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Colombia: the perils of reclaiming land


The Risks of Claiming What Belongs to Us: Colombian community leaders reclaiming their land face threats and attacks

More than 5.7 million people have been forcibly displaced from their land in Colombia because of an internal conflict lasting over five decades.[1] They left behind more than 6 million hectares of land, large parts of which have been illegally appropriated often for agro-business and mega-projects.[2] This article considers the case of land claimants from the community of Curvaradó in the department of Chocó, the obstacles their leaders face to have their land restored, and the challenges of implementing institutional measures in Colombia.

Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó are communities at the forefront of ongoing processes of land restoration. In 1996 these afro-Colombian communities from the department of Chocó were forcibly displaced following human rights abuses. Despite the dangers, in an effort to resist displacement and loss of their land, the communities started to return to small sections of their territory – which they call Humanitarian Zones[3] – in Jiguamiandó in 2000-2001, and Curvaradó in 2006.[4]

 Alliances between paramilitaries and entrepreneurs operate in Curvaradó and illegally appropriated land is used for agro-industrial crops and cattle ranching.[5] 

 The work of defending land in Colombia is extremely dangerous. In September 2011, community leaders from Curvaradó reported that four leaders had been killed and/or forcibly disappeared; they had received 32 death threats and two attempted assassinations.[6] Curvaradó is indicative of the situation many Colombian land defenders and their communities face. In 2012, 69 defenders were killed in Colombia, the majority for defending victims’ rights, protecting their communities’ territorial rights or attempting to recover usurped lands.[7]

 Community Leaders Risking Their Lives

Guillermo Diaz  Credit: ABColombiaGuillermo Diaz is a community leader working on the land restitution process in the area of Curvaradó. Along with his family, he was displaced to a Humanitarian Zone when they were forced off their land.[8] Guillermo has received threats and attempts on his life due to this work. According to the Colombian NGO the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP), who accompany the communities in this area, on 11 August two armed men arrived at night in the village of Llano Rico on motorcycles searching for Guillermo. Fearing for his life, Guillermo was forced to hide in yucca plantations nearby.The CIJP has reported numerous death threats sent to land restitution community leaders in the area during 2013,[9] including threats to members of their organisation.[10]

 These events come little more than a year after community leader Manuel Ruíz was disappeared, tortured and killed, allegedly by paramilitaries, along with his 15 year old son Samir de Jesús Ruíz. The day after his disappearance, Manuel Ruíz was due to act as a guide for another Government Commission implementing a Constitutional Court Order.[11] Manuel had been awarded protection measures by the Ministry of the Interior (in his case this amounted to a mobile phone) which was insufficient to protect him and his family who, as a result of Manuel’s murder and in fear of further attacks, were forced to displace.[12]

 The situation for human rights defenders, particularly those working on land restitution, is worsening in Colombia. According to the latest report by Somos Defensores – a non-governmental protection programme for human rights defenders – in the first six months of 2013 a staggering 37 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia. If attacks continue at the same rate, 2013 will see the highest number of defenders killed in one year.[13]

 In 2011 the current government of Juan Manuel Santos passed the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Ley de Víctimas y de Restitución de Tierra), known officially as Law 1448.This Law created a framework to grant reparations to victims of the conflict and restore parts of the land from which they had been forcibly displaced.Although the Law represents a step forward for victims of the armed conflict in Colombia, there are still many challenges remaining in terms of implementation.

 Addressing Impunity

 Impunity is one the major challenges to overcome. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Terry Morel. reports, only one out of every 200 reports of threats and harassment are investigated in Colombia.[14] This is particularly problematic in regions like Chocó. Impunity for violations, including threats against defenders, forced disappearances and assassinations, is approximately 98 per cent.[15] These high levels of impunity form a major obstacle in communities’ ongoing efforts for land restitution.

 According to a September 2013 report by Human Rights Watch, a US-based human rights watcdog, Colombia has fallen short in addressing three key areas that are at the heart of violence and threats against land claimants and leaders. These include: the lack of effective deterrence for threats and attacks; the failure to prosecute those responsible for the forced displacement and related land takeovers; and the failure to dismantle paramilitary organisations.

To tackle this, the Attorney General’s Office established the National Unit Against Crimes of Enforced Disappearance and Displacement (UNCDES) in November 2010. However, as of January 2013 UNCDES has made little progress in delivering justice for victims of forced displacement, so far achieving just 28 convictions out of the 17,109 currently being investigated. The status for investigations into threats against land claimants and leaders is much worse, all of which still remain at the preliminary stage.[16]

 The urgency to fully implement the measures to protect the life of the land claimants and their leaders is acute. There is a need to see prosecutions and convictions of those responsible for the threats, attacks and killings of community leaders, like Guillermo, who risk their lives daily to protect the rights of displaced communities. If those perpetuating these crimes believe they will not be brought to justice then leaders like Guillermo Diaz and Manuel Ruiz will continue to be threatened and killed in even greater numbers.


[1] Accumulative figure from 1985 – December 2012. The mission of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Monthly Humanitarian Bulletin, Colombia Issue 16: 1–31 May 2013.

[2] Human Rights Watch, The Risk of Returning Home. Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia, September 2013.

[3] These zones are cordoned off and labelled as Humanitarian Zones. They receive special protection measures from the Inter American Commission of Human Rights and are declared neutral zones where all armed actors are asked not to enter. It is a zone reserved for the civilian population.

[4] The process of the community started in 2000 before the introduction of Law 1448. ABColombia, Restitution in Colombia: the Case of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, March 2012.

[5] ABColombia, Returning Land to Colombia’s Victims, May 2011.

[6] For more information about the documented cases of threats and killings of leaders in the area: Human Rights Watch, The Risk of Returning Home. Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia, September 2013, pages 105-125.

[7]Programa Somos Defensores, Informe Anual de 2012 – Sistema de Información sobre Agresiones contra Defensores de DDHH, Protección Sin Prevención: El Efecto Placebo.ñol-FINAL-2012.pdf

[8] Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, Atentado a líder reclamante de tierras, 12 August 2013. tierras/

[9] Comisión Intereclesial de Justica y Paz, Nuevas amenazas de muerte a líderes reclamantes de tierras, 17 April 2013.

[10] Comisión Intereclesial de Justica y Paz, Abusos de la Brigada 17, Complicidad en el trafico de Drogas, Palma en el Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó y Santa Rosa del Limon, 23 February 2012.

[11] Fundación Arco iris, La muerte Anunciada de Manuel Ruiz y su Hijo, 30 March 2012.

[12] Prosecutors have made important advances in the case, and so far four suspects were charged within roughly a year. Nevertheless, the progress in investigating cases has been limited. Until August 2013, of the 49 cases of killings of land claimants and leaders that the Attorney General’s Office reported it was investigating, only eight cases had obtained convictions and seven suspects were charged. Human Rights Watch, The Risk of Returning Home, Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia, September 2013.

[14] Revista Semana, ONU le llama la atención a la Fiscalía por impunidad en casos de desplazamiento, 26 January 2012.

[15] International Mission Report 2011, International Verification Mission on the Situation of Human Rights Protection in Colombia, 28 November to 2 December 2012. See also Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Restitución vs. Impunidad del 99,9983%, 19 September 2013.

[16] Human Rights Watch, The Risk of Returning Home, Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia, September 2013, page 156 and page 15.


This article is by ABColombia,. ABColombia is the advocacy project of a group of five leading UK and Irish organisations with programmes in Colombia: CAFOD, Christian Aid UKI, Oxfam GB, SCIAF and Trocaire:

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