The dark history of stolen land

Throughout over fifty years of armed conflict and many other social, political and cultural conflicts, internal displacement continues to be a systematic violation of human rights in the Colombian context. With approximately 7.7 million internally displaced people, Colombia is the second country in the world after Syria (with 12 million) with the most victims of this phenomenon. After Colombia comes Afghanistan with 4.7 million and Iraq, with 4.2 million.[1]  After years of violence being perpetrated in rural areas of the country, entire communities have been forcibly displaced from their lands, some of them repeatedly, and have come to occupy new lands as refugees in their own country. Of the more than eight million victims in the armed conflict, 90% of them have been forcibly displaced.[2] Most of the victims in Colombia come from indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.[3]

The process of communities returning to their land is complex and carries with it high levels of risk, due to the absence of guarantees for their security and the reconfiguration of the armed actors in many of these areas.

This phenomenon is related to the arrival of national or transnational companies that have, in numerous cases, bought plots of land and set up economic projects in conflict areas that were previously subjected to forced displacement, and where the rural communities’ rights to the land were never legally recognised.[4] This process has frequently been facilitated by the State itself. [5]

nonam, Valle del Cauca
Indigenous women from the Wounaan Nonam People resist in their lands in the Valle del Cauca region, despite terror and violence. Photo: Bianca Bauer

Human rights organisations have repeatedly reported how many of the national and transnational companies have had close ties to paramilitary and/or guerrilla groups in order to guarantee their territorial control; in 2007 for example, the US company Chiquita Brands International Inc. admitted to funding the Colombian Self-Defence Forces (AUC) after accepting that between 1997 and 2004 it paid a total of 1.7 million dollars to the paramilitary group.[6] The funding enabled a whole series of crimes against humanity including massacres, forced disappearances and the violent occupation of community lands in Uraba, so that they could be taken over by the company and exploited for economic gain.[7] This case is not an exception, there are at least 15,700 formal investigations into business, political and military leaders alleged to be the promoters, funders or beneficiaries of paramilitarism, based on information provided in testimonies given by paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law (Law 975 of 2005); in the last ten years, however, there has been a complete lack of any significant progress in clarifying these facts.[8]

As communities and individuals have gone about reclaiming their lost lands during decades of conflict, the panorama becomes ever more complex.[9]  Armed actors continue to displace communities from their lands in different areas around the country, as has been reported by those affected by the violence perpetrated by neo-paramilitary groups that continue to coerce them to leave their properties.[10] The number of displacements recorded in 2017 is more than in 2016, despite the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Government and the Farc.[11]  The process of communities returning to their land is complex and carries with it high levels of risk, due to the absence of guarantees for their security and the reconfiguration of the armed actors in many of these areas.[12]

These events unfold in the political context of the 2014-2018 National Development Plan of President Juan Manuel Santos, whose founding paradigm is resource extraction as the driver for development, including strong incentives for national and transnational corporate interests[13] in a country known for being the second most biodiverse on the planet.[14]

Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

The State, however, lacks real mechanisms of control and enforcement to guarantee the preservation of Colombia’s ecosystems. Colombian legislation on environmental protection historically has not been autonomous,[15] and has adapted in order to facilitate the presence of extractive projects financed by foreign capital.[16] The National Authority of Environmental Licences (ANLA), together with Regional Corporations, is the entity in charge of carrying out environmental evaluations, and establishing national norms and regulations to protect and conserve the environment. A 2014 study by Universidad de los Andes, showed that only 7% of environmental licences granted by the entity to companies had met the mentioned national standards.[17]

For rural communities, land is not just a material resource for satisfying human consumption, but has a spiritual significance that generates a profound connection between communities and their land or “territory”, forming part of their historical, spiritual and cultural identity.

According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, in 2016 there were 125 environmental conflicts registered in Colombia, most of them linked to oil and gas exploration or extraction, and 80% of them taking place in rural areas.[18]  The conflicts demonstrate that resource extraction in rural territories carries with it a risk of violating the constitutional rights of the communities who live nearby.[19]

Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

Alongside the expansion of the mining and energy production economy, the Government has been increasingly militarising the territories that have been prioritised for large scale mining projects. The battalions specifically designated for protecting economic investments (Energy, Mining and Highway Battalions) now represent 30% of the country’s Armed Forces.[20]

Because the problems of land distribution and usage have been at the heart of the conflict for decades, if not centuries, the growing pressure in the “post-agreement” era will definitely generate negative effects in rural territories, particularly with the increased military presence evident in many parts of the country.[21]  For these reasons the return processes for internally displaced people should be accompanied by national authorities with a clear protection plan and under international observation, to guarantee the security of returned communities and the sustainability of the returning process.

Hannah Matthews


[1] El Espectador: Colombia sigue siendo el país con más desplazados internos: 7,4 millones, 18 June 2017
[2] Semana: ¿Por qué se disparó el desplazamiento en Colombia en época de postconflicto?, 20 August 2017
[3] El Tiempo: Preocupación por persistencia de desplazamiento masivo en el país, 22 June 2017
[4] OIDHACO: Tierra en Colombia Entre despojo y negocio: Presentación de la situación actual de una problemática al centro del conflicto, March 2013
[5] Interview Camilo Sánchez
[6] IHRC, FIDH and CCAJAR: La contribución de ejecutivos de Chiquita en la comisión de crímenes de lesa humanidad en Colombia]
[7] Caracol: Financiación de bananeros a paramilitares es declarada delito de lesa humanidad, 2 February 2017; Ccajar: Piden a la CPI investigar el rol de ejecutivos de Chiquita por crímenes de lesa humanidad, 18 May 2017
[8] CCEEUU: Informe 2017, p. 2.
[9] El Universal: Estas son las empresas que han sido condenadas a restituir tierras, 2 November 2016
[10] Semana: ¿Por qué se disparó el desplazamiento en Colombia en época de postconflicto?, 20 August 2017
[11] El Tiempo: Preocupación por persistencia de desplazamiento masivo en el país, 22 June 2017
[12] PBI: Grave aumento de asesinatos de quienes defienden los derechos humanos en Colombia, 21 March 2017
[13] Comisión Internacional de Juristas: El Quimbo: megaproyectos, derechos económicos, sociales y culturales y protesta social en Colombia, 2016
[14] Sibcolombia: Datos del Sistema de Información sobre Biodiversidad en Colombia, 2017
[15] Guhl Nannetti: Ernesto; Leyva, Pablo: La gestión ambiental en Colombia, 1994 – 2004: ¿Un esfuerzo insostenible? Bogotá, July 2015
[16] Comisión Internacional de Juristas: 2016, p. 44.
[17] Universidad de los Andes, Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios sobre Desarrollo (Cider): Insumos para el desarrollo del Plan Nacional de Ordenamiento Minero, 2014
[18] Environmental Justice Atlas: Colombia Profile
[19] CCAJAR, Observatorio para la protección de los Defensores de Derechos Humanos: Defender: El Territorio y el Ambiente en Contextos de Actividad de Empresas Extractivas, October 2017
[20] Ministerio de Defensa: El Sector Defensa comprometido: Infraestructura: una oportunidad para otros sectores, 2015
[21] Fondos de Acción Urgente: Extractivismo en Latinoamérica: Impacto en la Vida de las Mujeres y Propuestas de Defensa del Territorio, September 2016

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