5 things to know about Colombia's land restitution

By Elizabeth Dickinson 26 July 2016

Claridel Galeano Aristizábal’s finca now houses six fish-farming tanks, two of which were purchased with credit after she became one of Colombia's newest 'banked' citizens. Photo by: Elizabeth Dickinson / Devex

Rural land reform is at the center of the peace deal now under negotiation between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. The draft agreement calls for increased access to land for “campesinos,” or rural dwellers; the formalization of land titles; the restitution of land to displaced persons; and special credit mechanisms for low-income farmers.

Analysts expect a final agreement could be signed later this summer. But in at least some regions, the process of land reform has already begun. It is ambitious, expensive, sweeping, and controversial. The process also hopes to break new ground in tackling the issue of land inequality as a root of conflict.

Restitution work by Colombia’s La Unidad de Restitucion de Tierras is the most vivid example of the post-conflict work that awaits if and when a deal is signed. Part of the Ministry of Agriculture, the URT has a mandate to return displaced campesinos to their rightful territory, legalize their titles to the land, and help improve their economic situation once they are resettled. More than 90,000 cases have been filed with the URT so far, but 360,000 households — or about 1.5 million people — may eventually be eligible. The restitution is expected to take up to a decade.

For Colombia, peace brings development imperative and an end to donor funds

Donors want a success story, and Colombia is offering — the likely end of a 50-year-old conflict between the government and guerrilla group FARC. Yet a peace deal also raises the bar for development projects, promising vast improvements in the rural areas. Already stretched from global crises, international support is likely to dry up quickly, leaving the Colombian government on its own to secure peace. Is it up to the task?

Applications for restitution pass through a threefold process. The URT first undertakes an administrative review of the case to ensure that applicants are eligible for restitution; officers visit the community in an attempt to reconstruct a history of ownership of the property in question. The case is then put before a judge to determine whether land should be returned to the applicant. Finally, the URT helps returnees to rebuild their lives with financial support and a comprehensive program of training and capacitation to improve the productivity of their livelihoods.

Devex traveled with URT to several ongoing projects in San Carlos municipality in central Colombia. Here are some of the key takeaways for development practitioners interested in working with — or learning from — the process.

1. Economic opportunity is the key to voluntary returns.

For the entire first decade after Bernardo Alirio Zuluaga returned to his “finca,” or country home, in 2005, after being displaced by FARC guerrillas for seven years, he didn’t have the resources to rebuild the half-sunken house to its original state. It wasn’t so much the cost of the wood or metal or tools; it was the time he would have to take away from his subsistence farming. Working to rebuild his home wouldn’t put food on the table.

Livelihood support from the URT finally made that possible two years ago. This aspect of the restitution, known in the URT as a ‘productivity project,’ included funds not only for the reconstruction but salaries to compensate Zuluaga and other laborers who put in the hours to rebuild. Livelihood support made it possible for Zuluaga to not only restore his finca, but to build an addition, as well as to construct a pen for the several dozen pigs he now raises for meat.

Zuluaga’s experience is not unique, says Daniel Orrego, director general for post-conflict and peace with the mayor’s office in San Carlos. “People look to us more than anything for these productivity projects,” he told Devex. “Everyone says, ‘we want to go home, but we don’t have opportunities.’”

Economic support could be a key driver for return going forward. Colombia has one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations, at 6 million. Only a tiny fraction of them have so far been a part of the restitution process, but the numbers are likely to rise dramatically if a peace deal is signed.

“People do want to return,” Ricardo Sabogal Urrego, Director of the Unidad, told Devex. “When you go to these areas ... you realize that all you have to do is help and support [the population], and they will return to their lands.”

Bernardo Alirio Zuluaga was able to restore his finca with help of the Unidad de Restitucion de las Tierras. He was displaced by FARC rebels in 2001. Today, Zuluaga is a successful pig farmer, selling products locally in the countryside as well as several times a week in nearby towns. Photo by: Elizabeth Dickinson / Devex

2. International support is vital — in unexpected places.

The URT was started with the help of funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and continues to receive financial support from the Canadian, Swedish and Swiss governments. Restitution is costly and will require donor support; the URT has spent about 1.5 billion Colombian pesos (nearly $500,000) in San Carlos alone so far.

But some of the most vital cooperation has been niche, technical assistance.

