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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Colombia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Colombia, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 19 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The efforts to reclaim or remain on ancestral lands and protect basic rights continued to be a major focus of many indigenous peoples and African descendants in Colombia during 2011.

Along with what they see as systemic socio-economic and political exclusion they continued to feel the worst effects of the long-running internal armed conflict. Although arguably less pervasive than in previous years, the negative impact of the conflict on these populations continued, along with the state's unswerving policy of total eradication of insurgency groups. Reports by Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris indicated a 10 per cent increase in attacks compared to 2010, as both sides struggled to regain or retain strategic territory. Most of this occurred in rural zones with majority Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations. They continued to be targeted as suspected collaborators by both sides and to experience assassinations, bombings and high displacement levels during 2011 – especially in the northern Cauca department.

The Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation (Acción Social) reported that between 2010 and 2011 some 86,312 people were displaced nation-wide. However, based on independent monitoring, the Colombian NGO Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) puts that figure at 280,000.

According to a CODHES report released in 2011, from 1985 to 2010 some 5.2 million people (11.4 per cent of Colombia's population) have been internally displaced – the highest rate of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world.

The ongoing counter-insurgency programme was launched in 2007 during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. It was described as an initiative to bolster investor confidence and help realize 'democratic security policies'. Half of the total number of Colombia's IDPs fled their areas during President Uribe's eight years in office. Officially called the 'National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory', it was implemented in 86 of Colombia's 1,141 municipalities. According to CODHES, of the 86 municipalities involved in the programme, 44 had the highest rates of violent land seizure, massacres and people killed.

Moreover, CODHES reports that transnational mining industries are now active in 21 of those 86 municipalities, and large-scale mono-crop cultivation of oil palm, teak and rubber as well as cattle-rearing is occurring on 'consolidated territory' in 14 others. Much of this is fertile communally held land claimed by displaced indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, most of whom are small-scale or traditional subsistence farmers.

The Victims' Law

After nearly five decades of armed conflict and millions of IDPs, in June 2011 the Colombian Congress passed the landmark Law 1448, entitled the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Victims' Law). Government sources explained that Law 1448 seeks to restore to rightful owners some 17 million acres of land stolen over the past 25 years and also to assist and compensate the relatives of those killed. Observers cautioned that implementation could be an enormous challenge and, according to the BBC, officials estimate it could take up to a decade to realize and cost US$ 20 billion (£12.3 billion).

Although Law 1448 is seen as a step in the right direction, critics point to the failure to compensate all of those affected. Reparations are being directed at those who were victimized from 1 January 1985 onwards; however, there are concerns about coverage for victims of more recent crimes committed by the so-called 'neo-paramilitaries' or 'criminal gangs'. These are the successor groups that arose following the 2005 official demobilization of Colombia's main paramilitary umbrella organization – the Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). By many accounts, these outlaw bands of well-armed mercenaries continue to be the most active land disposessors.

During 2011, rural farmers, Afro-Colombian and indigenous community groups indicated that these paramilitary gangs, operating under names such as 'Black Eagles', 'Los Rastrojos' (Field Stubble) and 'Gaitainistas' (The Bagpipers) continued intimidating, displacing and assassinating victims with impunity. This includes targeting those who work to improve the living conditions or secure the rights of rural populations. In early 2011, a threatening leaflet signed by the self-styled 'urban commandos' of 'Los Rastrojos' was received by human rights defenders and UN agencies. Rights activists and advocates have learned not to take such threats lightly.

Apart from the general issues of Law 1448, perhaps the biggest initial surprise for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities was the non-inclusion of reparation allowances for their populations. This is despite their being among the main victims of the conflict and being repeatedly subjected to forced displacement, killings, rapes and abduction.

NGOs such as MRG partner CIMMARON (Movimiento Nacional por los Derechos Humanos de las Comunidades Afrocolombianos) estimate that nearly 30 per cent of all IDPs – approximately 1.5 million – are of African descent. In addition, although indigenous Colombians constitute only about 3 per cent of the estimated 45 million national population, Acción Social indicates that indigenous people make up a disproportionate 15 per cent of the IDP total.

To address Afro-Colombian and indigenous exclusion from the Victims' Law, the government introduced a separate provision granting special powers to President Juan Manuel Santos to enact an executive legal decree. It was to be shaped by a six-month process of free, prior and informed consultation with the respective communities. While a group of Afro-Colombian organizations established an informal consultative roundtable, the state opted to use its own Consultative Commission for Afro-Colombians and to run consultative commissions at the departmental (provincial) levels. Afro-Colombian organizations such as the Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia (PCN) and the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN) argued that the state's commissions were mandated purely by government edict and not properly free. They petitioned for direct local-level participation in the consultation process, but this did not occur. As CIMMARON explained, Colombia's African descendant population numbers over 15 million, so their communities are by no means monolithic.

