EL ESPECTADOR, March 9, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

USAID and the Justice Ministry are launching a training for conciliators, Peace Judges, and inspectors all over the country on mechanisms for resolving conflicts about land problems. They hope to strengthen the concept in communities so that the most common land struggles don’t have to be resolved by a judge or end in violence.

Diber Torres has been resolving conflicts in his community in the town (vereda) of Barranquillita in Chigorodó (Antioquia Department) for 16 years as a rural inspector. He doesn’t have a schedule, but he talks about his position with pride, because it fills him with satisfaction. He recalls, for example, when he managed to keep a farmer from suing his neighbor, a rancher. Their farms were separated by a river, and in a drought, the animals would cross over the property line, and eat everything that the neighbor had planted. Torres went to their location and helped them to reach an agreement; however, there is one matter that frustrates him: He doesn’t know how to solve the problems of tenancy on the properties. “Do I have the tools, or is there training for that? No,” he says.

That’s why this Thursday, he’s in Apartadó, some 30 kilometers from the municipality where he lives. He is one of the dozens of conciliators and inspectors that will be receiving a training in how people can solve conflicts about land by themselves. It’s organized by the United States Agency for International Cooperation (USAID) and the Justice Ministry, and they call it “a toolbox of mechanisms for resolving conflicts about the use, tenancy, and ownership of land. Diber Torres is clear about what he hopes to learn there. “Receive an orientation on showing the campesinos how to stand up for their rights,” he says.

Many of the people that live on the parcels that make up their district (corregimiento) had to leave because of the scourge of violence in Urabá years ago. Now, when they come to Diber Torres’ office hoping to figure out problems with their property, he tells them that they have to go to agencies like the Land Restitution Unit or the National Land Agency (ANT). “I can’t commit to telling them to do this or do that, because I don’t have the knowledge,” he admits, but he would like to do more. Specifically, the initiative by the Ministry and USAID is trying to encourage the work that people like him are doing in their communities, beginning with the needs they have identified.

For example, after exploring the land registers in five municipalities in this country, they found 1,000 land conflicts. Of those, 32% were associated with boundary problems among neighbors, 29% were about buying and selling, and family succession was the third highest. In all of those conflicts a conciliator might intervene, or an inspector, or a Peace Judge, and they don’t have to escalate to the ordinary justice system, which takes much more time to reach a solution. “Ownership problems belong to the judges in the ordinary legal system, but if an agreement can be reached between the parties, we can have an impact,” explains Rivelino Medina, a Peace Judge in Chigorodó.

Medina relates how, in his municipality, during all of 2022, 870 conciliations were requested, and 537 of those cases resulted in conciliation. Of those cases that were resolved, 33 had to do with land issues, like boundary disagreements or ownership controversies. Those last are the ones that give him the most satisfaction in being able to resolve. “When they sometimes want to pick up a machete and later on they arrange it, they shake hands, that is satisfying for a Peace Judge,” he recounts. Medina was one of the first conciliators in receiving the training, as part of the pilot program, and he is now in Apartadó, telling other colleagues what the experience was like.

“All of the gaps you had in your box before, they fill up your toolbox. For example, in figuring out the trails in the neighborhood, they tell us what kind of paths there are, what the community’s rights to use them are,” he explains about one of the things he learned. “That kind of problem doesn’t have to go to two petitions or even three, turning into a legal debate, and you stop talking to your neighbor. No, it’s a problem of recognizing each other and building a society,” comments the Vice Minister for the Promotion of Justice, Jhoana Delgado, one of the managers of the initiative.

One of the program’s objectives is, specifically, to furnish the tools for those who can resolve land conflicts in their communities, because that kind of hassle has historically been related to the violence in Colombia. This way, they hope to avoid the escalation of such differences that can end up being expressed violently. “Here what’s important are the day to day conflicts that are all in a day’s work,” adds Delgado. The idea came up during the meeting that these methods of conciliation could even be joined with the rural and agrarian jurisdiction that the administration plans to create. Although Delgado does not rule it out, she warns that that constitutional reform project is still in its early stages.

In spite of the satisfaction they feel, the challenges that confront conciliators, Peace Judges, and inspectors are no small thing. Carmenza Álvarez, who has been a conciliator in Turbo (Antioquia) since 2004, explains, for example, that in her municipality, 25 people have been appointed to do that work, but in practice, only three are doing it. “Some because they thought it was a job opportunity and this is volunteer work, others because they saw that it was not for them, and others because they burned out; they didn’t see any real support from the municipal administration. And when you as a citizen are contributing to the municipality, you also have to ask yourself, “Why don’t they get with it?” she emphasizes. Vice Minister Delgado thinks that the work should continue to be voluntary. However, she says that the Ministry has been working to build a network of incentives for the conciliators, “for example, in access to credit, solutions for a decent life; we definitely can work on this and we are getting together with other places,” she adds. Meanwhile, Álvarez celebrates the fact that they are getting trainings like the one that just started, so that the job will have more solid foundations. Torres agrees and he thinks that in the end, what he heard in the training will help him at the appointment he has later in a nearby town, to solve a conflict about land.

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