In Cesar, an Afro-Colombian community and the Land Restitution Unit lay the foundation for a collective land restitution case seeking rights to 1,400 hectares.
For nine long years, the community of Guacoche was separated from the rest of the world.
Although the village of 450 Afro-Colombian families is located just 20 kilometers from Valledupar, a regional capital in northern Colombia, terror and fear kept the families isolated. In 1997, paramilitaries came to Guacoche and assassinated community leader Argemiro Quiroz Márquez in the main plaza. The armed group then used Guacoche as its regional operational headquarters and made sure to control every aspect of community life
The paramilitaries issued special ID cards to residents and forced them to vote for certain candidates sympathetic to paramilitary causes. Fearing for their lives, some community members sold their land on the cheap, while others fled.
“For those nine years, we had no security, no democracy, and no leadership,” explains the slain leader’s son, also named Argemiro Quiroz. “We couldn’t alert the authorities. The paramilitaries controlled who came in and out of the community.”
Two hundred years before that, Guacoche was settled by several Afro-Colombian communities living in Cesar who came together to establish a village next to the Cesar river. The community made a name for itself through its pottery jars, or tinajas. Its members traded with the indigenous communities in surrounding mountains and lived in a society structured around sharing food and shelter.
In the disorder of Colombia’s convoluted conflict, the community’s trade evaporated and people lost their livelihoods. Women stopped creating pottery jars, and the thousands of hectares used by the community were abandoned wholesale. As a result, the community became almost completely dependent on the commercialization of sand from the nearby river, an activity heavily taxed by their paramilitary captors.
Landless & Desperate
Following the fall and demobilization of paramilitaries in 2008, the community was released from its open-air prison and began to process its grievances and losses through collective reparation claims. In 2012, Quiroz initiated the paperwork to formalize some 1,400 hectares in the name of the community. That same year, the Land Restitution Unit (LRU) was created and caught the attention of Quiroz.
“After the conflict had passed, we realized that we no longer had any possibilities to use the land that we once used,” explains Quiroz.
Building the Case
The land he refers to extends much further than the 1,432 hectares sought in the collective land title — up to 4,000 additional hectares. Since the paramilitaries’ demobilization, hundreds of people outside the community have come in to occupy public lands, largely in the savanna, and to build homes. The community’s short distance from Valledupar has made it a target for weekend homes, even if many of them are being built on a flood plain.
In order to begin filing for land restitution with the LRU, Quiroz and the community created the Los Cardonales Community Council. For several years, their requests sat on the backburner at the LRU due to a lack of personnel. In 2017, USAID provided the LRU with legal experts who took on the case and carried out a “characterization study,” the main piece of evidence required by restitution judges for ethnic restitution claims. The study involved interviews with the majority of community members, focus groups, and documentation of the community’s history and the consequences of the conflict.
On the merits of the characterization study, the Los Cardonales council is seeking to gain rights to its original 1,400 hectares of land, and possibly another 4,600 hectares of savanna land. The community’s legal claim is nearing completion — as soon as the community sorts out some pending land conflicts with neighboring communities, the claim will be ready for presentation to restitution judges.
Through a multiyear partnership, USAID and the LRU have collaborated to improve the characterization study methodology by incorporating a more robust investigation process. Under the improved approach, LRU researchers bolster community testimonies with additional evidence, such as maps, studies, and media clips, giving judges more incentive to accept the case.
This methodology’s top priority is identifying the territory being claimed, and it takes into account the laws of the nation as well as the laws of the community.
“USAID’s support allows us to determine whether or not the case can be sent to judges,” says Jorge Chaves, the LRU’s regional director in Cesar and Guajira. “In the Guacoche case, the agency’s support for the characterization has been, without a doubt, very useful.”
Since 2016, USAID had assisted with several collective land restitution cases for ethnic groups including the Yukpa in Cesar, and the Sikuani in Meta. See a more comprehensive overview of the Program’s results here.
“USAID’s support is very useful. We probably would have never gotten this close to the Guacoche community. USAID allowed us to gain a new perspective, because although we have processed cases for indigenous groups and for campesinos, this is the first case of Afro-Colombians, and it requires another set of skills that we probably haven’t thought of yet.”
—Jorge Chaves, the LRU’s regional director in Cesar and Guajira