19 July 2013 | By Catalina Ballesteros Rodriguez
Peace talks are taking place between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, but the reported killing by security forces of four unarmed peasants demanding their land rights in the north-east of the country, is a stark reminder that land is the main driver of conflict in the country.
ZRC - Peasant Reservation Zones
A meeting of campesinos, or peasants, in Tibu, Catatumbo region, Colombia.
Last month 14,000 peasants in Catatumbo region, in the department of Norte de Santander, took to the streets to demand the declaration of a Peasant Farmer Reservation Zone (ZRCs) and the implementation of a rural development plan for an economically viable alternative to the production of coca.
Their desire to have the area declared a ZRC, which would give them enhanced rights to the land, dates back years, but has been consistently rebuffed, with the Government, they say, authorising mining concessions instead.
The protests were organised by ASCAMCAT, the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo, supported by Christian Aid partner the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective (CCALCP) – an organisation which provides support and legal advice to victims of forced displacement, and helps peasants and indigenous communities defend their land rights.
Violent protests in Catatumbo
According to CCALCP and Amnesty International, security forces opened fire on two separate protests, on June 22nd and 25th, leaving a total of four dead and 50 wounded. At least 10 members of the security forces were also injured.
With tensions rising in the Catatumbo area before the demonstrations took place, Colombian civil society organisations set up ‘verification missions’ to monitor developments.
CCALCP representatives who were present when the violence began say they contacted the verification mission when the shooting started, who in turn called the authorities and various human rights groups, including Christian Aid, to intervene.
Mission members, however, also came under attack from the security forces, who farmers later reported went on to harass and intimidate those seeking refuge and medical help at a local hospital.
Land conflicts across Colombia
The events in Catatumbo are all too typical of Colombia’s wider conflict over land, which has left the country with the world’s highest number of internally displaced people, and a rising death toll.
Concentration of land ownership has increased over recent years, fuelled by the forced displacement of rural communities which has affected an estimated 10 per cent of the population.
More than 16,000 people have ‘disappeared’ in recent years in land disputes and there have been an estimated 1,600 extrajudicial ‘executions’. Many of the disputes centre on claims to land that communities were forced to abandon, which subsequently fell into the hands of business interests.
Impact on food security
Unequal landownership deprives rural farmers of a livelihood and so perpetuates income inequality. Additionally, by reducing the land available for small-scale farmers to produce food for subsistence, unequal landownership contributes to food insecurity, with resulting health problems including malnutrition, anaemia, calcium deficiencies, and hunger.
In theory, the government has adopted measures to return land to internally displaced people. However, in practice, those resisting such land claims have been able to act with impunity and no land has yet been returned under the new land restitution law.
Many individuals and organisations, including Christian Aid, our Colombian partners and the British Ambassador to Colombia, are calling for dialogue between the peasants’ association and the government to resolve the economic and social challenges and to investigate the deaths and injuries in Catatumbo.
Today the protest continues with some 6,000 peasant farmers now blockading the main road to Cucuta, the capital city of Norte de Santander. The events in Catatumbo have prompted support from other indigenous and peasant movements elsewhere in the country, who are threatening further blockades.
The government has been quick to claim that the protests are being fuelled by FARC. This is an argument that has been used before, however, and cuts little ice with those demonstrating who say they are simply trying to preserve a future for their families.
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This blog also appeared in the Guardian global development blog.