Pitalito, Colombia - The announcement in late May of an agreement on peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group on agrarian land reform has brought the issue back to the public's attention.
Land disputes have been at the heart of the Colombian conflict since 1964, when the left-wing FARC emerged in order to "end social, political and economic inequalities", according to its foundation charter. As a result of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of displaced people have abandoned their land, while others were forced to sell under threats of violence.
According to the latest report issued by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Colombia is thought to have 4.9 to 5.5 million internally displaced people - more than any other country in the world.
The agreement has been celebrated by both sides as key to ending a conflict that has lasted more than half a century, and left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
"I can say with certainty that the agreement on agrarian issues permits a radical transformation of the rural reality in Colombia," said chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle. "The agreements take into account the displaced population and those who have suffered dispossession. And, of course, it involves an ambitious programme of land distribution to rural farmers."
War and disputes
But one of the principles guiding the peace talks is the concept that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", meaning results are conditioned on the talks reaching a final peace accord. So while talks unfold in Havana, Cuba, Colombians continue to suffer from the conflict, and disputes over access to land continue to arise.
"Any agreement in Havana constitutes only a general framework, not yet developed in detail. But even if it were more specific, one thing is the agreement and another the implementation," said sociologist Alfredo Molano, an expert on land conflicts. "Compliance could mean a programme that starts the day the agreement is signed and that may end in 10 or 15 years."
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Meanwhile, the small, rural community of Pitalito in northern Colombia has recently taken a major step in its struggle to reclaim the land its residents were displaced from in 2010.
Before dawn on May 21, 18 families gathered at the exact spot where almost three years ago they say they were displaced from their village by security forces. Full of hope and accompanied by national and international organisations, they nervously boarded the truck that took them back home.
Upon arrival, members of the community began clearing the overgrown, derelict land with their machetes, and constructing simple huts made of wooden beams and plastic roofs. A fence bears slogans such as "Pitalito resists in the territory" and "Civilian population: area protected by International Humanitarian Law". On the second and third day they finished work on a communal kitchen and community hall, and planted 1,500 yuca plants.
Pitalito, located in a fertile and mineral-rich area, was abandoned by its previous owner about 27 years ago. Since then, 20 families have made their homes here.
"Pitalito had good crops and pastures. People lived from livestock and agriculture," said community leader Pedro Ramirez. "We cultivated maize, cassava, pumpkin. We had many things people consume in town. Today, there is nothing."
Forced to leave
The relative prosperity enjoyed by those who lived in Pitalito ended in 2010 when they were forced to leave. Ramirez says a palm oil cultivator came with men dressed in military-style clothing and carrying guns, telling residents the land was his, and they must leave.
He intimidated the village's people to sell their property, demanding below-market prices of between three and 13 million pesos ($1,500-$6,800) for farmers' land.
"I farmed an area of 70 hectares and they forced me to accept 13 million ($6,800) for it. This land should easily cost 70 million pesos ($36,500) or more," said community member Luis Antonio Jaimes.
Some families signed agreements under pressure, but 14 families refused to do so and remained together in a communal living space. Weeks later, residents said the palm oil cultivator returned, accompanied by members of the army as well as some of his employees, and demolished the farmers' homes. These claims could not be independently verified.
Villagers say after the demolitions, the landowner installed some gun-toting employees at the area's school who intimidated the remaining community members, destroyed their crops, and forced them to leave.
But the landowner, Juan Manuel Fernandez de Castro, tells a different story. He says the community's families sold willingly, and claims signed agreements are proof of that. Regarding the transaction price, he contends an independent third party carried out an appraisal.
Fernandez also pointed to the existence of records provided by relevant authorities stating no displacement took place in Pitalito.
After their alleged displacement, residents lived in nearby Curumani and Valledupar in deep poverty. Local authorities and the landowner there accused them of having links to FARC guerrillas, a claim the community has continuously denied.
Victims and Land Restitution Law
In June 2011, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos enacted the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aims to return millions of hectares of land abandoned or stolen as a result of human rights violations. Pitalito was a pioneer case, and the community decided to return to their land after registering under the law.
But according to the Human Rights Watch 2013 World Report, the implementation of the Victims Law has advanced slowly. While the government estimated there were about 2,100 rulings in 2012, as of mid-November that year fewer than 15 cases had been resolved.
The report further mentions that "abuses against displaced land claimants and their leaders in recent years - including threats, forced displacements, and killings - have created a climate of fear for those seeking restitution in several areas of the country".
At least 45 leaders of the land restitution process were assassinated from 2002 to 2011, according to the 2011 annual report of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
Despite the successful return of villagers to Pitalito, the security situation there remains delicate and residents say they still face intimidation. The landlord's employees are taking photos of their meetings, residents said.
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Paramilitary groups allegedly supported by landowners have not been dismantled in the Cesar region, where Pitalito is located, and residents said the organisations still have influence over the local authorities.
"I know that in places such as Cordoba, Uraba, Magdalena and southern Cesar, the paramilitary gangs are rearming, or rather reactivating - as they never disarmed - and the argument they have is that they will not give the land to the guerrillas.
It's the same argument used by former President Uribe," said Molano, the expert on land conflicts.
Security forces say they are doing their best to guarantee the security of all parties involved. Colonel Romulo Fonseca, an army commander, said: "We went there and the people said that everything was fine, that there is no problem, that no one had come to bother them".
"It is an area that has historically been influenced by illegal armed groups, so the soldiers have to take some precautions. We are here to guarantee their safety, which is our constitutional duty," he said.
Only three days after the villagers returned, the police inspector and the personero, or municipal attorney, arrived - escorted by Colonel Fonseca and 11 soldiers - to officially inform them that the landowner had initiated legal proceedings against them.
According to the personero, Carlos Serrano, the community's return had not been carried out pursuant to any applicable law. "There are groups of farmers using the Victims Law to exploit the national government," he claimed. "Some of them already have houses provided by the government, but they want to get the most they can from the law."
But the Equipo Juridico Pueblos, an organisation that provides legal representation for the community, described the police action as a violation of the right of displaced people to return to their land. The group says it is the responsibility of the mayor of the city of Chimichagua to decide on legal proceedings launched against Pitalito. His decision is expected within the next few months.
Leonardo Jaimes, an attorney representing the community, said the Pitalito case will demonstrate the effectiveness of the Victims and Land Restitution Law in Colombia.
Although the peace talks are still in progress, the case of villages such as Pitalito underscores the urgent need for inclusive land reforms in Colombia, said Jaimes.