Challenges continue for the return of stolen land
First, the communities of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó, located in the municipality of Carmen del Darién, department of Chocó, were victims of forced displacement. Later, they had to face the violent seizure of their land by palm oil companies. Now, as the communities have returned to their region and organised to defend their rights, threats and selective murders have increased. Nonetheless, the returned communities have been able to remain in their territory. Their objective: the legal restitution and physical return of their land.
Until the beginning of this century, the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins were considered to be among the greatest environmental reserves in the world. Land in the Lower Atrato —especially the immense wetlands created by the Atrato and Murindó Rivers—is exceptionally fertile. However, vast areas of this territory have been subjected to large-scale monocropping, extensive cattle ranching, and massive timber exploitation, which leave no place for plant and animal life or the ancestral inhabitants of this region.
Armed conflict, forced displacement and internment
In 1996 and 1997, several mass displacements took place in the Lower Atrato when paramilitary groups —with the alleged participation of the Colombian national army— carried out counter-insurgency manoeuvres in the region. These operations, known as “Operation Genesis” or “Black December” left a trail of death, disappearances, destruction, burnt property, and thousands of people forcibly displaced. In just Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó, approximately 3,000 Afro-descendent and mixed-raced people were forcibly displaced. For many years, most of the inhabitants lived in situations of displacement in shelters or with family members in other regions of Antioquia and Chocó. In 1999, the displaced families began to return to Jiguamiandó, and in 2006 to Curbaradó, even though the armed conflict has continued in the region-
Since then the returned population has confronted pressure exerted by illegal armed actors. For instance, paramilitary groups —resorting to a strategy of collective punishment and submission to force the communities to leave their territories— subjected the communities along the Jiguamiandó River to an indiscriminate internment for several months in 2003.
The Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has closely followed this matter in the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins. On 31 December 2009, the Ombudsman’s Office issued Risk Report No. 031, which determined that the inhabitants of the Humanitarian Zones and Biodiversity Zones of Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó faced a situation of risk due to the presence of illegal armed actors in the collective territory, ineffective legal protection, and undue intervention by individuals and companies into the internal matters of the community councils. Furthermore, on 23 March 2011, the Ombudsman’s Office issued a follow-up brief to the Risk Report, which stated that the “Black Eagles or Urabeños” illegal armed groups and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were present in the collective territories of the area.
Returning to their land: Establishing humanitarian zones and biodiversity zones
In 2006, the displaced communities from the Curbaradó River Basin began to return under the leadership of Enrique Petro Hernández, a small-scale farmer from the region. Petro donated five hectares of his private property to establish the first Humanitarian Zone in Curbaradó. When the small-scale farming families reached the area, they found that the land seized by the paramilitaries had been turned into large-scale oil palm plantations. The first 14 families uprooted the palm trees and constructed temporary housing. As a means of self-protection, these families, and others that were going to return, decided to establish Humanitarian Zones and later Biodiversity Zones. In 2011, the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins had eight Humanitarian Zones and approximately 50 Biodiversity Zones.
What are the Humanitarian Zones and Biodiversity Zones?
The Humanitarian Zones are a community initiative to continue to resist in the territory despite the onslaught of the armed conflict. In order to achieve this objective, the members demarcate and visibilise the areas they inhabit and prohibit the entrance of any armed actor, whether it be legal or illegal. These zones are based on the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and represent a protection tool for the civilian population living in the midst of the armed conflict. They are also supported through national legislation, including Article 22 of the Colombian Constitution, establishes that “peace is a right”. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has supported the establishment of Humanitarian Zones as a “positive mechanism for protecting the civilian population from actions perpetrated by the different armed actors in the region.” Biodiversity Zones have also been established to protect the environment and life.
The territories of the Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó River Basins are a part of the collective property granted through Law 70 of 1993 to Afro-descendent peoples. According to this law, collective land is non-transferable, imprescriptible, and unseizable, recognising that collective property has an inherent relation to the ethnic and cultural identity of these peoples. The collective territories are administered by governing boards within the community councils, which are elected through popular vote by the community members.
