11/20/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

As Colombian Peace Negotiations Kick Off, Many Colombians Already Agree that Land Restitution Must Take Place

Much anticipated peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the country´s largest and oldest guerilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), opened this week in Havana, Cuba.

The fourth time that the FARC has entered into negotiations with the Colombian government, current talks are a chance to settle grievances that have ripped the country apart for nearly 60 years. When it comes to land, however, disparate actors in Colombia already agree: land restitution is needed if peace is to take hold.

Disparate Actors Agree

In 2011 the Colombian Congress, at the urging of President Juan Manuel Santos, passed Law 1448, the Victims´ and Land Restitution Law (Victims' Law).This ground-breaking law seeks to return an unprecedented amount of land to some of the nearly 6 million Colombians displaced by conflict. While the law is by no means a cure-all to Colombia´s human rights and humanitarian crisis, it is an opportunity to begin addressing the country´s internal displacement crisis, provide basic reparations to Colombians victimized in the war, and stimulate agriculture and rural economies.

When the FARC agreed to the agenda items for the talks, land was at the top of the list. And while there is nothing close to agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government on the specifics, there is agreement between the two sides that land restitution must take place. This is also a position supported by the United States, which has put its diplomatic weight behind the Victims' Law, as well as supporting it with an additional $50 million in funding.

Obstacles to Restitution

With the Victims' Law in place, there is no need to wait for a peace agreement to get the restitution process moving. Yet it is difficult to implement during a conflict that grinds on.

In June, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) carried out research into the implementation of the Victims' Law on Colombia´s Caribbean Coast. The region has been hard hit by conflict with over 2 million hectares of land abandoned by farmers who have fled violence in the area, over 38 percent of the total land abandoned by displaced rural families in Colombia. The research trip revealed that despite the shining promises of the law, land restitution has barely begun on the Caribbean coast--or elsewhere in Colombia. While institutions to carry out the law are being set up, only a handful of cases have as yet been decided.

On the Caribbean coast, LWR and LAWGEF found that local governments are receiving little orientation from the national government regarding how to implement the Victims' Law and are as yet receiving few additional resources for implementation. There is a concerning lack of legal assistance to victims to help them defend their rights and ultimately benefit from land restitution. The most serious obstacle to restitution, however, is that victims are not being provided with the protection necessary to reclaim lands. More than 25 land rights leaders have been killed since the Santos Administration took office in August 2010 and many continue to receive death threats and suffer attacks.

Making the Law Work

To help victims of violence return to their homes, LWR and LAWGEF urge in our joint report, Still a Dream, Land Restitution on Colombia´s Caribbean Coast, that the Colombian government:

• Provide substantial orientations to municipal governments regarding the implementation of the Victims' Law, including how to ensure broad participation of victims' organizations.

• Provide adequate resources to municipal governments and victims' attention centers to apply the Victims' Law, above and beyond the resources already available to attend to internally displaced persons.

• Ramp up provision of legal advice to victims for land restitution and reparations via the Ombudsman's Office and independent human rights groups.

• Monitor land restitution units, judges, notaries and Transitional Justice Committees to ensure that they are not being coopted by those who benefitted from stolen land, and sanction corrupt officials.

• And most importantly, provide protection to returning communities and communities at risk of displacement, protection that is designed in consultation with affected communities.

Putting the Land to Work

Putting the land back to work by small-scale farmers will also help to stimulate the rural economy, in a healthy, balanced way. According to LWR´s Country Director for Colombia, Zoraida Castillo, "Rural Colombians want their land back because they want to get to work, producing for their families and for regional economies that have been weakened by the conflict." Castillo adds, "The potential for economic growth, increased food security and of course peace, depends first on land restitution."

Creating Conditions for Safe Returns at the Peace Table

Creating the conditions under which people can begin to safely return home requires some changes that can be advanced at the peace table. To allow hundreds of thousands of people to safely return home, the peace accords would need to include a serious plan to dismantle the paramilitary successor groups that are still driving displacement and preventing people from returning. The accords should not bargain away accountability for Colombian Army soldiers involved in murder, rape, and torture--even though Colombia's Congress seems about to do just that, over the objections of Colombian civil society organizations and the United Nations, by returning cases involving these crimes to military courts. And the accords would need to mete out a sizeable degree of accountability for brutal FARC tactics, including kidnapping, murder and extortion, that forced so many off their lands.

For Colombians brutally displaced during the war, there needs to be some justice and accountability for the violence that drove them from their homes. Without a degree of justice, there simply won't be the safety they need to return. Let's hope that the peace talks bring that justice, and allow the dream of land restitution to become a reality.

This blog was co-authored by Annalise Udall Romoser, Latin America field communications officer for Lutheran World Relief and Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund.