“When Argos arrived with the teak, they took our water and roads, which used to be for the community. There are some jagüeyes (water deposits) that we collectively built to collect water and have it during the long stretches of drought, but they privatized them when they bought the land. (…) Today, we’ve become day laborers and the economic model of this region has changed; it used to be agriculture,” Márquez said.

The problem, according to him, began when Argos arrived in the Caribbean region of Colombia. The community claims that the company had not actually investigated the origins of the land that, according to the company, it bought in good faith.

Montes de María has been one of Colombia’s hardest-hit regions in terms of armed conflict. It was a disputed territory between the extinct FARC guerrilla group and the paramilitaries. This subregion of the Colombian Caribbean region was the scene of bloody massacres, such as one that occurred in February 2000 in the El Salado village in the municipality of Carmen de Bolívar. In that massacre, the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) murdered more than 60 people.

Jairo Barreto, a member of the Displaced Population Organization (OPD) of Montes de María, says that the armed conflict and the pressure of economic groups caused many lands in the region to be bought from the farmers at very low prices.

“A parcel of two hectares that normally would be worth $2,100 was bought for $175 per hectare, or even less,” Barreto said.

According to Márquez, many farmers quickly left the territory for fear of intimidation, like what occurred to him in 2011. He had to flee the Borrachera road in Carmén de Bolívar because of the threats he received after he persuaded other farmers in the area not to sell their parcels of land.

It was in a similar context that Argos bought pieces of land in Carmen de Bolívar, San Jacinto, and Ovejas. Sergio Osorio, the administrative vice president of Argos, argues that when they arrived to those municipalities in 2010, the armed conflict “had ended.”

That’s an incident that —according to Osorio— came into being in 2007 after the death of then-leader of the FARC, Martín Caballero.

“When we began to look for the land for the project, we didn’t buy it from small farmers, but rather, we found investors who had very big pieces of land. (…) And the price that we paid was, on average, $1,050 per hectare. Later, we realized that these large landowners had bought [the land] years earlier from small farmers for very low prices, even $35 per hectare,” Osorio said.

Rural inequality

Beginning in 2012, when the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448 of 2011) went into effect, some citizens turned to the Superior Tribunal of Cúcuta to ask for their land to be returned. Up to this point, the judicial authorities have issued sentences that affirm that, although Argos did buy the land in good faith, the company is not exempt from fault, and that it should have taken into account the violence that has been prevalent in the municipalities.

According to the Tribunal’s first verdict, in February 2016, if Argos had investigated the origin of the land, it would have realized that the government of the Colombian department of Bolívar had received complaints of a massive land purchase in the southern portion of Carmen de Bolívar. The verdict also says: “On the contrary, [due to] the negotiating behavior of the acquiring company, it set out to expand its business in areas that were devastated by violence, at the expense of the displacement and abandonment suffered by the [original] owners of the acquired estates.”

Up to this point, of the 11 sentences in which farmers have requested restitution, 10 have ended up in their favor. “Of the 6,600 hectares that we have in [the municipalities of] Carmen de Bolívar, Ovejas, and San Jacinto, 1,800 have been claimed. About 400 hectares have been handed over, [and] the rest are in the process,” explained Osorio.

The case of the cement company Argos is just one example of the land ownership problems in Colombia, and of how the conflict has influenced the accumulation of lands.

“When an armed person intervenes, then displacement occurs, and later, other people come and buy land,” says Irina Junieles, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Rights, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia). “Why? People don’t want to return due to security reasons, and as a consequence, the process is facilitated. This is a method that has been used to hoard lands in the country.”

Junieles explained that land hoarding as, “The accumulation of lands through different legal methods, some of which are used to designate the land for large industrial activities. It is, in some cases, associated with extractive industries, and I am not only referring to those having to do with mining, but also with agricultural vocations.”

What Junieles told Mongabay is corroborated by data revealed by Oxfam after analyzing the most recent National Agricultural and Livestock Census, which is from the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).

That census calculated that 81 percent of the land in Colombia is contained by the largest one percent of farms in the country. This makes Colombia the country with the worst land distribution in Latin America. The report also showed that, of the 111.5 million hectares (about 275.5 million acres) surveyed in the census, 34.4 million hectares (about 85 million acres) are dedicated to livestock, only 8.6 million hectares (about 21 million acres) to agriculture, and 63.2 million hectares (about 156 million acres) are forested areas.

Concern over this data has risen, especially because the amount of land used for livestock has increased considerably. It is as if all of Germany, or an area two times the size of Uruguay, were covered in cattle.

“The new data confirm a worrisome and growing trend for the concentration of large areas of land, which have been increasingly monopolized at the expense of the displacement of small and medium-sized farms,” says the study. In 1970, Colombia’s largest farms occupied five million hectares (about 12.4 million acres). In 2014, they surpassed 47 million hectares (116 million acres).

