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They Fled Conflict, Now They Get Their Land Back. And Their Lives.

Also available in: Español


For those working on land management issues within the conflict context, there is a success story that I think is truly worth sharing. This is the story of Colombia, and how technical expertise combined with political momentum led to a truly unique policy that is positively affecting lives.  

First a bit of background. Around the turn of the century, displacement in Colombia had peaked as a consequence of internal conflict. The situation was often labeled as the worst humanitarian crisis the western hemisphere had ever experienced. At that time, Colombian institutions were dealing daily with thousands of forcibly displaced persons who were coming into urban centers, fleeing for their lives. Although displacement had been present throughout the history of the conflict, the numbers reached during the early 2000’s, truly challenged State capacity, creating a crisis situation. To deal with the crisis, focus was first placed upon humanitarian assistance (food, shelter, health). The magnitude of the problem did not immediately allow room for long term, sustainable approaches during this period.   

Around 2003 an initiative started to take form which turned into the Protection of Land and Patrimony of Internally Displaced Persons Project, supported by the World Bank with financing from the State and Peacebuilding Fund. The Project addressed property rights affected during conflict and violence in the Colombian countryside. The initial objective was to protect the land that was being abandoned by the internally displaced and which was being stolen from them during their absence. In the subsequent years, the initiative was adjusted in order to design processes to recover and restitute property rights that had been negatively affected by those using illegal means and taking advantage of the widespread violence to steal land.

The design was very innovative in the Colombian context in the way it viewed the problem from a holistic perspective and, for example, how it involved professionals from the legal, cadastral and social work areas. It also placed a strong focus on the protection and restitution of indigenous rights, on community participation and civil society organizations, as well as on monitoring and evaluation initiatives.
There was no sense of urgency for restitution, as land issues were not included in the political agenda at that moment.  So the Project team had enough time to design methodologies to be implemented, pilot and adjust them as needed. This permitted the team to have strong, successful strategies. However, up to that point, the focus was placed on the protection of land and not so much on restitution, which needed a boost that could not come from a technician’s desk.

In 2010 a new Government came into office with ambitious plans to start a peace process in order to end the internal conflict. Land issues have always been at the core of conflict in Colombia, so all of a sudden, land restitution went from being a component of a small project, to becoming a whole new state agency; the Land Restitution Unit.

In 2011, the focus of the Project, which had now taken the shape of the Land Restitution Unit, moved completely towards restitution. Up to that point, the Project had been protecting land for over eight years so everyone, especially the victims, was eagerly anticipating this transition.

The legacy of the Project proved to be essential in structuring the new Unit as well as defining the policies to be implemented. The measures taken in order to protect internally displaced persons’ land served as evidence at restitution trials. Institutional capacity built during the years of the Project (methodologies, strategies, human capital) became the core of the new Agency. The Project team composition, in-depth land knowledge and relevant methodologies in the Colombian context did not exist before the Project but were eagerly utilized as soon as the political decision was taken to focus on land-restitution.

Although the conflict continues in certain areas, during the past three years and as a direct result of this policy, close to 20,000 people have seen their property rights restored and around two thirds of them have agreed to start productive utilization of the land once again. The policy does not just restitute land, it restitutes lives. Even though the Project ended in 2014 when the new unit became fully operational, its outcomes will continue to positively impact rural Colombia for many years to come.
 

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