In mid-May, Colombia’s Senate approved the Victims’ Law to financially compensate, anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000, and return land to about four million displaced people, all victims of rebels, paramilitaries and drug traffickers.
About four million hectares of land have been abandoned by owners too scared to return for fear of being killed by these thugs. Another two million hectares have been extorted from their rightful owners. And some 500,000 hectares of government land has been misappropriated by corrupt officials.
Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo, who is in charge of this mass undertaking, told El Tiempo that getting that land back to its rightful owners would be a “gigantic administrative and judicial task.” It may take a decade to restore the land and it could cost the state about $20 billion dollars.
Most of the stolen land is still in the hands of those who seized it through violent means or of their front men. Other land has been sold on to people who had bought the land in good faith, rendering the process of establishing the rightful owner more difficult. Some of this land has even been sold to coal mining multinationals Drummond and Prodeco.
Then there are the cases of entire farms which the bank took over because the campesinos were threatened into abandoning it or of others which are plagued by landmines.
FARC head Alfonso Cano said the FARC will follow closely the development of land re-distribution and made it understood it could be the beginning for a reconciliation. His statement is ironic because the FARC, along with other illegal armed groups, have tried to undermine the process and several campaigners for land rights have been killed by the FARC in recent months.
It is also ironic because the FARC have been building up its real estate holdings. According to documents recovered from the laptop of the FARC’s top military commander, Jorge “Mono Jojoy” Briceño, who was killed in September, the rebel group owns 96 properties that span some 121,000 acres.
Despite the web of challenges ahead, it would be wonderful to see, as Maria Teresa Ronderos of Semana pictured: the humiliated campesino who, with the crumpled-up photocopy of his land title, waits hours to be seen by a government official be turned into a citizen with rights and respect and state support.
Stay tuned this coming Thursday as I examine the serious holes in the Victims’ Law.