Extensive ranching is, without a doubt, one of the culprits behind the deforestation problem in the country — but it’s far from the only one. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it’s also the industry that emits the most greenhouse gases and is one of the main causes of soil and water degradation.

Irina Junieles believes that the armed people and the business relationships they have made with powerful economic entities have played a transcendental role in the land hoarding problem.

“Sometimes what happens is that a person doesn’t sell their piece of land, but rents it out for 40 years,” Junieles said. “There are no illegalities because you can rent out your land, but in practice, what it implies is that there’s an economic entity that does the development that [the owner] wants to implement, be it extensive ranching or single-crop farming.”

Junieles’ last point has become a headache for those involved.

Of the more than 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres) of agricultural land in the country, according to Oxfam, more than 35 percent are dedicated to the production of crops such as coffee, African palm, and sugarcane.

Engineering instructors from the University of Valle have revealed that these crops are notorious for affecting the ecosystems because they do not allow the soil to recover the nutrients. Additionally, they have emphasized that there are not only environmental risks, but also socioeconomic, “because it has become an excuse for the expropriation of small farmers, with the end goal of obtaining usable land.”

“Sell the land, or I’ll buy it from your widow”

In Colombia, thousands of farmers have left their lands to protect their own lives or simply to escape from an environment filled with terror and death. There are also many farmers who have been stripped of their lands arbitrarily, through legal schemes.

“The registrars and notaries of Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto had all the information of the people who possessed parcels of land without legalizing them. They told this to the companies, and they did the procedures to get the land. (…) Intimidation was one of the most frequent strategies. They sent an armed group and threatened the farmers, saying ‘sell the land, or I’ll buy it from your widow.’ And this is what happened with a lot of the land, and it has accumulated,” says Jairo Barreto about the situation in Montes de María.

What Barreto said is no secret. Rocío Peña, coordinator of the Land Observatory, a research program between various Colombian universities, confirms that in order to legally strip people of their lands, it requires the involvement of notaries, judges, and registrars. “That is something that’s confirmed. [Colombia] has not been interested in the distribution of land; its plans are not directed at food sovereignty, nor at the recovery of the farmers,” Peña said.

The Superintendence of Notary and Registry claims that more than 65 forms of legal dispossession in Colombia have been identified, including forced sales, sales at low prices (taking advantage of people in a vulnerable situation), impersonation, falsification of public documents, sales without the authorization of the Integral Attention Committees for Displaced People, and the unjust titling of land parcels.

“The dispossession took place on 18 million hectares (over 44 million acres),” said the Superintendent of Notary, Jairo Alonso Mesa, to Mongabay.

According to various judicial rulings, the unjust titling of land parcels is what was overlooked by Argos. The company is not alone: according to an analysis by Oxfam, 42.7 percent of the largest landowners in the country say that they don’t know the legal origin of their lands. Because of that, along with similar problems in Ovejas, Carmen de Bolívar, and San Jacinto, the company made the decision to donate the land to the Grow in Peace Foundation, which they created, to administer the land.

“It’s a foundation that Argos Group created, but it is not Argos itself. It’s civil society. All the benefits are for the small farmers in the region. The idea is to incentivize development, and because of that, we are also donating [about $954,000],” said Osorio, the director of Argos, who is also on the board of directors of the Grow in Peace Foundation.

Despite this, Carmelo Márquez claims that the creation of the Grow in Peace Foundation does not change anything.

“It’s the same model; they are the same board of directors and they’re going to have the small farmers as a commodity on the land. They’re not going to give deeds, and if someone doesn’t obey the directives that they place, such as planting teak or cocoa, then they’ll be made to leave. That is not viable. We keep going without access to our own land. There are people who will give consent out of necessity, but the majority of us don’t agree to,” he says.

Márquez, just like Barreto, questions the development that Argos brought to the region.

“We don’t have an aqueduct for our municipality. And the water from Ovejas is sent to Carmen de Bolívar. Sometimes, we have to break the pipe to be able to have water. If we don’t do that, we can’t live,” he added.

The Solidarity Development Corporation (CDS) has been alerted to the problem. Since 1992, the CDS has been supporting and advising communities, organizations, and rural networks in Montes de María. In 2015 —when the region experienced a severe drought— the CDS said that 17 farming communities were at risk of displacement because of the lack of water. To make matters worse, the area did not have access to enough roads.

A country that does not know its own lands

The fight over land in Colombia is, and will continue to be, imminent. Although the armed conflict was undoubtedly a perfect ally that allowed some powerful people to take over more territory, the Colombian government and the gaps in some laws also contributed to the problem.

Alejandro Reyes, a researcher who was one of the advisers on the land issue for the peace agreement with the FARC, says that civil judges have historically been the people who have awarded the nation’s land to people in an “abusive” or “illegal” way.

“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 reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 31, 2018. It is part one in a three-part series by Mongabay Latam on post-conflict land issues in Colombia. 

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