Amnesty presses Colombia on indigenous rights

The Colombian government must prioritize the right of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to decide how their land is developed above companies' desire to exploit those territories for profit, said Amnesty International in a new report issued Nov. 5, entitled "Restoring the Land, Securing Peace: Indigenous and Afro-descendant Terrirotial Rights." Control of Colombia's resource-rich land is one of the most critical issues in the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC guerillas, according to the report. Said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty: "The ownership and occupation of land has been at the heart of Colombia's brutal war, with around six million forced off their homes since 1985 because of the violence. Any peace deal will be meaningless unless the rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to return to their lands and decide how they are used are prioritized above companies' desire to exploit those lands for their own profit."

Some 6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of Colombia's armed conflict. At least 8 million hectares of land—some 14% of the country's territory—have been abandoned or illegally acquired. Most of those affected are indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities whose existence depends on living off their land. Over the years, Colombian authorities have granted licenses to mining and other companies seeking to exploit these usurped lands and their vast natural resources.

In 2012, the government began a land restitution and reparation program for some victims of the armed conflict. The process marked a significant step forward in efforts to address the issue of victims’ rights, but it has moved far too slowly and has been poorly implemented, Amnesty found. Relatively few of those claiming their lands back have been able to return or gain legal ownership over them, while the authorities have failed to ensure effective support for those who have been able to return.

In addition, legislation introduced by the government could actually make it more difficult for those forced off their land to gain legal ownership and effective control. For example, Law 1753, approved by Congress in June 2015, could make it easier for companies to set up operations on usurped lands

Since 2008, the Colombian authorities have registered mining applications and granted mining titles to multinational companies on more than 60% of the territory of the Alto Andágueda indigenous community, in the northwestern department of Chocó, placing the very existence of the community at risk. However, in September 2014, Alto Andágueda became the subject of the first judicial sentence for the restitution of indigenous territory. (A district judge in Antioquia department found in favor of Embera Katio indigenous community, and against Continental Gold Ltd, which sought to exploit the lands in question; see PDF)

The ruling gave hope to the thousands of people who had been forced to flee violence by the security forces, paramilitaries and guerilla groups fighting for control of the resource-rich area. But Amnesty found that authorities have failed to implement many of the measures ordered by the restitution judges to ensure the community can sustain itself on its territory.

"For indigenous people, Afro-descendants and peasant farmers, access to land is not a whim, but is an intrinsic part of their identity and existence as communities," said Guevara Rosas. "By failing to effectively support the sustainable return of these communities, the Colombian authorities are simply sentencing thousands to poverty and continued human rights violations and abuses." (AI, Nov. 4)

Law 1753, part of the the National Development Plan 2014-2018 plugged under the slogan "Todos por un nuevo país" ("All for a new country"), gives "extraordinary powers" to the president to carry out "institutional adjustment" in land management and rural development. (Portafolio, Colombia, Oct. 25)