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Colombia: land restitution without security


by ABColombia May 2012

COCOMOPOCA is made up of 43 Afro-Colombian communities who after a 12-year struggle were finally presented with land title to 73,000 hectares on 17 September 2011. They achieved this with the support of ABColombia members Christian Aid, CAFOD and SCIAF and their partners Pastoral Social and the Diocese of Quibdó. In 1999 Cocomopoca presented their formal application for the collective land title to their ancestral territory, an extension of 172.000 hectares. Law 70 (1993), under which they were awarded their land, recognises their right to live in their territory according to their cultural customs and way of life. Following their application, they suffered forced displacement, threats and killings. When they first applied for their collective title the Cocomopoca communities numbered 30,000 inhabitants, ten years later, there remained only 17,000 people.

One of the communities in Cocomopoca

ABColombia visited Cocomopoca in March 2012 to see how the return to their territory was progressing and to discover what lessons could be learnt in the wake of the implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law. The territory of Cocomopoca is situated in the Middle region of the Atrato River Basin in Chocó.

Would some of the concerns regarding the implementation of this law be put to rest? ABColombia hoped that a visit to Cocomopoca would provide some insights. Two questions uppermost in our minds were: 1) the security of the returning communities and 2) what mechanisms the government had implemented to ensure the sustainability of the return.

Unfortunately, the answers found during this visit only served to increase rather than diminish our concerns. Most notably, there was a clear lack of preparation for the community’s return, placing them in the heart of the conflict with no state support. Secondly, there was no state support for Cocomopoca to put their development plans into action – essential for the sustainability of their return.

Security for returning communities

ABColombia visited the communities of Cocomopoca that reside along the banks of the river Andágueda in Chocó. Whilst travelling up the small section of river between Bagadó and San Marino ABColombia observed a plethora of illegal small scale mines [1] along the banks of the river. These mining operations are protected by illegal armed groups and the payment from these mines can only feed the war economy and thus fuel the conflict in Colombia.

Panning for gold is a form of mining that has been used by Afro-Colombian communities for centuries, and causes very little damage or disruption to the local environment.

This is an area historically rich in gold. Local communities have a cultural way of life based on small scale agriculture; mainly subsistence crops, fishing and panning for gold. The gold supplements their income and enables them to maintain their lifestyle. Panning for gold does not use toxic chemicals and causes very little disruption to the local environment, unlike the illegal mining encountered on route to San Marino. These small scale illegal operations are using mercury and cyanide to mine, and are washing these toxic chemicals straight back into the river. In addition to the illegal mining, the 73,000 hectares community land title had a mining concession of 55,000 hectares granted to the British registered multinational mining company AngloGold Ashanti. This was granted without any free, prior and informed consent process with the communities, a move which clearly violates the legal rights of the Cocomopoca communities.

The Andágueda is a wide and fast flowing river. However, when ABColombia asked the community about the fishing, we were told that areas where they had previously fished due to an abundance of fish, there were now none. It is the women that spend most of the time in the river, either panning for gold or washing clothes. Since the massive increase in illegal mining in the area, many women had reported feeling ill without knowing why, as well as having skin complaints. These communities live off the river; it is their food, their transport and their water supply. If the river becomes contaminated it will not be able to sustain them. This mining is not only killing the river it is also bringing with it even more violence to the area. These mines pay armed groups to protect them and it is reported that they pay both legal and illegal groups to leave them alone.

The communities have no support from the legitimate authorities in the area to deal with this problem. They have denounced the illegal mining, as have the Dioceses and the Pastoral Social, to authorities at both a local and a national level, but to no avail. The clarity of this situation was revealed to ABColombia as soon as we arrived in San Marino. On a hill overlooking the river and the community of San Marino is the local police station, meanwhile right next to the community, and also in full view of the police station, is an illegal mining operation that has no title concession and is washing toxic chemicals into the river. The police awake with a birds-eye view of this illegal operation every day. According to ABColombia’s discussions with the Ministry of Mines, the police are well within their powers to stop this illegal operation. However, no action at a national or local level has been taken.

With no state authority willing to uphold the rule of law the result is that these communities find themselves on the front line; seeking to uphold the rule of law, and trying to persuade the miners to halt the destruction of their territory. Members of the Cocomopoca community expressed to ABColombia their fears about what could happen to them, since they knew that these mines had armed protection and that once identified as being against the mining they would become easy targets.

The Colombian State has expressed its concern to ensure the safety of returning communities and yet it has not taken even the basic steps in ensuring that it has done the groundwork for their safe returns. The illegal miners operate in a situation of total impunity for their crimes. ABColombia believes the first basic step for a security policy should be: for the government to arrest the miners, to confiscate their machinery and to prosecute them.[2] This would send the message that the government was not going to tolerate this type of illegal activity. If they did this it would act to dissuade other illegal operations. Secondly, the state needs to ensure that its security forces do not capitulate or collude with the illegal armed protection. The authorities responsible must take action in response to illegal activities. It is insufficient to say ‘there is a police presence’ if they take no action against illegal activities.

Livelihoods and sustainability of returns

If the return is to be sustainable, returning communities not only need security but also livelihoods. They cannot return after 12 years without support. The majority of victims in the land restitution programme will be small scale farmers. Therefore, to have a strong thematic section in the national development plan and a funding stream for small scale producers is a must if there is to be any justice for these returning communities.

In the Cocomopoca case, the communities are looking to the Colombian government to ensure sufficient support and funds to establish a farming cooperative, and to see a relatively short section of road built behind the San Marino community (which would connect the community to the main road to Risaralda). They are working together with the Catholic Church to develop their plans for this cooperative ?” but they still require State support. The ecological destruction and poisoning of their rivers, taking place on a daily basis and caused by the illegal mining, reduces their possibility of achieving these goals.

More information:

• Read ABColombia’s article ‘Cocomopoca communities receive land titles to part of their Ancestral Territory’ to find out more about this land restitution case (September 2011).

• Watch this Returning Land to Colombia’s Victims‘ for more information about the Victims and Land Restitution Law (May 2011).


[1] It should be noted that not all small scale mining is illegal or controlled by illegal armed groups as is being suggested. It is necessary to distinguish between different sorts of small scale mining.

[2] This process is known in Colombia as saneamiento. What is meant by saneamiento depends on the context- for some it will be to remove the paramilitaries or the guerrilla, or to relocate people who having been themselves displaced and have moved into collectively owned territory or onto an indigenous resguardo. If this doesn’t happen the possibilities of social conflict in the latter example is heightened.

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