Perhaps the best example comes from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which invested in helping the Colombian government create a data protection system to guard the reels of information being gathered in the restitution process. Included in such data are questions such as who displaced the victim in question and who occupied the land subsequently — data that could, if compromised, subject the applicant to reprisals or extortion.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation meanwhile works with local civil society organizations to help them understand the complex judicial procedures and rulings that often determine rightful ownership. Many of the rulings are made on a communal bases, making their interpretation an exercise in technical legal gymnastics. Similar opportunities for technical assistance are likely to open up as the land restitution process continues.

3. Private sector is a vital partner.

The private sector is vital to every step of the land restitution process — and in many cases, firms are directly affected by it. A host of companies are operating on contested land, and they will have to grapple with how to balance their business interests with conflict resolution. Disagreements are already arising.

According to an analysis by local NGO Forjando Futuros, at least 11 major private firms have had rulings against their occupancy of certain lands; these include the Colombian subsidiary of multinational mining firm Anglogold Ashanti and the Colombian-Spanish oil services company A. Palacios S.A.S. 

Once occupants are restored to their land, the URT often looks to the local private sector for expertise in training them. Most beneficiaries take on new trades, or dramatically expand their current ones. In San Carlos for example, most productivity projects focus on the cultivation of coffee and cacao, as well as fish and dairy farming. The URT works with experts from the business and agricultural communities to teach key techniques.

Once trained and set up for business, returned farmers will aspire to rejoin the local private sector. They will have to understand transport systems, market demands, and seasonal variations. Knowledge of the local business environment is vital to making restitution a success.

“It’s knowing that this is something that will sell on the market, that it’s not possible to keep doing things exactly the way that your father did them, because the economic conditions of the country are different,” said Gisela Colegial, coordinator of productive projects in San Carlos.

“There are also international markets to consider,” she said. At least some of the local cultivation could be branded as origin-specific, artisanal products. In addition to teaching new methods, it’s important to have “respect for the traditional methods because they have techniques that are from the region that we need to protect,” she told Devex.

4. Land titles are a way to fortify state institutions.

For the moment, the URT does the bulk of its restitution work in areas such as San Carlos that are relatively secure. If a peace agreement is signed, the entity hope to move into more complex municipalities, where state institutions are often weak or even nonexistent.

Granting legal land titles is one way that the Colombian state hopes to reclaim its presence in these areas, particularly in places that have been occupied and run by armed groups.

The Unidad works directly with local governments to manage the restitution process, and “where the mayor’s office is weak and the institutions are weak, the work of the URT is to fortify those institutions,” said Sabogal.

“Part of what the URT does is give people land titles, which means that these landowners suddenly have to pay taxes for the first time — taxes they have never paid before,” he told Devex. “That improves the finances of the municipality and it also capacitates the institutions.”

In addition to building up a tax base, land titles give tenants a new source of credit and collateral that they can leverage. Most restitution cases come with a minimum time that the restored occupants must live on the land before considering a sale. But in the meantime, land titles allow farmers to formalize their businesses and access the credit and other commercial institutions of the state.

5. Colombia’s restituted, rural population will be ‘banked’.

One of the biggest changes in Claridel Galeano Aristizábal’s life since entering into the restitution process has been the way she thinks about money. The URT’s productivity projects work by opening bank accounts for recipients with the country’s agricultural bank, Banco Agrario de Colombia. Money flows to beneficiaries directly from their own account, with tranches benchmarked for different stages of the project, for example building infrastructure or buying animals or seeds and fertilizer.

Galeano had never used a bank before, and it was eye opening, she said. “It was a challenge for us” to learn how to manage our money, she told Devex at her restored finca. “When you have cash, maybe you want to spend it on something immediately, but you have to say, no, this is to go back [to be reinvested] into the productive project.”

After Galeano’s productivity assistance concluded, she kept her relationship with the bank and borrowed a small amount of money in order to expand her business. She and her husband took up fish farming, and with the URT’s help, built four tanks at the finca. With credit, she built two more.

“We thought, this is sustainable and profitable,” she said. “We borrowed a bit of money and invested knowing that ... we will pay it back as soon as [the tanks] are profitable.”

As hundreds more like her gain access to financial institutions, the possibilities for rural development are likely to grow dramatically. “People want to work but sometimes they have a lack of resources,” said Orrego, of the San Carlos mayor’s office. Access to credit may allow them to realize those goals.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Devex traveled to San Carlos, Antioquia, to report on the land restitution process with the support of Colombia’s Unidad de Restitucion de las Tierras. However, Devex retains full editorial control over this content.

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About the author

Dickenson beth full
Elizabeth Dickinson@dickinsonbeth

Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

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