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Land Restitution and Rural Development in Colombia: A Conversation with Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo

By Cameron Combs
November 8, 2012

In just a few days, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government will sit across the negotiation table in Havana in hopes of reaching a peace agreement. The first item on their agenda is rural development, a testament to the importance and urgency of developing the Colombian countryside. Recognizing this challenge, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has outlined an aggressive plan of action premised on three, complementary approaches: restoring land to those displaced by violence, formalizing farmlands, and developing agrarian production.

At a Dialogue roundtable discussion on November 8, Colombian minister of agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo presented a range of rural development initiatives being pursued by the government in the Colombian interior.

Restitution of lands

Last year, Colombia’s congress made history by establishing transitional legal channels through which individuals displaced since 1991 could apply for the restoration of their lands. This legislation also shifted the burden of proof to favor victims in their claims for repair. With over 3.7 million victims and 6 million hectares of vacated land (three times the size of El Salvador), it is a daunting undertaking. Nevertheless, expert judges have already started restoring titles to their rightful owners.

In this context, concerns over security, namely threats against those filing claims, still exist. Continued coordination with the army, police and other security forces will therefore be critical to ensure the process moves forward, asserted Restrepo. Adding to the danger is the fact that live landmines remain in over 50 percent of the lands in question.

Incorporating the rural

An astonishing percentage of rural properties – 40 to 45 percent – are not formally titled. This not only makes landowners more vulnerable, especially when displaced, but also represents a serious impediment for economic growth. Without a title, for instance, proprietors cannot use their properties as collateral, denying them their main access to credit. The government has therefore pushed to formalize property ownership, especially for beneficiaries of the land restitution program.

Given that the legal framework provides redress for displacements over a period of 20 years, Restrepo described efforts to work with victims who live in urban areas and do not wish to return to their previous homes and farms. In these cases, the Victims Unit currently provides services to ensure that property and monetary recompense is channeled towards productive ends. This may take the form of aiding a family in managing a farm while its children continue studying in the city, relocating individuals to restored properties, or even helping sell their lands. The goal, in short, is to increase the productivity and development of the Colombian countryside. With the end of the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict now within sight, this task is being met with a renewed sense of urgency.