Last week I had a chance to spend a day in Cartagena, Colombia with Assistant Administrator Mark Feierstein, USAID Colombia Mission staff, host government personnel and implementing partners. Together, we looked at USAID’s technical assistance programs which support the Government of Colombia’s efforts to restitute land, formalize property and implement rural development.
Colombia is slowly emerging from decades of violent internal conflict and instability, which exacerbated existing social and economic disparities. Over the course of the conflict, armed groups, including the FARC guerillas, right-wing paramilitary forces, and private militias of drug lords used violence and intimidation extensively to force people from their lands and homes. As a result, there are 3.9 million officially registered Internally Displaced Persons in Colombia and over 9.8 million acres of land were abandoned due to forced displacement.
The current administration of President Juan Manuel Santos believes that an integrated program of securing access to rural land combined with comprehensive rural development will create the conditions necessary for lasting peace. In the next ten years, the Government of Colombia intends to resolve 360,000 restitution cases, restoring rightful ownership of land to those who were violently displaced or who abandoned their land due to the conflict. During my visit, I met with villagers who were forced from their homes 12 years ago on 12 hours’ notice—women like Aura who was forced to flee Las Brisas in Toro County with her three small children.
To help families like Aura’s, President Santos signed the Victims’ Law and Land Restitution Law to settle the country’s outstanding historical debts and establish a legal framework to support the process of land restitution and address root causes of the conflict. The law provides comprehensive assistance and reparations for over 3.6 million victims and includes an ambitious program of land restitution for those whose land was violently seized by illegal armed groups or who had to abandon their land due to the conflict. Simultaneous to the restitution efforts, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is implementing an ambitious project to strengthen the land rights of smallholder farmers, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities by issuing formal titles guaranteeing individual and collective rights.
As a result of these reforms, Aura’s community filed a legal case and she will soon receive financial compensation for herself and each of her children. She also will receive a rural plot of land and plans to rebuild a home and raise cattle in the area she once lived in.
Stories like Aura’s illustrate how USAID plays a role in keeping America’s long tradition of helping those who are less fortunate than us. Even modest amounts of assistance from the U.S. to the Colombian Government to support of land tenure programs help build peace and security in the country.