For the love of land

More than twenty years ago, a small-farming community who found themselves in the middle of a terrible war decided to organise and resist in their territory. That is how the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was founded, declaring itself neutral vis à vis the armed conflict, and prohibiting its members from any direct or indirect contact with armed actors. Back then, they thought that if they declared themselves to be neutral, their wishes would be accepted. However, that is not what happened.

San José de Apartadó is an area where many economic interests are concentrated, as well as being situated in the area lying between the department of Córdoba and the Gulf of Urabá, near the main drug trafficking routes to the USA and Europe.[1] It is also the pilot project for the implementation of Point 1 of the Peace Agreement, with emphasis on land restitution and legalisation. What does this imply for the Peace Community? To answer this question, we need to understand the value of the land for the people in the community.

Comunidad de paz, 19 años de su creación, 2016
One of the events that most affected the Peace Community was the massacre which took place on 21st February 2005. On that day eight people from the hamlets of Mulatos and La Resbalosa were killed, including three children and Community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra. Photo: Eduardo Acosta Ulloa

Community lands

Love for the land lies at the centre of the community’s resistance. People have been purchasing land throughout the twenty years that the Peace Community has been in existence, this is community land purchased from other small-scale farmers and vacant land that was occupied by the community, that is to say, land that did not belong to anyone and therefore belongs to the Colombian State.[2]

“This is community land, it is not private property, instead it is at the service of the Community”, insists Germán Graciano, legal representative of the Peace Community.

Untitled land

More than 97% of the 8,000 inhabitants of the San José de Apartadó Community do not have the legal titles to their lands.[3] The legalisation of these lands is good news; it is what the inhabitants have been asking for. However, they also have questions and concerns about how the restitution process will proceed and how the collective territorial rights of the Peace Community will be respected.

One of the problems is that collective land ownership is not recognised, as is the case for the Peace Community. “This shows ignorance of the reality in rural Colombia, the way that the small-scale farming communities have been resisting the war in their territory and how they have organised themselves,” says Germán Romero, Colombian human rights lawyer and expert on land issues. Therefore, the Peace Community is in a “legal vacuum” in which it faces difficulties to legalise some of its collective lands.

Sought-after land

Because the land is fertile and well-situated, it is highly sought after. According to the National Mining Agency, there are six mining licences and five requests for new ones in the area, which could also affect the formalisation of land titles for the small-scale farmers.[4]

The Peace Community has reported the presence of neo-paramilitary groups, who are controlling most of the hamlets in the area and have even built a hamlet in a place called Rodoxali.[5] According to the latest Risk Report from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the AGC have developed strategies for land grabbing, by buying properties through figureheads “with the intention of controlling areas that are considered to be of great interest and high monetary value, given the mining activity planned for the area”.[6] Also, according to the same report and as reported for the first time in 2014, the AGC are building two other roads in the area.[7] The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office report highlights the economic interests of the AGC, which run hand in hand with their new strategies they are developing to control and grab land from small-scale farmers in the area, and threaten the Peace Community’s territorial rights by purchasing lands.


The Peace Village, symbol of resistance

One of the lands in legal limbo is the Peace Village in the hamlet of Mulatos. On this land, the brutal massacre of leader Luis Eduardo Guerra took place along with his son and life partner on February 21st, 2005. In homage to him, his family and the other victims, the community built a school, a library, a sports project and a community building for assemblies, as an act of memory and to rebuild the collective social fabric.

This is a vacant plot of land that the community occupied after the massacre and for the Community it is symbolic and important for their resistance process. To date, Colombian legislation does not allow the community to own this land, “it would be disastrous for the Community, after they have built their resistance for the past twelve years in the village of Mulatos by building community infrastructure, if the land ended up being away from them”, says Romero.

He also highlights that “Point 1 of the Havana Agreement promised the country that small-scale farming communities would be granted the right to own land, either individually or collectively. But this is not clear in the legislation that is being passed. The land issue must start with recognition of the way in which communities are organised, by recognising how they have confronted the issue of the war and how they continue to face it in the case of the Peace Community”. However, reality is more complex and the implementation of Point 1 of the Peace Agreement appears to be slow and confused with regards the situation of the Peace Community, which continues to wait for its territorial rights to be respected.

Nathalie Bienfait


[1] Internacional de Resistentes a la Guerra, Colombia: La Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, 22 April 2016
[2] ¿Qué son los terrenos baldíos?, 10 August 2016
[3] El Colombiano, Predios en Apartadó serán de campesinos, 20 May 2017
[4] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, Informe de Riesgo n°035-17, 19 July 2017, p. 19
[5] IPC, ¿Que no hay paramilitares en Rodoxalí? En San José de Apartadó dicen lo contrario, 8 November 2016
[6] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, Informe de Riesgo n°035-17, 19 July 2017, p20
[7] Ibid., Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, Informe de Riesgo n°035-17, p. 11. Una carretera entre la vereda de Nueva Antioquia y Rodoxali y otra hasta la zona de Altos de Carepa.

*Cover photo: Bianca Bauer

2 thoughts on “For the love of land”

Leave a Reply