Colombia Orders Return of Stolen Farmland

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 23, 2009

CARMEN DEL DARIEN, Colombia -- As with so many crimes of war, what happened here in the dense, humid jungles of northwestern Colombia more than a decade ago might easily have been forgotten. Illegal militias forced hundreds of poor black farmers off their land, which politically connected businessmen then seized and turned into lucrative palm oil plantations.

The displaced farmers, well aware that the hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by Colombia's long civil conflict rarely returned home, thought they would never see their land again. But in this case, the government recently ordered nine palm oil companies to return thousands of acres to the farmers, and the attorney general's office is investigating the firms' operators on accusations of homicide, land theft and forced displacement.

The government, however, is motivated as much by self-interest as altruism, say human rights groups, which also charge that state negligence coupled with aid for the palm oil companies helped facilitate the land seizures. President Álvaro Uribe's administration urgently wants a free-trade agreement with the United States, and Democrats on Capitol Hill have made clear that the pact is contingent on human rights advances in Colombia, particularly for blacks and other marginalized groups.

"I think it's directly linked, there's no question about that," Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), a member of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said of the Colombian government's attention to the land issue in the state of Choco. "I'm not so sure that these efforts by the government would be made had it not been for the external pressure that we've raised."

The plight of Afro-Colombians has been of particular concern to the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus, several of whose members, including Payne, have met with Uribe to raise their concerns. Some have also traveled to Choco, under heavy military guard, visiting areas mired in poverty and violence.

Few in this country have suffered as much as Afro-Colombians, who make up more than 20 percent of Colombia's 45 million people, the largest black community in Spanish-speaking America.

Black Colombians, the descendants of African slaves, have endured mass killings, forced displacements and fighting on ancestral lands -- the hard reality of a simmering but brutal conflict involving deaths squads, Marxist rebels and drug traffickers. The Afro-Colombian population here in Choco, where the majority of people are black, suffers from an infant mortality rate twice the national average and a poverty rate topping 75 percent.

"The truth is, the Colombian government does not value us," said Ligia Maria Chaverra, 68, a leader in this community in Choco state. "It has always been that way.

The Uribe administration says it has done more for Afro-Colombians than any other government -- and the efforts in Choco are held up as an example of the state's commitment. Lawyers, social workers, agronomists, prosecutors and other specialists from various ministries have been deployed to this region, known as Uraba.

"This is a very important case for the government," said Catalina Riveros, a lawyer from the Agriculture Ministry who has been working on the case. "We're trying to get the lands that were taken from Afro communities."

But the government's portrayal of its role here, that of a tireless champion of poor blacks, sharply contrasts with the version that emerges from court documents and depositions by jailed paramilitary commanders and a former financial adviser to the largest palm oil company in this region, Urapalma.

Government investigators say that illegal, anti-guerrilla death squads that swarmed through in 1996 and 1997 worked with troops commanded by Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, who is now in jail on charges that include murder and collaborating with paramilitary groups. More than 100 villagers were slain, and as many as 3,000 farmers were forced to abandon 247,000 acres, a swath about a third the size of Rhode Island.

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