The violent seizure of land continues
Despite being a collective territory in which land may not be bought or sold, different companies have been able to acquire land in the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basin. In fact, in February 2011, the Superintendent of Notaries and Registration, a Colombian State institution, concluded that 17,720 hectares belonging to the traditional community in the area of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó had been acquired illegally. Different irregularities have taken place including the alleged signing of contracts by people who were already deceased, the increase of hectares sold, falsification of documents, and coercion and direct threats against the inhabitants in order to force them to sell their property.
In 2010, the Prosecutor’s Office issued arrest warrants against 24 palm oil businesspeople that had allied with paramilitary groups to displace these communities and steal their property. In April 2011, 15 people —including palm oil businesspeople, former paramilitaries and politicians— were served summons for the violent seizure of land in this region. “In their desire to economically exploit the collective property (…) the companies were really fronts that concealed the arrangement or alliance between the self-defence forces and businesspeople in order to continue to commit crimes in the Lower Atrato in Chocó”, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
Unidentified individuals invade land in Curbaradó
In addition to the illegal acquisition of land, the Biodiversity Zones in Curbaradó were invaded in December 2010 by hundreds of unidentified individuals from Urabá, Córdoba, and several municipalities of Chocó. They built shacks, cut down trees, cleared out land, diverted streams to plant crops, and occupied a plot that the Camelias community had designated to be a forest reserve. According to denunciations made by the small-scale farmers and published by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), more than 300 hectares were affected in Camelias and Andalucía, rural communities within Carmen del Darién municipality.
Environmental impact – decreased biodiversity
In addition to the grave human rights violations perpetrated in the area, oil palm crops have caused extensive environmental damage. In 2005, a report by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office concluded that: “A decrease in biodiversity, principally water and forest resources, has been detected in the large plantations. Furthermore, erosion and sedimentation of the rivers has increased as a result of the mass deforestation.”
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights orders protection for the communities
In 2003, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights granted provisional measures to these communities, ordering the Colombian State to “adopt such measures as may be necessary to protect the life and the right to humane treatment of all the members of the Communities of Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó and ensure that the beneficiaries of these measures can continue to live in their usual residence, without fear of coercion or threat, and that displaced persons may return to their homes or to the ‘humanitarian areas’ established by these Communities”. The Court ratified these measures several times, most recently in 2010.
The Constitutional Court issues rulings in favour of the inhabitants of the Humanitarian Zones
The Constitutional Court has also followed up on the issues faced by these communities. Order 005 of 2009, the goal of which the protection of the fundamental rights of the Afro-descendent population subjected to forced displacement, highlights the gravity of the lack of protection and the vulnerability faced by the communities of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó. With respect to the reports of the threats, persecution, surveillance, attempted murders, and disrespect for the cultural symbols and expressions of these communities, the Constitutional Court ordered the Colombian government to “adopt without delay the measures issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”
Later, in Order 448, the Constitutional Court expressed “uncertainty with respect to the representation of the Curbaradó community, since (…) it is not clear who legitimately represents the Curbaradó Community Council.” Given this situation, the Court decided to suspend the administrative restitution and physical handing over of the collective territories until the process to carry out a census and description of the population has been completed —in order to identify the traditional inhabitants of the area— and the legitimate authorities of the collective territories has been clarified.
 These communities are made up of 2,125 people, 515 families, most of whom are Afro-descendent. “La protección de las comunidades afrodescendientes en el sistema interamericano: reflexiones a la luz del caso de las comunidades de Jiguamiandó y de Curbaradó”, Revista Electrónica Iberoamericana, 2010
 “El Chocó que desconocemos”, El Espectador, 22 May 2010
 Especially oil palm, pineapple, and yucca.
 Afro-descendent and mixed-raced people.
