By Sebastián Forero Rueda, COLOMBIA+20, EL ESPECTADOR, August 22, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Truth Commission has documented how 45% of the human rights violations in the conflict have affected the campesino population, the principal victims of the war. Agricultural counter-reform left 34 million hectares in extensive cattle ranching.

If the proposed amendment to the Constitution that the Minister of Agriculture filed last Wednesday, August 17, is approved in Congress, Article 64 will say: “The campesinos are the subject of special protection. The government will be attentive in a special form of protection, and will guarantee their collective and individual rights, including those recognized by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Campesinos and other persons that work in rural areas.” In addition, that Declaration, on which Colombia abstained from voting in the General Assembly in December, 2018, will become a constitutional right.

The amendment to the text is small, but the recognition is enormous. It aims to correct a debt that has bee waiting ever since this Constitution was enacted. Ana Jimena Bautista, Coordinator of the Campesinos and the Land for Dejusticia[1], explains it this way: “What happened with the Constitution of ’91 was that there was an asymmetrical recognition of the campesinos. It recognized the collective rights of the indigenous peoples in a very important way, and to a lesser degree the rights of the Afro-Colombian people, but in the strictest sense, the subject of campesino rights got no recognition.”

The step toward the recognition of the campesinos in this country comes at the same time as one of the strongest conclusions in the Truth Commission’s Final Report: The principal victims of the war in Colombia were the campesinos. In a document of 200 pages, part of the land-related volume of the Report, the Commission explained extensively how the armed conflict has affected the 12,929,835 campesinos in the country (28.4% of the population) according to the Commission’s calculations.

The statistics demonstrate the dimensions of the problem. Of the 10,606,125 events of victimization recognized by the Unique Registry of Victims, 4,827,550 affected the campesinos. That means that at least 45.5% of the human rights violations that occurred during the war affected campesinos. “The campesinos’ lands were the scene of the war, and the campesino communities were the generalized victims of the confrontation.”

The harassment and repression of the ANUC

Among the activities documented in the Report, there is special mention of the case of the National Association of Campesino Users (ANUC in Spanish). It was created in 1970 and consolidated as the main campesino organization in the struggle for the land. Through the organization there was push for recovery of the lands settled under the agrarian reform law that had been passed in 1961. Under that law, between 1971 and 1978, there were 984 of those land recoveries in 24 departments.

But, states the Commission, “ANUC quickly passed from being a revitalizing force for agrarian reform, to being an object for stigmatization and harassment by all of the warring factions.” In fact, the Report states that, although the agrarian reform law in ’61 put the big landholders on the alert, “it was the creation of ANUC that generated the most opposition by trade associations of the stature of the Society of Agriculturists of Colombia (SAC), the Colombian Federation of Cattle Ranchers (Fedegán), and the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC). This opposition was expressed in acts like those complained of by ANUC in October of 1970. There was an organized campaign against the campesino organization, promoted at first by Fedegán, and later the SAC joined in.

The testimonies collected by the Commission demonstrated the persecution and repression that were suffered by people who had joined the organization. “The problem was this: we had a badge, so when they killed a campesino, and he was in ANUC, they would dress his body up like a guerrilla, putting a uniform on him and also putting the ANUC badge on him. That happened all over the country, that’s why it was so dangerous to be on the board of directors or be part of ANUC,” said one of the farm laborers in Córdoba.

But the attacks came from all of the actors: the government, the paramilitaries, and the guerrillas. The case in the District (corregimiento) of Pichilín, in Morroa (Sucre Department) illustrates that very well. The town was constructed after ANUC took over some lands in 1971, and later on they were able to get the land titled. Two decades later, came the 35th Front of the FARC and they attacked the people in order to consolidate their control. The Navy and the paramilitaries in the area  agrclashed with them in a battle that split the territory until the paramilitary massacre on December 4, 1996, that left 11 people killed. The whole population had to leave the land that they had recovered as a campesino movement.

Land theft and the agricultural counter-reform

Of the 8,748,957 people that were displaced by the armed conflict, more than five million were displaced between 1995 and 2010, when the whole country could see on television how thousands of campesinos were leaving the towns on canoes, launches, buses, or trucks with their few possessions on their backs. According to the Commission, the displacements were caused by multiple reasons: aerial fumigations with glyphosate, counter-insurgency military operations, paramilitary massacres, takeover of entire towns by the insurgencies and, in general, because of the worsening of the war. But the Report emphasizes one particular point: the voracious interest in grabbing land by both the legal as well as the illegal actors.

