By Austin Robles WFP Colombia Team
Colombians often refer to their country as one of laws but without law enforcement. For communities engaged in the legal process of land restitution in the areas most plagued by the armed conflict, waiting for the law to be enforced takes years. One community, tired of waiting, decided to nonviolently reclaim part of their territory without aid from the Colombian government.
Residents of the Humanitarian Zone of Caño Manso, located along the Curvaradó river basin in Colombia’s northern Chocó province, have been forcibly displaced several times over the past decade, but are finally making strides in regaining access to their ancestral collective territory. Three court rulings recognized their right to land that is illegally occupied by large-scale cattle ranchers and agricultural workers. A June report issued by the Colombian Institute of Rural Development (INCODER) demarcated the territory to which they are entitled (nearly 3,000 acres) and listed the names of each illegal occupier who must vacate the land.
Despite recognizing Caño Manso residents as the rightful owners of the land, these legal entities asked the illegal occupiers to self-vacate and provided no enforcement mechanism or date for their removal. The illegal occupiers refuse to comply with the law and proclaim they will leave when forced to do so. Instead of waiting years hoping for the government to mete out justice, community members decided to reclaim their territory on their own in a simple manner: by extending the fence surrounding their Humanitarian Zone to encompass the occupied land and asking the illegal occupiers to leave. In discussions leading up to their actions, community members repeatedly stated their commitment to acting peacefully and reiterated that if the illegal occupiers acted toward them with violence, they would respond with nonviolence.
Reclaiming the Land
Between July 13th and 16th, 11 Witness for Peace delegates, along with members of partner organizations Peace Brigades International and the Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace, accompanied Caño Manso’s residents as they nonviolently reclaimed their collective territory.
The Humanitarian Zone encompassed a five-acre plot, and community members decided to increase it to eight by extending the perimeter. One group of residents expanded the barbed-wire fence marking their territory, closing it off to the illegal occupiers. Another group approached to home of the illegal occupiers and requested they leave. Those in the house first declared that they would leave, but later refused to go. Soon after, Colonel Javier Alberto Vallejos Delgado, commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade (responsible for security in the region), spread false reports on the radio. He claimed that Caño Manso, assisted by internationals, was kidnapping people in Curvaradó.
The situation escalated as the administrator of the lands, a few workers, and several unknown people entered the home. Both the Army and the Police, which had promised not to let anyone enter the Humanitarian Zone, let them in. The Army and the Police then promised that it would frisk anyone entering or leaving the Zone, but broke that promise as well, showing no regard for the security of the civilian community members. Another radio transmission hit the airwaves as a local representative (whose legitimacy is under question) told listeners that internationals were facilitating a land grab in Caño Manso.
As the security situation got more intense, we got word that representatives from the Office of the Attorney General planned to come and mediate the dispute. The next morning they arrived in a helicopter and held meetings with community members and the illegal occupiers. They also recognized the community members’ right to the land, pointing to the previous court ruling and the INCODER report, but stopped short of ordering the occupiers to leave. Their presence raised the profile of the community members’ struggle and de-escalated the security risks, but still did not resolve the issue of the occupiers.
On the morning of the 16th, before Witness for Peace was due to leave, community members decided to remove the illegal occupiers’ cattle from their collective territory. The animals, which include hundreds of cows and water buffalo, have trampled and destroyed the community’s food crops, and their massive weight ruins the quality of the arable land. Around 6:00am, we woke up and accompanied community members as they chased the animals off their land.
Setting Regional Precedent
Though the Witness for Peace delegates left, Peace Brigades International and the Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace are maintaining a permanent presence in Caño Manso to ensure community members do not face repercussions for their actions in the paramilitary-controlled region.
After our departure, we learned that officials from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Agriculture met with community members and the illegal occupiers and came to several understandings: 1) the community acted within its rights in reclaiming its territory, but agreed not expand further without permission from the government; 2) the Army would maintain a permanent presence around the Zone’s perimeter to guarantee security; 3) the government agreed to name an inspector to handle similar displacement and restitution cases along the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó River basins.
Caño Manso’s recovery of its ancestral land sets a regional and legal precedent, and its importance can not be stressed enough. Still, several problems persist. The illegal occupiers have not been evicted and reiterated that they would not leave until forced to do so. Community members’ security remains at risk from illegal armed actors. One member of the military, when approached by a community resident about security concerns, stated that the illegal occupiers “won’t kill anyone here; they’ll kill you somewhere else.” Until their security and right to land are guaranteed by the government, residents of Caño Manso Humanitarian Zone remain at risk.