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Colombia to return land to victims of long-running conflicts

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Senate passes Victims' Law and Land Restitution Law Tuesday
  • They provide reparations for victims of the violence in Colombia
  • Millions of hectacres were lost during the armed conflict

(CNN) -- Victims of the violence brought on Colombia for decades will be eligible for repatriations and, in some cases, restitution of land taken from them, thanks to a sweeping pair of laws passed by the Colombian Senate.

The so-called Victims' Law and Land Restitution Law, which languished in the Colombian Congress for years, passed Tuesday night.

President Juan Manuel Santos called the approval of the law "historic."

"I congratulate those who participated in this process," he said.

Between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, it is estimated that 5 million to 8 million hectares (12 million to close to 20 million acres) were lost in the past 30 years, said Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is a leftist rebel army that claims to work as a bulwark against Colombia's elite ruling class, and has traditionally funded operations with narcotics sales and kidnappings. The FARC has been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s.

But it is the paramilitaries that surged as a response against the guerrillas, and who also fell into drug trafficking, who are responsible for a majority of the land that was seized, Isacson said.

One of the paramilitary tactics has been to clear the land that the FARC controlled not just of the guerrillas, but of anyone in the area, Isacson said.

The law is designed to get millions of these hectares back in the hands of their original owners, but that could prove difficult. In many cases, the paramilitaries resold the land to powerful landowners or are being held in the names of third parties, Isacson said.

Despite the challenges, Santos campaigned hard for the law. The laws, he said in a speech earlier this year, seek to give Colombians the chance to heal.

According to Caracol Radio, the beneficiaries of the Victims' Law are people who had their human rights violated in the context of the armed conflict, including spouses and immediate family.

The law protects the victims from being discriminated against because of their status as displaced persons or other effects of victimization, Caracol reported.

As for reparations, different types and levels of symbolic and economic handouts are available depending on circumstances and time of the incidents, the radio station said.

The land restitution law will allow displaced persons to file a petition to have their land returned to them.

"Lasting peace in the country -- it has always been said -- will come pass through the settlement of land disputes," said Juan Camilo Restrepo Salazar, the country's agriculture minister. "Today, it has taken a decisive step in this direction that is under no circumstances at odds with the right of property lawfully acquired, nor honest peasant farmers, who are the vast majority in the country."