Monday, June 16, 2008

The story of the land won

The new Colombian constitution in 1991 gave black and indigenous communities a cool new load of rights. They can now claim collective land rights for land their communities had historically inhabited. Plus they have the right to be consulted before any state or private projects which affect them.

Even if they are not on their land, merely nearby, palm monocultures affect the local population due to the environmental degradation they cause. Deforestation means a loss of fauna, and water sources are polluted or dry out from overuse. In this case, the two oil palm companies were indeed setting up on land which afro-colombians were forcibly displaced from.

Therefore they had a strong enough case. Not that that made it particularly easy to win. It took a good few years, and a lot of help from a particularly wonderful civil servant, but eventually they got a resolution giving them the legal rights to all 2900 ha of it.

That was the story I had heard so far. And where were they now? Well, disappointingly, not much further. The legal resolution giving them the land neither spells out the land's boundaries, nor a timeframe for the palm companies to vacate it. They are still there. The oil palm (the proportion not yet killed by bud rot – perhaps half) is at it's most productive stage. They are in no hurry to go.

When the afro-colombian community had lived there, they had no legal title to the land. The state considered it theirs, and were happy enough to let the palm companies in. Now the state has legally handed it back to the afro-colombians, it is taking no responsibility for getting the palm companies to leave. Given that it generally takes power and money to get things moving here, it's not currently clear what the community can do. Granted, evicting squatters is generally a civil matter. It's just that normally the state haven't helped them break in.

Squatting is one of the biggest problems these communities on collective land titles are facing. It may be difficult to evict palm companies with government officials in their pockets and links to paramilitaries. It is equally difficult to ask the coca growing drug-traffickers to leave nicely.

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