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‘Don’t let them take it’

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On 28 May, six men with guns arrived at a collective farm in northern Colombia, asking for Julia Torres, one of the community’s leaders. Her husband, Rogelio Martínez, was murdered on the farm three years ago. After he was killed, the army took up patrolling the boundary of the 553-hectare farm, but the patrols stopped without warning on 23 May. Torres now fears for her life. A campaign has been launched to write to President Juan Manuel Santos, asking that he ensure her protection.

The farm, Finca Alemania, was established in 1997, during one of Colombia’s many attempts at land reform, and occupied by 52 families displaced by the civil war. Within a year the first of the community leaders was killed, followed by others in 2000. In 2001, the paramilitary group Héroes de los Montes de María forced the families out and occupied the farm. More than 600 cattle were stolen, and crops and houses were destroyed. The paramilitaries’ commander, Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, now believed dead, is thought to be responsible for more than 3000 disappearances. He acted with impunity not only because of his weapons but because he had local politicians in his pocket.

In 2005, under pressure from the international community, the government called for the disarming of all paramilitaries. The Héroes de los Montes de María abandoned the farm, and in 2006 the families began to go back, led by Rogelio Martínez. His murder in 2010 and now the threats to Julia Torres show that Colombia’s land conflicts are far from resolved, and while paramilitary groups may have disbanded, many of them have re-formed as violent gangs acting in the interests of big landowners, mining firms, drug barons or transnational companies.

Over the last twenty years, civil war has forced five million Colombians off their land. Peace negotiations between the government and FARC guerrillas began last October and reached the first point of agreement – on land reform – two days before the armed men came looking for Torres. The negotiations have to pass through several more stages before peace can be declared, but agreement on land reform is a crucial step. However, as with the other issues – the drugs trade, the political reintegration of the guerrillas – implementation is going to be far from easy. Half of Colombia’s peasants don’t have title to their farms. More than half of all farmland is owned by 1 per cent of the population.

Finca Alemania is a small example of how land redistribution can be tackled: help landless peasants form co-operatives, provide grants and soft loans for them to buy potentially productive land. It also shows how the whole enterprise can fall apart if the government in Bogotá is unable or unwilling to confront big landowners in remote rural provinces who will murder people to get their way.

Martínez often spoke of the threats against him, and said that if he ever left the farm it would be ‘feet first’. ‘If they kill me,’ he told his wife, ‘you mustn’t leave here. This is yours. Don’t let them take it.’

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