Conflicts & War

Illegal land occupations, an age-old problem that’s increasing in Colombia

By Ovidio Castro Medina and Ernesto Guzman Jr.

Caloto, Colombia, Sep 19 (EFE).- The illegal occupation of land, instances of which have multiplied with the installation of Colombia’s new government, are adding another element of social agitation to the country’s already complicated situation and brings with it the risk that new violence could erupt.

In the center of the dispute are indigenous, black and peasant communities, mainly in the provinces of Cauca and Valle del Cauca, who are demanding the properties of landowners or sugar refineries, a situation that is also occuring in other parts of the country with the targets being cattle ranchers, agroindustrial groups and even undeveloped or unused land.

“They are two different situations, one in which the indigenous peoples occupy land in the northern part of Cauca and the other in the provinces where they are demanding the return of what was taken from them during the armed conflict,” Carlos Duarte, a professor at the Intercultural Studies Institute at Cali’s Javeriana University, told EFE.

There are no official and definitive figures on illegal occupations of land because the total area is increasing each day, but estimates are that the situation is occurring in 18 of the country’s 32 provinces.

The newly installed government of President Gustavo Petro has warned that it will not tolerate illegal land occupations and his defense minister, Ivan Velasquez, said that the invaders have 48 hours to leave, but what it certain is that except in the occupation of one particular area in Huila province, the police have not yet intervened.

The invasions are an old problem in Colombia but in the last two months after Petro took office they have snowballed and, with them, the level of confrontation between landowners and indigenous, black and peasant communities has also grown.

“The situation is rather complicated,” Fernando Rojas, a worker on a sugar cane plantation in Corinto, in Cauca province, told EFE. Like other workers, he fears that if the indigenous people occupy the property, he and his fellow workers will lose their jobs at the Incauca sugar mill.

According to Rojas, on other farms the indigenous people have arrived in big groups of 50, 100 and up to 300 people with machetes and “wipe out the sugar cane crops” and even use homemade explosives to intimidate the workers.

“Each day we’re more concerned because their pretensions are rather large on the issue of invading the sugar cane producing lands,” Aldemar Reyes, another worker, told EFE.

Reyes said that it’s not only the sugar cane operations that are being harmed because while 75 percent of the lands belong to peasants and African-Colombians the remaining 25 percent belongs to sugar cane companies, which provide jobs, although – according to his count – some 6,000 jobs have recently been lost.

Thus, he proposed seeking “a way out of this problem via dialogue and so that this doesn’t push us into a civil war.”

Also trying to explain the situation was African-Colombian leader Oscar Marino Caicedo, the legal representative of the Severo Mulato Community Council in the Cauca provincial town of Padilla, who said that since 2018 the invasions have increased “much more rapidly” and were accentuated in 2021 by social protests.

“When the social explosion came, the problem took on more vehemence … (in) the cities, but here in the country there was another group (of people) who were being victimized,” he said.

Caicedo said that the invasions are affecting small landowners who raise sugar cane and sell it to the sugar mills or lease their land to those businesses.

“We’re victims of the indigenous people,” he said, adding that “the government has set up everything to benefit them and they’ve always kept us (blacks) invisible.”

Indigenous community member Luis Ernesto, who said that the “liberation of the land isn’t just a modern thing, but dates back a long way.”

“Our families have grown and we need more land,” he said, adding that the indigenous people went down from the highlands to recover “the land that gives us oxygen, gives us water, gives us life” and that land is “tired … and needs to have a rest.”

Meanwhile, Manuel Ul justifies the invasions because “the lands belonged to our ancestors, we’re natives of this territory and now we’re reclaiming what used to belong to us.”

Ul said that the sugar cane firms use the blacks “so that we don’t continue moving forward with the process of liberating the land” and so he proposed looking for ways that they can “share the land.”

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