“The evidence demonstrates that as soon as the population was displaced, shortly after the displacement, the use of those lands expanded into grazing, palm plantations, planting trees for harvesting lumber, and other agro-industrial activities, as well as mining and petroleum,” reads the Report.

Comparing the maps in the municipalities where forced displacement was concentrated between 2001 and 2004 with those in which palm plantings expanded between 2001 and 2013, the Commission found such correspondence in regions like Urabá, Magdalena Medio, Meta, Montes de María, and Catatumbo. “In municipalities like El Carmen de Bolívar, San Jacinto, and María la Baja (in Montes de María), or in Tibú, (Catatumbo) you saw a notable increase in the agro-industry of oil palm planting in territories that were highly affected by forced displacement.”

But, besides that, the land theft carried out during that period resulted in consolidating an agricultural counter-reform, states the Commission, because it reversed the advances achieved by the agrarian reform during the decades of 1960 and 1970. Many of the stolen hectares were properties that the campesinos without land had titled under Incora (Colombia Institute for Agrarian Reform). According to data compiled in the Report, in Sucre, for example, they had titled more than 50,000 hectares under the agrarian reform of ‘61, and more than 56,000 hectares were plundered; in Bolívar, 153,000 hectares had been titled, and 136,000 were stolen.

An emblematic case that illustrates this phenomenon was the Bellacruz ranch in southern Cesar Department. Part of the uncultivated lands there were titled to campesinos during the ‘60’s, and the Marulanda family was paid for them, because they had acquired them a decade earlier. Nevertheless, there was a conflict among those who said they owned the ranch and the campesinos who said it was uncultivated land. The campesinos ended up displaced by the paramilitaries in the region. When they tried to return in 2008, they found their land planted with oil palm trees, and that it had been sold to a company owned by the entrepreneur Germán Efromovich, who kept saying he had purchased it in good faith.

According to the Commission, the agrarian counter-reform left the Colombian countryside with 34 million hectares dedicated to extensive cattle ranching, with only 14 million had previously been used for that. More than five million hectares were set for agro-industrial and forestry projects, when previously there were only four million. And, on the contrary, barely five million hectares were used for farming, when previously there had been 24 million.

The effects of “Democratic Security”

According to the Commission, three of the strategic components of the “democratic security” policy of the Álvaro Uribe administration affected the country’s campesinos in particular. First, the military operations deployed to expel the guerrillas from the regions where they had been established, or that were thought to be their rearguard positions, had disproportionate consequences for the lives of the campesinos in those regions. “The counter-insurgency actions included a high level of stigmatization, especially against campesino organizations located in farming areas or in regions where the guerrillas at one time had had influence,” states the Report.  That was the case, for example, for Operation Liberation No. 1, deployed in June of 2003, to break through the ring of the insurgency at Bogotá, which had an impact on several areas in Cundinamarca.

The second component of that policy, which had strong repercussions on the campesinos, was the intensification of the program of “campesino-soldiers” and the broadening of the networks of informants. As the Commission noted, in 2003 they planned to recruit 15,000 inhabitants of the rural areas to military service in the areas they were from. “This generated a target on the young men and their families by the guerrillas, exposing them to threats, displacement, and other deadly violence.”

But doubtless one of the components of “democratic security” that affected the campesinos most cruelly were the massive and arbitrary arrests in the length and breadth of the national territory. According to the Colombian Jurists Commission, between June 1, 2002, and July 1, 2003, 4,362 people were arrested arbitrarily. According to the Report, these arrests took place especially in Montes de María, the Province of Tequendama (in Cundinamarca), Tolima, Huila, and Arauca.

Based on all of the documentation by the Commission of the victimization of the campesinos during the armed conflict, it recommended the adoption of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Campesinos. “The Colombian government ought to correct the decision to abstain from voting on that document, and explicitly adopt it as an orienting instrument of public policy.” The bill offered in Congress on August 17 would be the first step toward accomplishing that.

[1] Dejusticia is a Colombian NGO focused on legal research and human rights

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