Enter Law 4635

Nonetheless in early December 2011, President Santos decreed Law 4635, thus creating a mechanism for government compensation and assistance to displaced Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples. Members of the PCN and the ACSN – among others – once again charged that Colombia's black, Raizal and Palenque communities had been denied their constitutional right to prior consultation and informed consent. They especially pointed to the lack of any preparatory meetings with the state to discuss draft texts and establish the overall consultation methodology.

In contrast to the Afro-Colombian experience, according to the University of the Andes, indigenous communities were able to establish a national-level roundtable (Mesa Permanente de Concertación Indígena) which first met with the government to agree on the basic methodology to be used during the consultation process. The indigenous roundtable prepared its own draft decree with special provisions and negotiated with the government over reconciling their draft with the government's version. They also agreed on the modalities of the prior consultation.

Issues of return

Nonetheless, with land rights being central to the Colombian conflict and military offensives again on the rise, advocacy groups argue that ensuring the safe return of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people to their ancestral lands ultimately will determine the usefulness of the new legislation. NGOs including Human Rights Watch have highlighted the difficulty of protecting those attempting return while violence and dispossession are still occurring and strong links remain between various political actors and the paramilitary groups responsible for clearing the lands of people in the first place.

Colombian rights defenders caution that attempts to return dispossessed lands could initiate a new wave of violence and expulsions. Many of the armed groups have become quite wealthy by selling vacated lands to large agro-industry and mining transnationals.

During 2011, several local leaders who campaigned for community land return were killed. According to Reiniciar – an NGO that represents a group of victims in a case before the IACtHR – over 19 human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia during 2011, bringing this total to 104 over the past four years.

In June 2011, Ana Fabricia Cordoba, a noted female Afro-Colombian leader of displaced communities and a member of the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres (Women's Peace Route), was assassinated on a Medellín city bus by a gunman. Local human rights organizations indicated that she had accused the Medellín police of supporting the local far-right paramilitary structure and had reported multiple death threats but obtained no protection. Her husband and son had previously been killed.

Observers also note that even if people return they are unlikely to find any of their former structures, infrastructure or even the landscapes they once knew. The PCN cites the case of African descendant communities (Jiguamiando and Curvarado) in the Choco department, where in February 1997 4,000 people were forced to leave their homes by the army and right-wing paramilitaries. Undaunted, the communities decided to fight for their territorial rights.

In late 1999, when the communities returned as part of a process of restoring rural property, they found that their 35,000 hectares of communally held lands had been acquired by bio-fuel investors and overrun with large palm oil plantations and other monoculture crops. The area had been clear-cut and the soil degraded. In March 2011 after nearly 14 years of death threats, leadership assassinations and community intimidation by both state agents and armed illegal groups, the government finally officially titled 25,000 hectares to these victims. However, the state offered no assistance for land clearance of the large palm trees or the re-establishment of the victims under safe physical conditions. PCN claims that persecution by 'neo-paramilitaries' has continued, despite complaints to local and national authorities, and at the end of 2011 the communities were still unable to enjoy a peaceable return.

Ancestral mining

According to Afro-Colombian activists, the difficulties with inclusion in Law 1448, plus the lack of social investment in their communities, as well as ongoing land dispossessions are all occurring in a developmental environment that privileges large-scale export-oriented resource extraction and agro-industries. This is at the expense of traditional economies of self-sufficient small-scale farming and artisan mining which are still practised by rural Afro-Colombian communities – and in which women play a key role.

The Colombian government's policy of 'modern efficiency' is not only encouraging expropriation of community lands for industrial mining. It is also specially targeting small-scale low-impact community artisan miners with proposed new legislation to make such practices illegal.

The Colombian Network Against Large-scale Transnational Mining estimates that nearly 40 per cent of Colombian territory is now given as concessions for industrial mining projects by large UK, Canadian and US-based transnationals.

In 2011, the Afro-Colombian La Toma gold mining community of northern Cauca – which was established in 1637 – continued to resist land loss and the inroads of giant transnational industrial gold mining companies such as AngloGold Ashanti, whose mining practices, they argue, can cause significant environmental damage.

According to the PCN, as a result of their fight to protect their land rights, for the past three years the Community Council leaders of La Toma have been facing death threats from local paramilitary gangs. Nevertheless, in mid-2011, on the grounds that the Afro-Colombian communities were not informed or consulted about the impact of the government's plan of action on their territories, Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled against the policy of trying to outlaw artisan mining in favour of intensive industrial extraction. Local community leaders remained doubtful, as such big economic interests are at stake.

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