How land is stolen in Colombia

“The prescription, which is to acquire a piece of land from an ownership judgement, can only be done for private lands that have been abandoned by their owners. Because Colombian land has increasingly become unjustly-owned land, property rights have come about in an irregular way. This has produced an illegal land market that we call ‘the purchase of upgrades,’ and it has produced an informal and illegal land titling system because of those ownership judgements in civil courts,” explains Reyes.

Reyes added that it has been the custom of the commercial landowners to buy the informal occupying rights from the small farmers at very low prices. With the bundle of cash they receive, they conquer even more within the land. That is how they expand the border and diminish the nation’s land.

How are these lands legalized?

It is clear that the majority of the small farmers don’t have their land formalized, but even so, they sell it informally with a “letter-sale.” That document doesn’t have any legal value, but it is helpful to the commercial buyer for when that person wants to legalize the land. Reyes explained how the process works:

  1. With the “letter-sale” process, the commercial buyer goes before a judge and asks for an ownership judgement. A couple of witnesses are needed for this process, and if the buyer can demonstrate that they have had possession of the land for more than five years, that person becomes the owner.
  2. If that process is completed, the court’s ruling is taken to a notary to create a deed.
  3. Finally, the deed is delivered to a registry office and the land is legalized as property.

“This is how the once-barren lands stop being barren lands, and the nation keeps losing them,” says Reyes. He added that one of the problems with the land in Colombia is that 60% of the farmers do not have titles.

Mongabay found a document from the Superintendence of Notary and Registry that specifies the number of hectares, per Colombian department, that had been acquired through these ownership judgments. It said that there were more than 672,000 hectares (over 1.6 million acres) that were already “legalized” thanks to judges, but are still listed as barren lands according to the nation.

The Superintendent of Notary, Jairo Alonso Mesa, says that one of the most serious problems in Law 160 of 1994, the agrarian reform law, is that although it occasionally mentions the accumulation of empty lands being used illegally, it does not provide a quick and clear procedure to confront the problem.

“The only option the judges give us is nullity. And when someone goes to request this procedure, the first thing that is said to the National Land Agency (ANT) is that the piece of land passed —for example— through five hands, so there isn’t much to demand. And if the small farmer who sold the land is not demanding it, they will worry even less. The ANT has filed some lawsuits, but none have taken hold,” said Mesa.

The Congress of Colombia will face the task of processing the bill that will modify Law 160 of 1994. For many people, this would legalize lands that were accumulated in previous years, especially those who own more than one Family Agricultural Unit (UAF), which is the land measurement used by the government.

The government believes that farmers can live with dignity on parcels of land of a certain size, and the size varies by region. For example, in the Cundinamarca department, a UAF may only be 10 hectares (24 acres), but in the Altillanura department, it could surpass 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres).

“One would hope that the illegality of these possessions would be declared and that [Colombia] would recover those pieces of land from large economic powers that have accumulated land. And it’s also hoped that, in relation to small farmers who have not occupied more than one UAF, that they could be given titles in the compromise that the state assumed in the peace agreement,” says Junieles, of Dejusticia. She points out that perhaps the most ambitious goal of the peace agreement signed with the FARC is to award three million hectares (7.4 million acres) to small farmers and to legalize seven million more (17 million acres).

The task will not be easy.

Superintendent Mesa recognizes that recovering an illegally-owned piece of land is hard work that requires, among other things, lots of political goodwill. Mongabay learned that the Superintendence of Notary and Registry has a record of empty lands being used illegally in seven Colombian departments: Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Meta, Caquetá, Casanare, Cesar, and Vichada. The illegally-used land makes up a total of 762,807 hectares (almost 1,885,000 acres).

“It’s necessary to emphasize that, according to Law 160, no one can have more than one UAF coming from these barren lands, because that is considered accumulation. And it is illegal,” says Mesa.

Mesa says that, because the country doesn’t have a social code about property, and because it is not known with certainty what each region is designed for, and the UAF has not been standardized across regions, the accumulation problem will not be resolved. Researcher Reyes believes that it’s essential for Colombia to have a multi-purpose land registry, which would be an information system with the current data about the land.

The fight for land is causing complex situations for society and for the environment. An example is the Amazonian region, where the agricultural border has been expanding more and more, while the land occupied by forests is quickly diminishing. The Colombian government did not travel to this region after the signing of the peace agreement, and colonizers are arriving there to take advantage of the land. This region is being invaded by groups of people who live outside the law, who have found that it’s the perfect place to set up illicit markets.

“In the Amazon, they are ruining unoccupied lands, and they later look to formalize the [use of the] land. This now has to stop. The protection zones should begin to be marked out very well, so that those people who knock down mountains with the goal of legalizing it cannot do so. Official registration should be opened for these lands, like it is done in the national parks. The problem is that this requires a lot of authority,” says Mesa.

For now, Carmelo Márquez knows that he will not flee again. He is leading a demand for a collective reparation to six communities in Ovejas and Carmen de Bolívar (Villacolombia, Medellín, El Palmar, Coquera, San Francisco, and Borrachera). He dreams that all the small farmers in Montes de María can live with dignity, and that they will be empowered and not have to flee anymore. He wants to remain dedicated to agriculture, planting yucca, yams, and corn — on his own land that truly belongs to him.

Banner image: Photo courtesy Cormacarena.

This story was adapted from Spanish, and is part one in a three-part series by Mongabay Latam on post-conflict land issues in Colombia. 

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

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