Colombia hoping land reform efforts will help sow peace

Pedro Antonio Beltran holds up the bill of sale to his farm. A decade ago, he was forced by a right-wing paramilitary group to sell it at a low price.
Pedro Antonio Beltran holds up the bill of sale to his farm. A decade ago, he was forced by a right-wing paramilitary group to sell it at a low price. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 7:20 PM

MONTERREY, COLOMBIA - To beat back a stubborn guerrilla movement, Colombia and its closest ally and benefactor, the United States, upgraded a once-hapless army and began to wrest territory from rebel forces.

Now Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, is ratcheting up the pressure on the guerrillas but with a far different strategy: returning thousands of square miles of stolen land to poor farmers who were displaced during a long, murky conflict.

The government's objective is to pacify violent regions and put Colombia on a path to peace by blunting the appeal of a guerrilla group that uses the banner of land reform to justify its struggle.

"This is as critical a stage as you could imagine - what we do with the land defines the course of the war," said Alejandro Reyes, a land expert who was hired to spearhead the Agriculture Ministry's restitution efforts. "Giving back land is the difference between winning and losing the war."

Over the past quarter century, the United States has spent about $25 billion here, mostly in military-related costs, to help Colombia dismantle cocaine cartels and bring order to a lawless countryside. Violence has ebbed, and U.N. data show that the acreage dedicated to the production of the leaf used to make cocaine has fallen by half since 2001.

But until now, successive Colombian administrations and U.S. policymakers ignored a root cause of the violence. Corrupt regional bosses, paramilitary warlords and drug traffickers took advantage of the chaos to steal millions of acres of prime farmland.

The byproduct of that "counter land reform," as Reyes calls it, was the displacement of 4 million desperately poor people in 30 years, legions of whom were easy recruits for rebels and drug traffickers.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Santos said his country had "a moral debt" to victims of war atrocities and those who lost their farms, many of whom suffered at the hands of a shadowy paramilitary militia that had close ties to Colombia's military. Santos said his plans also include modernizing a near-feudal system of land tenure.

"This would be the most profound social revolution in Colombia in its history," he said.

Reacting to the government's initiative, the country's main guerrilla army hinted it might be open to negotiations. Its commander, Alfonso Cano, said in a recent statement that the land restitution program and efforts to compensate victims of political violence are "essential to a future of reconciliation" and could "contribute to a real solution to the conflict."

Since September, the government has turned over nearly 500 square miles of farmland out of the estimated 10,000 square miles stolen from poor farmers. But it has not been easy.

For one, authorities now believe that the conflict displaced families off of 25,000 square miles, about the size of West Virginia. Many who lost their land never had a title, making it hard to determine who owned what.

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