 Displacements were recorded in the Cacarica, Salaquí, Curvaradó, Vigía de Curbaradó, Domingodó, Jiguamiandó, and Riosucio River Basins, among others. More than 50 communities were displaced in the region of the Lower Atrato. Most of the people went to Turbo and Pavarandó (Antioquia) or Riosucio (Chocó). Some communities also crossed the Darién towards the border with Panamá. “Un llamado por el Chocó”, http://www.disaster-info.net/desplazados/informes/rut/Bojaya/rutboj_5llamado.html
 According to Freddy Rendón Herrera, aka ‘El Alemán’, former paramilitary chief of the Élmer Cárdenas Block, the regional paramilitary structure known as the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) provided troops, while State security forces made sure “not to obstruct the ACCU’s expansion in the areas where Operation Genesis was being carried out”. “¿Quién mató a Argentino?”, El Espectador, 24 January 2010; “La complicidad entre militares y paras en el Urabá Antioqueño”, Verdad Abierta, 26 April 2011
 “El ‘dossier’ de los palmeros”, El Espectador, 26 January 2008
 Operation Genesis forcibly displaced 10,000 small-scale farmers. “Operación Génesis: exigiendo justicia”, PBI Colombia, October 2009
 “La Tramoya — Derechos Humanos y Palma Aceitera – Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó”, CIJP and CINEP Database, 25 January 2006
 “Informe sobre la visita al terreno en relación con las medidas provisionales ordenadas a favor de los miembros de las comunidades constituidas por el Consejo Comunitario de Jiguamiandó y las familias del Curbaradó, municipio del Carmen del Darién, departamento del Chocó, República de Colombia”, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 20 February 2009.
 Interviews with inhabitants from the Humanitarian Zones in Curbaradó, PBI Colombia, November 2010
 In 2000, paramilitary incursions forced the population to flee into the jungle. On 12 September 2001, the Puerto Lleras and Pueblo Nuevo massacres occurred in the Jiguamiandó River Basin, which caused new mass displacements of the population. Ibid. 6
 “Confinamiento de población civil: Una aproximación conceptual para la caracterización de este fenómeno en Colombia”, Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), 28 June 2005
 Definition of confinement: This entails the situation of violations to rights and freedoms —including restrictions to the freedom of movement and access to indispensable means of survival— committed against the civilian population as a result of explicit or implicit practices of military, economic, political, cultural, social or environmental control employed by legal or illegal armed groups within the framework of the armed conflict. “Comunidades confinadas en Colombia”, PCS, 29 November 2004
 Order 448 of 18 May 2010, Constitutional Court
 “Nota de Seguimiento N°005-01 Primera al Informe de Riesgo N° 031-09 A.I.”, Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office on Risk Evaluation of the Civilian Population as a result of the Armed Conflict, Early Warning System, 23 March 2011
 “La palma de aceite y la usurpación de territorio a las comunidades negras“, Voltairenet, 9 March 2006. According to the Superintendent of Notaries and Registration, 23,000 hectares of collective property were seized by palm oil and livestock companies. Order 448
 Interview with member of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), April 2011
 Definition of International Humanitarian Law: Set of rules, established by treaties or custom, applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts, which are also known as the “law of armed conflicts” or the “law of war”. Its goal is the reduction of the suffering of victims and the protection of essential resources for their survival, through limiting the adversaries’ choice of war methods and means.
 “Medidas Provisionales respecto de la República de Colombia. Caso de las comunidades del Jiguamiandó y del Curbaradó”, Order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, 15 March 2005
 “El Chocó que desconocemos”, El Espectador, 22 May 2010
 “Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó: La gran prueba de la restitución de tierras de Santos”, La Silla Vacía, 18 March 2011
 “Por despojo de campesinos en Chocó irán a juicio 15 personas”, El Tiempo, 14 April 2011
 Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, Provisional Measures, Order of 5 February 2008
 The communities of Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó were granted a series of provisional measures by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Orders of 6 March 2003, 17 November 2004, 15 March 2005, 7 February 2006, 5 February 2008, 17 de noviembre de 2009, y 30 de agosto de 2010.
 Order 005 of 2009, Constitutional Court. See: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/publisher,COL_CC,,,49cbabcb2,0.html
 Page 23, Order 448 of 2010, Constitutional Court. In this decision, the Constitutional Court describes an internal conflict on the governance of the communities due to uncertainty on the legitimate representatives of the Afro-descendent communities in the Curbaradó River Basin. The Curbaradó High Council is currently represented by three different governing boards. One was elected in April 2008, another in September 2009, and the third in April 2010.
 Constitutional Court, Order 448, 18 May 2010