EL ESPECTADOR, December 5, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The bill that sets the rules for this court process has already passed the first debate in the Senate. Even the Radical Change Party supports the Petro administration’s initiative. Getting it going will cost 137,000 million pesos (roughly USD $35,000,000 at current exchange rates).

Without any doubt, one of the most agreed-upon of the Gustavo Petro administration projects is the Rural Agrarian Jurisdiction, an initiative that’s trying to remove obstacles in cases affecting access to land, and is creating a legal path to the reduction of land conflicts. In the Chamber at least, the proposal—which was drafted by Senator Alexánder López—was approved in June of this year, with 76 votes in favor. And, since then, the Ministers of Justice and Agriculture brought to the Capitol another article that regulates what would be the fifth such jurisdiction in Colombia, with the formation of 32 agrarian courts that would, among other things, reduce the number of these conflicts at no cost to the parties.

The objective of this proposal is none other than guaranteeing effective access to justice in rural areas, a point that is also an obligation under the Peace Agreement signed in 2016. The administration is trying to execute an Integrated Rural Reform to correct that problem. And, so that the idea can get under way, the administration proposes that the first “pilots” start out with 64 circuits where judges center their efforts on the Caribe, Pacifico, Amazonía, Orinoquía, and Andina regions.

This paper has learned of two documents that the Minister of Justice, Néstor Osuna, and Acting Minister of Agriculture, Aura María Duarte, have filed. The documents stress “subject matter jurisdiction, which determines whether an administrative act will be part of the Agrarian and Rural Jurisdiction depends on whether the administrative act is directed to creating, transforming, or extinguishing relationships of an agrarian nature.” In other words, it’s a technical proposal that seeks to have judges that are specialized in land-related conflicts and can administer justice using bases different from the ordinary ones.

In practice, for example, this could be translated into a situation where judges will be obligated to work in rural areas where, historically, the government has been absent, and they will have the possibility of moving out to the countryside to receive and file claims, review evidence, do interviews, and order the delivery of relevant property.

“Agrarian judges will not be judges waiting for citizens to knock on their office door; but rather they will go out to the places where justice needs to be administered and they will connect directly with the individuals and communities that need them,” states the document.

Sergio Roldán, professor of agrarian law at Externado University, stated that the need for a jurisdiction specialized in these matters goes beyond conflicts for land or territories: “Generally, the problems of the countryside involve more parties, not just two ( . . . ) And access to land implies buying parcels, recovering unproductive land, but also reducing environmental conflicts, rights to water, and guaranteeing food production through agriculture.”

Roldán calls attention to one point—the fact that, in the bill that the administration sent to Congress, there is no specific consideration of the importance of alternative methods of conflict resolution.

The Justice Ministry, in fact, has an office with that name, and hopes to resolve what might be minor conflicts in order to keep them from causing congestion in judicial offices. And they do it by using the pillars of the ethnic and campesino communities themselves. The bill, on which the debate will continue in February of 2024, states that the law must provide that the defense of these cases must be without cost to the parties, and will be carried out by the Ombudsman’s Office. It even outlines a protection for the impoverished—which would be the possibility for campesinos, those who work the land, and the ethnic groups to take part in the cases “independent of the economic nature of the right being claimed.”

Multiple supporters

Even though this has been an administration project, it is also defended by some people who are part of the opposition, such as Carlos Fernando Motoa of the Radical Change Party himself. He has insisted that, in spite of being far apart from the Petrist coalition, his Party supports initiatives that bring the law closer to the citizens: “This project tries to close social gaps and recover people’s confidence.”

The work around the Agrarian Jurisdiction, in the Senate’s Primary Committee, has also been promoted by Senator Humberto de la Calle, who proposed the creation of a Rural Court and Transitional Agriculture—to last for ten years—so that in cases where conflict would escalate to a level higher than the agrarian judges, it could be resolved there and not in the Supreme Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court. His proposal got no support, and it was criticized by the Democratic Center Party whose speakers argued that talking about a new high court means bureaucracy.

Senator María Fernanda Cabal, for her part, stated that the project, which would create 32 Agrarian and Rural courts, at least five tribunals, and would be made up of one Auxiliary Justice in the Supreme Court of Justice and two more justices in the Council of State, would cost the country more than 66,000 million pesos annually (roughly USD $16,700,000 at current exchange rates) to guarantee its functioning. The administration, in its more general calculations, has estimated that it would cost up to 137,000 million pesos annually (roughly USD $35,600,000 at current exchange rates).

That side of Uribism has also described the proposal as a mechanism for judicial expropriation. Paloma Valencia even said they were going to turn the countryside into an all-out battle if they bring unresolved land cases to these judges. “Any business owner then would be looked upon as a criminal, all the evidence seems to be against them, we’re talking about making presumptions against anybody for the fact of being a landowner. They’re criminalizing the ownership of rural property,” she concluded.

Perhaps she’s referring to the fact that there are more than a few legal conflicts about land in Colombia, and there are cases where business owners have been involved in cases of land theft. In Montes de María there are at least 17 private companies accused of being massive buyers of land and right now are defendants in land restitution proceedings.

A report by the Land Restitution Unit, which EL ESPECTADOR has seen, reveals that, “concepts such as beneficial ownerships and the creation of autonomous estates in order to consolidate and buy up all the land available are all used in the phenomenon of legal dispossession.” The best-known open case is the Cementos Argos case, although the firm denies having carried out any illegal activities. All of these conflicts about land, agriculture, and environment that have not yet been resolved, or that are stalled in the Attorney General’s Office, would be able to reach the agrarian jurisdiction.

Their functioning will be in the hands of the National Land Agency, which is also the agency in charge of recovery and administration of unproductive territory, and in the hands of other agencies responsible for these functions, such as the Land Restitution Unit, the Justice Ministry, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The purpose of the Jurisdiction is, among other things, to pave the way for the Petro administration’s agricultural reform. The administration has purchased 20,000 hectares, according to administration figures. The seed in matters agricultural has now been planted.

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