of land to an estimated 4 million people displaced as a result of Colombia's internal conflict. This is promising legislation and the most important step the government has taken in recent history to support the nation's most vulnerable small-scale farmers.

LWR applauded the law's passage because we believe land restitution is essential to the livelihoods of Colombia's small-scale farmers, to peace and to rural development.

From a bird's eye view, things are looking better in Colombia: The Victims' Law is in place, and the Colombian Government is engaging in promising peace negotiations with the nation´s largest guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuezas Revolucionarias de Colombia). Nonetheless, there remains cause for concern and for action.

In June 2012, LWR staff and partners carried out research on the implementation of the Victims' Law on Colombia's Caribbean coast, where farmers fleeing violence and persecution have abandoned millions of hectares of land. We found that a year after its passage, the law's implementation was lagging: not a single piece of land had been returned. In addition, rural municipalities lacked important resources to fully implement the law and farmers feared reprisals and violence if they advocated for land restitution. In its 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch explains that "the government's land restitution efforts have coincided with a rise in attacks and threats against leaders of displaced communities campaigning for land recovery." Rogelio Martinez, one of the farmers LWR worked with, led his community's struggle for a return to their lands, and was assassinated in 2010 after receiving death threats for his efforts.

We never thought implementing the law would be easy but failure to implement it will mean thousands of farmers left vulnerable to attack, with no land to farm or feed the nation. This continued displacement is devastating not only to farmers and their families, it is a blow to rural development and to peace. Massive displacement has already reduced agricultural production, as more than 40 percent of displaced people abandoned crops. Allowing this displacement to continue is both unjust and a serious threat to Colombian food security.

So what now?

"Oversight by the national government and funding are a must for the law to succeed, but governments cannot accomplish this task alone," says LWR's Country Director for Colombia, Zoraida Castillo. "The law and the national government are setting the stage for a sea change in Colombia's countryside, but in order to realize the promise, more is needed. Governments cannot go it alone. They must work with international and local civil society to ensure laws adequately and appropriately benefit those in need of protection and restitution."

Now is the time for the international community as a whole to lend a hand in Colombia and for the public sector to partner with the non-governmental sector (and vice versa) to make our collective dreams a reality. We must help ensure full implementation of the Victims' Law and support farmers seeking restitution.

The Colombian government has the most critical role to play, but its long-time ally, the United States, can help. And both governments must involve civil society in this critical work. Non-governmental organizations, both local and international, have the flexibility, experience and knowledge needed to help farmers survive and thrive once national policies are in place and in force.

On April 3 in Washington, D.C., LWR will join with the United Nations Development Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development and civil society partners to support the conference "Land and the Colombian Peace Agenda."The conference is sponsored by the United States Institute for Peace, The Inter-American Foundation and the U.S. Office on Colombia.