Monday, August 23, 2010

Agrarian debates in the Colombian Congress

I am directly translating this article from the magazine Semana. It discusses the challenge of taking land from criminals, and returning it to the displaced. A tangential element that I find interesting is that Congress and politics in general seem to be livening up again. While under Uribe there was little debate among the growing uribista bloc of politicians, now that almost everyone claims to be uribista, they are starting to debate amongst themselves. This is a good thing, though it's a shame that uribismo is like the new baseline everyone starts out at.

The Complex Challenge of Land Restitution
Los ministros de Agricultura, Juan Camilo Restrepo, y de Interior, Germán Vargas Lleras, durante el debate sobre tierras que realizó la Cámara de Representantes el miércoles.
León Darío Peláez - SEMANA The ministers of Agriculture, Juan Camilo Restrepo, and of the Interior, Germán Vargas Lleras, during the debate on land that the House of Representatives undertook Wednesday

POLITICS--Recovering 2 million hectares (5 M acres) and returning it to displaced people, an objective that promises to be very complex, is the commitment the government has made. The first task will be to reveal who today possesses the land appropriated by mafias and illegal groups. How will the government do it?

In his inauguration speech, president Juan Manuel Santos promised the peasants of the country that they wold become the true owners of the most productive land, and those in charge of exploiting it.

That promise also included the decision to take aware ownership of the most productive land from agents of violence, and return it to the families of displaced peasants who, due to narcotrafficking, guerrilla groups, and paramilitary terror, have been forced to abandon almost 5 million hectares (13 M acres) in the past three decades.

In concrete terms, the challenge of the government during the next four years will be to recover at least 2 million hectares that were usurped by the mafias, according to the Minister of Agriculture, Juan Camilo Restrepo.

But the objective becomes a real challenge for the government, at least that's how it seems after the revealing debate on land that the House of Representatives carried out Wednesday night, in which Congressmen from the Liberal Party and the Alternative Democratic Pole examined the complex problem that the Executive has in his hands.

The government itself, through the Minister of the Interior, Germán Vargas Lleras, recognized that in Colombia there is "a shameful concentration of rural property in the country", while the Agriculture Minister admitted that in Colombia the displaced population "surpases 3 million", which was the very first time that a government representative didn't refer to the figure of 2.5 million that the prior government insistently cited.

A "subtle legalization"

In the House session, Congressmen Ivan Cepeda (Pole) and Guillermo River (Liberal) demonstrated that land concentration in Colombia is so marked, that only 4 percent of owners control 61% of the best land, obtained in many cases through the forceable clearing of land undertaken the paramilitary offensive in the two past decades.

They mentioned that 5.5 million hectares (14 M acres) were abandoned, invaded, or transferred in "shady dealings", from which 385000 families were expelled. Of this land, 1.2 M hectares (4 M acres) were farmed before being cleared.

Representative Ivan Cepeda revealed that behind the legalization of these divested lands there are large businessmen that even "counted with help from the State" to acquire the property.

Because of this, explained Cepeda, many of the properties seized by demobilized paramilitaries have not been returned, because according to his investigations, the title to this property has been legalized through "subtle" mechanisms.

Cepeda mentioned cases for which he requested urgent investigation by the authorities. For example, he indicated that brothers of the president of ECOPETROL [the Colombian state oil company], Javier Gutierrez, obtained a farm that, according to his knowledge, "was stolen by men under Jorge 40" [Jorge 40 is a famous paramilitary boss].

The Congressman also requested that Eder Pedraza alias "Ramon Mojana", a demobilized paramilitary, not be extradited. Jairo Castillo Peralta, alias ‘Pitirri’, one of the star witnesses of the trials involving paramilitary links to politics, claimed that Pedraza followed the recommendations of the ex-Senator Mario Uribe to "find cheap land" in the lower Cauca valley.

"Eight years in debt"

The Representative Guillermo Rivera also made various denunciations in the agrarian report that he presented to Parliament, especially the way in which many "paramilitary front men" were benefited by the agrarian subsidy policies promoted by Alvaro Uribe's government and its Agriculture Minister, Andrés Felipe Arias.

"The will and the role of President Uribe's government, and especially of his Agriculture Minister, was far from starting a process of restitution. In fact, the security measures for victims and the guarantees for them to reclaim their lands were enormously limited."

Rivera mentioned the case of ten palm planters and palm oil refineries that contributed 29.5 million pesos ($15000 US) in 2002, and 27 million pesos for the referendum [for Uribe's reelection] and have received 8 billion pesos ($4M US) in subsidies and 279 M pesos ($140000 US) in low-interest loans.

He even revealed that the extradited paramilitary chief alias "Macaco" returned the Las Margaritas farm in Putumayo, together with 160 M pesos ($80000 US) that corresponded to a debt for low-interest loans with the FINAGRO program [a government ag financing program].

Because of this, the Congressman warned the Juan Manuel Santos government that its first challenge in consolidating the proposal of returning 2 M hectares to the displaced peasants would be to establish who holds the title to this land today.

Furthermore, said Rivera, it is urgent to carry out a census of "Land and property", as was ordered in a Constitutional Court decision in 2009, to determine "the real numbers" with which the government should work to take on this "inheritance left by the Uribe government".

The formulas

The government accepted the Congressional analysis and considered formulas to accomplish its goal of land restitution, which will be included in the in-progress Land Law, which will be created in the Congress.

This project, as the Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo said, will have as its purpose the development of policies that allow "a break in the front man chain" that took over the land of displaced peasants.

Restrepo also explained that the Land Law that is proposed would be complementary to the Law of Victims. And he announced that the "spurious decisions" undertaken by INCODER [the Colombian rural development institute] would be reversed.

But the principal tool with which the government hopes to sink its teeth into the land problem will be the creation of a "special jurisdiction" for the nullification of title to property held by illegal groups. This property would be given to victims of forceable displacement.

And in that context, as the Interior Minister Germán Vargas Lleras explained, one of the new developments will be to "reverse the burden of proof" to demonstrate title to land.

This means that it would not be the responsibility of displacement victims to prove the property of their land to the authorities, but rather the State that assumes this function.

And how will it do so? For the procedure to be expedient, Vargas Lleras explained that it would be obligatory for businessmen to demonstrate to the authorities that their ownership and property rights are legitimate.

Representative Guillermo Rivera, who applauded this measure, said that it would give more agility to judicial processes, which could last less than two years

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