Marginalised but not Mute: Struggling for Land Control in Colombia

Isabel Perucho - Philippines On December 26, 2013, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights found Colombia guilty of not preventing the 1997 displacement of thousands of Afro-Colombians in the Curvarado and Jiguamiando river basins. This verdict is one of many international legal actions taken against the Colombian government on behalf of its Afro-Colombian communities, which, as a result of marginalization and indifference, struggle to exercise power and autonomy over their ancestral territories. These communities have resorted to transnational alliances with intergovernmental and non-domestic actors and international appeals to protect their territorial rights, actions which have empowered them and led to a series of international demands that have put pressure on the Colombian government.

orlistat 180 mg This case illuminates the role of “international advocacy”the process by which international actors seek to influence the political decisions and policies of governmentsin shaping Colombia’s land restitution and rights protection initiatives. 

The communities of Curvarado and Jiguamiando are located in the Colombian Pacific, a region that is both politically and economically strategic because of their natural resources and fertile land. This may be why the region also doubles as an epicenter for Colombia’s internal armed conflict and drug trafficking. It is home to a quarter of the 4.3 million Afro-Colombians living in Colombia, a group that, in itself, makes up 10% of the general population. These communities have historically fought for rights over their territory, a struggle the Colombian government eventually recognized in Law 70 of 1993, which declared that the land designated for common use by the community is: “non-transferable, imprescriptible, and non-mortgageable”. According to this law, locally elected community councils can both define territorial boundaries as well as administer the use of resources of their lands.

Despite these protections, thousands of Afro-Colombians have been forcibly displaced from their land over the past two decades to pave the way for economic development and infrastructural projects. Marino Cordoba, a community leader who has been at the forefront of the struggle for land in Colombia has stated that this is “a flagrant violation of the legal rights of Afro-Colombians.” Cordoba, who is the International Coordinator of the Afro-Colombian National Peace Council and a member of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) went on to note that “The norms that demand the protection of the black population’s territorial rights are not enforced by any civil or military authority.”

In an interview with Fox & Hedgehog, he said, “There are no laws or authorities overseeing the territorial rights of this population, because black people do not matter. Afro-Colombians are a poor population who have nothing to guarantee to the state oligarchy. We have no economic, political or collective power. On the other hand, those with resources and power do matter, and the public forces guarantee their economic interests. The government does not care about the development, proposals, or the ways of life of the community, but it is interested in development seen from a business perspective. There is a clash in terms of vision and development. The businessman wants the territory to generate more income and be more cost-effective, adversely affecting communal interests, culture and the autonomy of these communities.”

This disregard for Afro-Colombian rights was seen even after Law 70 was instituted. In 1997, soon after the first title of collective property was granted to the communities of Curbarado and Jiguamiando, paramilitary groups and Colombian national army units carried out counter-insurgency maneuvers that resulted in the forced displacement of approximately 4,000 people and the brutal murder of civilian Marino Lopez Mena. Subsequently, between 1997 and 2002, palm oil companies took control over the territory through illegally acquired licences and the approval of the Local Registry Office. They invested USD 2,2483,569 to control 17,720 hectares of the land belonging to Afro-Colombian communities. The governmental entities responsible for the region did not respect Law 70: they did nothing to prevent the forced displacement of these communities. According to Colombia’s laws, Afro-Colombian communities should have access to more than 5 million of hectares of land. They should be allowed to advance their political projects by being allowed to maintain their traditional forms of production and to develop them in accord with their worldviews and culture. And yet, this basic legal right is neither protected nor enforced by any Colombian entity because there are powerful economic interests that apparently take precedence over the basic territorial rights of these communities.

In response, the Afro-Colombian communities in Curvarado and Jiguamiando sought the right to autonomy and power over their own land by establishing transnational networks with non-domestic political actors (such as Lawyers Without Borders) and intergovernmental organizations (like the United Nations), which have leverage over the Colombian state. At the end of the 1990s, many human rights organizations, because of connections with Afro-Colombian leaders and local human rights activists, monitored and commented on the status of human rights in Colombia. After the 1997 displacement, these organizations denounced the situation to international organisations like the Inter-American commission of Human Rights and the US government.This strengthened transnational advocacy networks in which international actors began to follow up with and denounce the human rights situation in Colombia. International advocacy has resulted in a practical example of the boomerang effect: which describes situations in which local political actors that see their demands blocked at a domestic level, recur to international actors with leverage over the local government. This has empowered the leaders of Afro-Colombian communities by allowing them to enter a network of international solidarity that provides them with the support accompaniment that the Colombian government denies them and also exposing their struggles to the public sphere.

More specifically, international advocacy played an important role in the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had legally binding power over the Colombian State. The rulings ordered the state to “adopt measures as may be necessary to protect the life and the right to humane treatment of all the members of the Communities of Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó and ensure that the beneficiaries of these measures can continue to live in their usual residence, without fear of coercion or threat, and that displaced persons may return to their territory.”

But why have these international pressures had an influence on the Colombian state’s public responses? It is not in Colombia’s best interests to be labelled internationally as a nation that violates human rights when it has signed multiple international human rights agreements and receives considerable amounts of financial aid from the US government. In response to these criticisms, it implemented some measures to protect the territorial rights of these communities. For instance, the government opened spaces of dialogue for the affected Afro-Colombian communities. At the same time the Colombian Constitutional Court issued rulings in favor of the inhabitants of the Afro-Colombian families that had returned. The Court also acknowledged reports of threats, persecution, surveillance, attempted murders, and disrespect of the people and cultural symbols of these Afro-Colombian communities and ordered the Colombian government to “adopt without delay the measures issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”

Even though the Afro-Colombian communities in Curvarado and Jiguamiando have not had an effective restitution of their land and are still subject to death threats and violence, international advocacy has allowed them to enter a transnational network that both empowers them and pressures the ambivalent Colombian government to take action, as these alliances multiply and more people become concerned with the status of Afro-Colombians. The way in which norms,values, and the loss of strategic resources seem to shape the behavior of the Colombian state has been an important resource that has allowed these communities and their mode of development, out of marginalization and unimportance, into a position in which they can fight to exercise control and autonomy over their territory. In an era where there is skepticism regarding the effectiveness of intergovernmental organizations, it is the ability that Afro-Colombian communities have to form connections with these organizations that has given them the real ability to exert power over their territory.