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Escalating tensions over the issue of land rights gave rise to protests, which turned violent after security forces shot and killed four unarmed peasants on June 22 and 25 in Catatumbo, Colombia, as reported by Amnesty International. They are only the most recent casualties in the ongoing battle over land in Colombia.

Land is becoming ever more scarce for farmers throughout Colombia, as big businesses and mining companies have been consolidating their ownership over land for years. Rural farmers are struggling to earn a living, and growing enough food to feed their families is becoming increasingly difficult as land is disappearing from beneath their feet. Colombia is home to the world’s largest internally displaced population. Farmers are continuously forced to leave their homes and farms as more and more land is granted to wealthy companies. While the government has recently passed the land restitution law, no landholding entity has yet returned land to displaced peasants. Over 16,000 people involved in land disputes have simply “disappeared,” according to Catalina Ballesteros Rodriguez, Program Officer for Christian Aid.

The 14,000 strong protest this past June was organized by the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo, with support from the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective. CALCP is an all-female organization of lawyers, who offer legal advice and provide training to support grassroots organizations and displaced communities. Judith Maldonado, director of CALCP and winner of the German ‘Shalom Award’ for her human rights work, says “we seek to bring the rule of law to the communities… so that it can be a tool for the defense, protection and promotion of human rights, and for the transformation of their communal, social, political and cultural realities.” Their operations are based in northeastern Colombia, a place so rich in natural resources that it is a curse rather than a blessing for indigenous and small scale farming communities, who are forced off their land in large scale extractive projects to make way for big money-making business interests. They also advocate on an international level, to raise awareness about the violent removal of peasant farmers and land rights issues. Their work is done at great personal risk, and human rights lawyers have often been threatened, repressed, even “disappeared” or killed. Judith Maldonado has personally faced threats from armed groups, and illegal surveillance by the state. CALCP is supported by Peace Brigades International, a UK based group that provides support and protection to human rights defenders all over the world who are subject to repression.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: The Guardian, Peace Brigades International