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Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Colombians need their land back says Amnesty International

The land rights of indigenous Colombians and Afro-descendant communities are the subject of a new Amnesty International report. There won’t be peace if these aren’t respected.

Six million people had to abandon their lands because of of a 50-year internal war between the military and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country’s largest left-wing rebel group. Over 260,000 people lost their lives during this period and thousands were kidnapped or disappeared, estimates human rights organisation Amnesty International in a report released in November. Poverty, violence and human rights violations, reinforced during years of conflict, cannot be resolved without a proper agrarian reform, the group argues.

 

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A woman passes by a group of paramilitary troops in southern Colombia © Carlos Villalon/Liaison

 

Land rights of indigenous Colombians and Afro-descendant communities

In 2011 the government implemented the Victims and Land Restitution Law (La Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierra) with the objective of returning lands deprived because of the conflict to their former owners. Building this legal framework is a positive step on the path towards more robust land rights, a form of official recognition that there is a need to change the land ownership structure in Colombia. However, this law doesn’t mention indigenous and Afro-descendant communities directly. Whilst these groups respectively make up almost 3% and up to 25% of the country’s population, almost a third of the indigenous population is excluded from land titles and less than 5% of Afro-descendant Colombians hold collective property rights.

 

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos © Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images

 

A success story, of sorts: Alto Andágueda

There have only been two successful cases of land restitution to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. One concerns Alto Andágueda, an indigenous reservation in the northwest of the country, targeted by several mining companies seeking to exploit its resources. It has also been the subject of bombings and attacks on its population that have forced thousands to flee, both during the armed conflict as well as after the peace talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc began in 2012. A court suspended concessions for mining companies in 2013, and a year later ruled in favour of restitution of land titles to indigenous people – for the first time in Colombian history. Even the case of Alto Andágueda, considered to be a success story, opens space for discussion on the gap between legal regulations and implementation: the alleged achievements are overshadowed by the sad reality that both illegal mining and attacks on indigenous people have continued in the area.

 

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The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerrillas in 2002 © Carlos Villalon/Getty Images

 

Restitution of land is a challenging yet crucial element for democracy in the country. By denying the land rights of indigenous Colombians and Afro-descendant communities, the government violates international obligations and puts the peace accords in danger. The right to land is a basic human right and neglecting its importance may affect the future of the whole country.

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