After four decades of conflict from rebels, drugs gangs and militias, Colombia has one of the world’s highest rates of displaced people. At least 3 million Colombians have been forced to leave their homes in the countryside; some estimates put the figure higher, at over 4 million, equating to around ten per cent of the population.
The current conservative government has been credited by many Colombians for cutting paramilitary violence and crime through its crackdown over recent years. The country’s two main rebel organisations have certainly been weakened and the government has persuaded over 30,000 right-wing paramilitaries to disarm. Last week, a top military chief of the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was killed by government troops in an air strike on his jungle camp. There are still around 7,000 armed fighters in the central and eastern mountains and the government hopes this latest success will add to the pressure on remaining rebels to desert. But even when units are disbanded, many groups turn to alternative forms of violence, such as cocaine smuggling.
When he took office on August 7th, the new president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos vowed to carry on the fight against the military groups and criminal gangs. To that end, the government has unveiled plans for a land reform bill, which aims to return stolen land to millions of people displaced by the armed groups. The proposed bill puts the onus of proof of ownership on those inhabiting the disputed land, rather than on those wishing to return.
Jorge Rojas, head of the country’s leading rights group, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) approves of the bill, but says the magnitude of the task ahead should not be underestimated. He estimates 5.5 million hectares of land may be at issue. Returning these hectares to displaced families will be a huge task, especially when most of the land is still controlled by armed gangs. CODHES is unsure there will be the necessary resources to retake this land. And those who tried in the past faced grave danger. Since 2002, 40 community leaders have been murdered for trying to help villagers reclaim lost land.
Despite all the concerns and doubts, the government seems determined to step up its efforts and boost the legal economy by freeing up more land for agriculture. As part of the land reform legislation, it is promising poor farmers will receive financial credits and technical help to boost their output. As one of the most famous Colombians, Ingrid Betancourt, publishes her book about escaping the FARC rebels and returning home, many ordinary Colombians will be hoping the government will also come to their rescue, so that they too can finally go home.