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Colombia: agreement to protect the property rights of displaced

Briefing notes

Colombia: agreement to protect the property rights of displaced

8 April 2008

A new agreement between UNHCR and the Colombian government to promote land protection and restitution of property rights marks a positive development for Colombia's displaced population.

The agreement is to be signed later today in the Colombian capital Bogota by the Agriculture Minister, Andres Felipe Arias and the UNHCR Representative Jean-Noël Wetterwald. It will provide a framework for coordination of various programmes already in place to legally protect abandoned lands and plans new initiatives to restore the property rights of people who have lost lands through forced displacement, providing them with a greater chance at socio-economic stability.

According to official figures from the state agency monitoring government compliance with national laws (Procuraduría General de la Nación), displaced people fleeing from armed conflict and violence have lost an estimated 6 million hectares of land. This represents around 6 percent of Colombia's total national territory. Until now, very few displaced people have received compensation for their loss.

Of the 2.4 million people on the national registry for displaced people, more than three-quarters (78 percent) come from rural areas and used to make a living from the land. As well as violating their rights to property, the loss of land has meant many no longer have a productive income. The majority have found refuge in urban areas, often in very deprived neighbourhoods, and experience great difficulties getting into the workforce.

This new agreement promotes an integral approach to land issues, starting from prevention with land registration in communities at risk of displacement - a crucial step since many Colombian farmers do not have legal titles to the lands they own, making it if far more difficult to claim them back after displacement. Other steps include the legal protection of abandoned lands so that they cannot be sold or otherwise disposed of, and sets up mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of lands to displaced people who have lost properties.

Welcome the commitment this new agreement demonstrates on the part of the Colombian authorities to address one of the most fundamental issues for internally displaced Colombians. It will fully cooperate with the government, civil society and the displaced population to identify the best possible ways to ensure restitution of lands and properties to the victims.

UNHCR has been working in Colombia for the past ten years to support the government's efforts on behalf of one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Among other initiatives, it supports the Tierras (Land) project, which in the past four years has already registered and legally protected more than 2 million hectares of land belonging to displaced people or communities at high risk of forced displacement.