Conflicts & War

The fight over land: Colombia’s perpetual conflict

By Irene Escudero

Arquia, Colombia, May 17 (EFE).- Arquia, a Tule indigenous “resguardo” on Colombia’s border with Panama, is one of the few communities to have had land stripped away amid the armed conflict and then later gained it back.

Territorial dispossession and the lengthy and frequently fruitless efforts to rectify past wrongs are an all-too-familiar reality in an Andean nation where the battle over land is a life-or-death struggle.

Elirio Poyato, now almost 60, is one of the members of that Tule resguardo (collectively owned indigenous reserve) who in recent decades was forced to abruptly leave his home and set off on foot through the Darien Gap – a treacherous, roadless stretch of jungle – to neighboring Panama.

The store owner felt he had no choice to depart with his family, including eight children, when United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries threatened and sought to extort money from him 24 years ago.

“One day a man called me and threatened me; I was afraid and I left right away on the Atrato (River),” he told Efe at his home in the resguardo.

Although Poyato returned six months later, two of his children remained permanently in Panama due to fear of the AUC.

The Tule (also known as the Cuna or Gunadule) are an indigenous people in danger of extinction. Their population now numbers just 62,000, most of whom live in Panama. Roughly 2,000 Tule live in three resguardos – including Arquia – in Uraba, a fertile region of Colombia’s northwest.

Arquia, which covers an area of fewer than 3,000 hectares (11.6 square miles), was controlled for years by the AUC’s Elmer Cardenas Bloc under the command of Freddy Rendon Herrera (alias “El Aleman”), the brother of convicted drug lord Daniel Rendon, better known as “Don Mario.”

Due to its strategic location near one of the world’s most impenetrable border regions, the AUC coveted that territory and killed more than a dozen indigenous people to assert their control.

They also recruited young people into their ranks and used “hunger as a strategy for cultural extermination,” Judge Mario Jose Lozano wrote in a 2018 sentence that restored dispossessed land to the members of that resguardo.

Yet despite that ruling, efforts to restore lands to other victims have been commonly beset by delays, either in obtaining court judgments or enforcing rulings already handed down, Julian Salazar, a researcher at the Cinep think tank told Efe.

Salazar is one of the authors of a report that found only 35 percent compliance with sentences that restored land to their rightful owners in Unguia, a municipality in the northwestern Colombian department of Choco.

“The institutions are not making the necessary effort to maximize the possibility of achieving the objectives established by law,” Salazar said, adding that a lack of sufficient budgetary funds and the difficulty of enforcing court rulings amid the ongoing conflict are two of the challenges.

The AUC were succeeded by the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, or Clan del Golfo, but despite the name change the same paramilitaries continue to impose their will; nothing moves in that territory without their approval.

The Tule are barred from accessing their sacred places, including Cerro Takarkuna, which is now covered with coca crops and cocaine laboratories.

The indigenous population also says that heavy rains can cause rivers to overflow their banks, leading to chemical residues being carried by floodwaters and posing a threat to the health of local residents.

Only 12,200 land dispossession cases have been resolved through the courts, or less than 9 percent of the total since the enactment of Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law in 2011. Of the 6,5 million hectares of abandoned or stolen land, only 530,000 have been restored to their rightful owners, or 8.1 percent.

“These figures are shameful,” Leon Valencia, director of the non-profit Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, said, insisting that those who stole land – whether paramilitary fighters, leftist guerrillas, companies and politicians – “are winning the battle.”

Colombia is one of the countries with the highest amount of land concentration worldwide.

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