Colombia's President Targets Stolen Land

To control cocaine kingpins and violence in Colombia, the U.S. has spent $25 billion for military hardware and training in a quarter century. And the policy has hardly changed. But now, a new president, Juan Manuel Santos, is taking on the elephant in the room that no one ever paid much attention to. He's seizing land from corrupt local bosses and drug traffickers. A huge swath of land — about three times the size of Maryland — was stolen by corrupt warlords or simply abandoned by poor farmers in 30 years of conflict, creating a huge humanitarian problem. The idea now is to get that land back in the hands of peasants and resolve a problem that is the root of Colombia's conflict.

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In Colombia, more than four million people have lost their land over the past 30 years. That's as a result of the country's much covered drug-fueled civil conflict. The land issue has gotten very little attention. And in an effort to change that, Colombia's new president has launched an ambitious land restitution program.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Monterey, Colombia, on how the initiative could bring peace to a troubled nation.

(Soundbite of a pig)

JUAN FORERO: Pedro Beltran is happiest on the farm feeding his 300-pound pig, and making sure his chickens and turkeys have gotten their daily ration of ground corn.

(Soundbite of chickens and turkeys)

FORERO: But this small plot is hidden away far from a main road and not nearly as rich as the spread he once owned. That one, all 300 acres of it, was seized by a right-wing paramilitary militia, one of the armed groups in a long murky conflict.

Mr. PEDRO BELTRAN (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of weeping)

FORERO: His eyes tearing up, Beltran says having a farm was his great life's hope and now it's gone.

It happened to hundreds of thousands of families in a conflict pitting guerillas against illegal paramilitary bands that operated with army units.

In all, officials believe some 10,000 square miles were stolen, equivalent in size to Maryland. Sometimes people simply fled, their land quickly occupied by local warlords. Other farmers, under threat of death, sold at bargain-basement prices.

Alejandro Reyes is a land expert spearheading the Agriculture Ministry's efforts to take back stolen land.

Mr. ALEJANDRO REYES: I think it is crucial to solve the land tenure problem, because otherwise the displaced population is going to be the new cause of conflicts.

FORERO: Unless land is restituted, Reyes says, poor, uprooted farmers will continue to be easy recruits for guerrilla groups or drug traffickers.

Since September, 460 square miles have been returned to farmers, a third of what the government wants to hand out by May 1st. President Juan Manuel Santos told NPR that restitution goes hand in hand with other measures to, in essence, modernize agriculture.

President JUAN MANUEL SANTOS (Colombia): If we are able to restitute this land to the original owners and help them produce and recover their place in society and become rural entrepreneurs, this will be the most profound social revolution in Colombia in its history.

FORERO: Since the '80s, the U.S. has spent $25 billion here, mostly on the military side, to help Colombia battle narco-traffickers and control the countryside. That's reduced violence and cocaine production.

But Santos' land initiative, experts say, is the first time the real root of Colombia's troubles has been squarely addressed. That doesn't mean it's easy. Stolen land was often registered under third parties, using false titles.

Ms. MIRIAM VILLEGAS (Coordinator, Development for Peace): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: In a morning meeting here in Monterrey, Miriam Villegas tells a group of farmers about the legal thicket. She's coordinator for Development and Peace, a group run by a local Catholic priest.

Ms. VILLEGAS: The problem is that the peasants are getting tired of waiting when this is going to happen, because there are people very poor, there's people, victims that are watching every day that nothing happen.

FORERO: Among those fast losing patience is Pedro Beltran. To get to his old farm, the one Beltran says he was forced to sell under threat, you go past a herd of cattle.

(Soundbite of cows)

FORERO: And then along the fast waters of the Boque River.

(Soundbite of running water)

FORERO: Walking on his old farm, Beltran smiles and marvels at it all.

Mr. BELTRAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: As you can see, Beltran says, it's beautiful. He recalls how he grew corn and manioc and other crops. And he says he hopes to do so once again.

Juan Forero, NPR News

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