Arable land and internal displacement in Colombia

Large scale forced displacement in Colombia is a consequence of more than thirty years of armed conflict, violent pursuit of economic interests and implementation of infrastructure projects. Competition for control of fertile land has been and continues to be intense. One third of agricultural land is now estimated to be in the hands of drug traffickers. Colombian NGOs estimate that as many as one million Colombians have been displaced in the past five years, and the total displaced since 1985 could be as high as 1.9m.1 Almost all those displaced prioritize safeguarding their property rights as the most crucial component of a durable solution to the crises in their lives.

Small land owners vulnerable to forced displacement

For Colombian IDPs, land tenure and property concerns are both the consequence of forced displacement and also a cause of displacement. Most IDPs in Colombia have fled gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law as the internal conflict has raged. A large number of small farmers have been displaced by powerful agricultural entrepreneurs who often employ illegal paramilitary groups linked to the Colombian Armed Forces. Such land seizures are common in the Magdalena Medio region and in the Atlantic Coast departments. Armed men arrive at small farms and impose a deadline for the entire family to evacuate the property. If the victims have formal property rights they are sometimes coerced into ‘selling’ their land, generally receiving only a fraction of the property's real value.

Given the limited independence and effectiveness of the Colombian police and justice system, turning to those institutions for protection would further expose the victim.

An end to this pattern of forced expropriation of small farmers' property does not require a change in the law. What is needed is for existing laws to be enforced and for professional police and military to be deployed in areas where civilians are at risk of attack.

Compensation for abandoned property

When current Colombian legislation on IDPs was drafted in 1997 several national and international organizations pointed to the need for concrete provisions to guarantee that IDPs are able to recover property, gain access to new plots of land or receive compensation from the government. Unfortunately, property and land clauses in Colombian IDP legislation remain vague and ineffectual. As many as 87 per cent of land-owning IDPs have simply had to abandon their land.2 Having lost their land, few are able to return to see what has happened as those responsible for their displacement often remain in the area or have managed to get land assigned to cronies.

Given that the Colombian authorities have failed to guarantee security to citizens in rural areas, it is incumbent on the Colombian state to compensate victims and to provide IDPs with agricultural land in safer parts of the country.3 The government, however, has not responded to IDP demands for resettlement or compensation. Resettlement applications from destitute IDPs are processed by the Colombian Agricultural Reform Institute (INCORA) using the same procedures applied to any other landless farmer seeking access to land. IDP ‘beneficiaries’ are thus charged 30 per cent of the full cost of a new plot of land. INCORA's painfully slow bureaucracy has meant that only a handful of IDPs have actually been assigned alternative land. As most IDPs have had to abandon all their belongings when they fled, very few will ever be able to pay off the debt to the state. In brief, not only are property rights grossly violated but also a real system of compensation has not been established. IDPs who have lost their land should be compensated with an equivalent plot of land, free of charge, in a different part of the country.

This deplorable situation could be partly reversed if the Colombian government actually implemented the third Action Plan on Prevention of Displacement and Attention to IDPs (CONPES) which it launched in November 1999.4 This plan provides for the design of provisions to safeguard property rights and provide IDPs with access to arable land. If ever put into effect they could partially compensate for bureaucratic delays and gaps in legal provision.

In order to safeguard small farmers' property rights, the Colombian government must fulfill its commitment to disarm and disband paramilitary groups and take measures to ensure that local military and police commanders do not allow such groups to continue to forcefully expel farmers from their land.

The international community can, and should, play an important role. That external pressure on the Colombian authorities can produce results was shown by the well-publicised case of the Bellacruz Estate. (The large landowner who had acquired the estate by coercive means happened to be the brother of the Colombian EU Ambassador in Brussels.) Restoring land to larger numbers of displaced IDPs requires pressure to be brought to bear on less high-profile perpetrators.


Bjorn Pettersson is an Information Officer of the Global IDP Project, Geneva. Email

Internet sources of information on Colombian IDP issues are at and


  1. CODHES Informa, Newsletter No 27, 26 January 2000, p.5.
  2. Newsletter No 26, CODHES, Bogota, Colombia.
  3. UN Guiding Principles, Principle 29.2
  4. The two previous plans (1995 and 1997) have not been successfully implemented.


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