By Omaira Bolaños
Omaira Bolaños is the Latin America program director for the Rights and Resources Initiative and has advocated for community-based conservation, watershed management, gender equity and indigenous peoples’ tenure rights in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and her native Colombia. She holds a PhD in anthropology and a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of Florida.
The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts in ending a more than 50-year-long civil war, serves as a reminder that Colombia is taking a worthwhile journey toward peace.
But how does a country find peace when more than three-quarters of its population has known nothing but war? The vote in Colombia on Sunday, which rejected the peace agreement Santos negotiated by less than half a percentage point, shows that this is not an easy path to follow.
Like many other Colombians who spent most of their lives living and working amid armed conflict and the atrocities of war, I celebrated this historic opportunity to reconstruct our country and to vote yes for peace.
One of the most devastating aspects of the war for me was to see indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian communities who spent their entire lives investing in and caring for their territories suddenly left with nothing. Displacement has a particularly destructive impact, leading to the loss of livelihoods, languages and cultures, and to the tearing apart of social fabrics — in addition to the lives lost to violence. For a lasting peace to take root, the legal recognition of collective property rights for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities would be an important step in addressing the war’s damages and in continuing a process of comprehensive land reform.
“For indigenous peoples, the signing of peace means an opportunity to live more peacefully in our territories without being displaced, massacred, and violated as it’s happened during the more than 50 years of conflict,” said Clemencia Herrera of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon in a recent interview.
Insecure property rights were one of the major drivers of this conflict. Since the 1960s, rural communities have been losing their lands in disputes with wealthy landowners, local governments, paramilitary groups and multinational companies. As the war became more diffuse, conflicts over land have also become conflated with drug trafficking, extractive industries and illegal mining.
Throughout my personal and professional life, I experienced firsthand the havoc that war brought to rural communities. As a child, I learned stories of my own family’s internal displacement and became one of the first generations living in city slums. Later on, in my professional work in the rural sector, I saw how indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendant communities bore the brunt of the violence and displacement.
I helped coordinate a natural resources management project, which brought together local communities, government officials, financial institutions and the private sector operating in the Valle del Cauca region. Together we developed a watershed management strategy that became a model of strategic partnership for other regions across Latin America.
What we had created, however, was seen as a threat by those who had to yield power. Guerillas, paramilitary and military forces, and drug traffickers moved in. Ultimately, many community leaders and members were evicted from their lands, joining the nearly 7 million internally displaced people in Colombia. I also became a target and fled the country in 1999 after too many threats of violence.
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Secure property rights would change this picture and prevent a backslide into conflict. One analysis of 71 cases of civil conflict and war around the world found that two-thirds of this strife was driven in part by contested land claims. Land conflicts are also common at the local level, where governments issue concessions on community and indigenous lands. A study of nearly 10,000 mining and oil concessions in Colombia found established communities living in at least 97 percent of them; these communities often face violence if they refuse to leave their customary homes.
Data from 2015 from Colombia’s Institute for Rural Development (INCODER, the acronym in Spanish) shows that the agency is currently sitting on nearly 1,000 collective land title applications for indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. These claims are the ancestral territories of local communities and are legitimate under Colombia’s constitution. Yet many of these communities have waited years for their requests to be resolved.
In 2015, INCODER was dissolved, and it is now being replaced by the National Land Agency. The new agency will face the complex task of addressing pending land issues in a context where the peace agreement’s land reform provisions have not been endorsed. As this transition takes place, we now have a unique opportunity to recognize local communities’ rights over their own lands and resources.
This would bring Colombia one step closer to the stability that everyone seeks — and Santos’s Nobel Prize serves as encouragement that we are all on the right path.
As we continue to pursue peace, I am calling on my government to use this opportunity to lead our region and the world in recognizing land rights. By doing so, we can construct a country that respects citizens’ rights and the prospects of a peace that will last for generations.