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INTERVIEW: Land Rights and Internally Displaced Persons in Colombia

Daniel Maree's picture

In this exclusive interview with Senior Social Development Specialist Elena Correa, we discuss the results and lessons-learned from the project on Protection of Land and Patrimony of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Colombia. To read the background paper on the workshop click here.

Alec Wescott contributed to this post.

 © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank 
   © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank  

 Q. Since its inception in 2002, your focus has developed from “land protection” to “land titling” and “land restitution”. What is the difference between the two strategies, and what prompted the change?

A. Land rights protection was the starting point for the project because of the large number of population displaced. However, land right protection is not enough to diminish the risk of impoverishment of IDPs as was established as the main objective of the project.  According to the circumstances and the evolution of the project, land titling was incorporated to formalize these land rights of IDPs who do not have legal titles.

Land restitution was included in the project as a result of the enactment of the Justice and Peace Law in 2005. Land restitution is the ultimate goal in the protection of land that has been lost due to displacement. The project had gathered information since its start in 2003 that could be built on to achieve land restitution.  This is a good example of new emerging legislation and how the project adapted itself to the opportunities provided by this law.


Q. In its early findings WDR 2011 has identified that international engagement in conflict-affected areas often suffers from a lack of coordination between political, security, and development actors. How did the project meet these organizational challenges?

A. It is true that a project of this nature involves many different stakeholders and therefore requires effective coordination. One of the factors that have facilitated this coordination is the implementing agency, the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation (Accion Social), which is also the organization that coordinates the national systems of comprehensive assistance to IDPs and promotes international cooperation. This agency has been instrumental in facilitating coordination between the local and national level authorities.

In addition, the project has created an institutional network by identifying the relevant institutions that have responsibilities related to the protective measures designed for assisting IDPs. All these institutions are members of the Steering Committee, where all key project decisions are made. Local authorities are instrumental in the successful implementation of the project, and they can be very supportive. For example, some departments have allocated budgets for the project and others have provided in-kind support.

Regarding donor coordination, the donors are organized into a Donor Committee where all participants have the same weight regardless of the amount of contribution to the project to ensure balance and equality as well as harmonizing and coordinating efforts. For instance it was agreed to align donor requirements and that the project would produce one report to all donors.


Q. The levels of violence in Colombia varied in intensity over the course of your project. How did your program maintain the flexibility to meet the demands over the 8 year period?

A. The project was organized into different regional teams that had staff from the respective regions which ensured having knowledge of social and political dynamics of the regions. The main principle was to avoid any risks to the community and to the members of the teams.

Information on the conflict and levels of risks were always gathered and corroborated through various sources to analyze the context in each region. The project also made alliances with different local organizations and authorities and international organizations that had presence in the regions to ensure implementation in such difficult conditions.


Q. Your team has been praised for its ability to take advantage of opportunities, and avoid unachievable goals. What strategic lessons have you learned along the way that might be valuable for future projects?

A. The continuous analysis of the context and circumstances has been crucial for identifying opportunities and moments when having an influence on decision-making processes are possible. Another key factor has been the knowledge produced based on the analysis and information gathered during the project, which provides valuable inputs for decision-making processes.


Q. There is still some debate as to whether the existing international legal framework is sufficient to meet the challenges surrounding IDP property rights. What has been your experience?

A. The general international legal framework on human rights does not explicitly refer to IDPs but there are specific instruments, though non-binding in nature, designed to protect the rights of IDPs such as the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement or the Pinheiro Principles of Housing and Property Restitution which reflect the existing binding legal framework.

The project used both in its work to influence public policy and included a human rights based approach. Even though these IDPs-specific guidelines exist and they afford protection regarding restitution and compensation, the main problem is the non-binding character of these principles, which leaves implementation to the political willingness of states.

The integration of these IDP-specific principles into national legislations would be a significant step to further assist IDPs and some countries have already done this.


Q. What is the potential for replicating your program elsewhere?

A. There is definitely potential in replicating this model elsewhere for IDPs and refugees who have lost their land and assets. In many cases land and assets are the source of the conflict. Therefore, the restitution of land and assets is a key factor in supporting IDPs and refugees in restoring their standards of living and in preventing conflicts. For this reason it is common to see land issues in peace agreements, such as Guatemala and Bosnia Herzegovina for instance. 

The effective protection of rights to assets of displaced populations could become an important instrument in minimizing the risk of impoverishment of IDPs and refugees, and in facilitating governmental assistance to them. From a preventive perspective, the registration of assets helps to protect displaced people from being deprived of their property rights.  Subsequently, if these persons are able to return, their rights to the abandoned property would be guaranteed, preventing further conflict. If displaced persons are resettled, they can exchange their assets for new ones provided by the government, minimizing costs for both parties.

However, to ensure successful implementation of land and assets protection and restitution initiatives, it is necessary to have the institutional capacity in place, as well as strong political will and financial resources. Participation of international stakeholders is also an important factor. Another recommendation derived from the lessons of this project is the significance of establishing modern land administration systems to keep record of land ownership so that in situations of natural disasters and/or conflicts it is easier to prove who owned specific parcels of land.

For future work on land rights protection, it would be very useful to compile and compare different cases of land rights protection and restitution.