Returning land, returning peace

Story of Robinson Salas

A 52-year conflict that left 220,000 dead and uprooted the lives of over eight million people in Colombia came to an end in July 2017. FAO is helping Colombia to implement the brokered peace by providing assistance in the areas of land rights and rural development. ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos for FAO


“The anniversary of my brother’s death is on the 26 of July. He was killed 27 years ago,” says Robinson Salas. Robinson is one of the millions of people who had been displaced from their homes and their lands by the armed conflict between the Government of Colombia and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel group. This 52-year conflict left 220,000 Colombians dead and uprooted the lives of over eight million people.

“The situation continued to get worse with more violence each day until we had to abandon the land. I decided to leave because I was married and had two children. I was always very afraid with the presence of those people (the FARC).”

Robinson and his family resisted giving up their land, but at one point, it became too dangerous to stay. They moved to the nearby town of Corozal about 10 kilometers away.

“My dad continued traveling back and forth to work on his land until he died of a heart attack in 2003. He would work during the day, but leave at night because it wasn’t safe. Then one of my brothers took over caring for our land until he was killed (by armed men) in 2006.  Another brother was killed in 2007. After this, we abandoned the land completely,” explains Robinson. Robinson lost his family, livelihood and even his ancestral land to the fighting.

In the city, Robinson worked in a police station, assisting the Inspector with proceedings. Though he worked full-time, he was only paid for working part-time. He found himself missing everything about his old way of life: his village, his farm, his land. Robinson is almost completely blind, but back in his village of Pertenencia, this wasn’t an issue. There was always something to do on the farm and someone from the community to help him if he needed it. “No time to be idle,” explains Robinson.

Robinson represents a sound lesson of building peace. Yes, he has poor eyesight but a great vision indeed: a vision of community development within the territory, renewing the lands of Montes de María.  - Rafael Zavala, FAOR Colombia

50 years of conflict had deeply affected the Colombian countryside. Only 7 of the 22 million hectares of Colombia’s arable land were being used. Much of this land lay abandoned because of the fighting.

It wasn’t until July 2017 that the conflict finally came to an end: members of the FARC rebel group handed over their weapons as part of the peace deal brokered in the years before. Yet, the questions about land control and livelihoods remained.

Left: 18 years after being forced to leave, Robinson got his land back when the government of Colombia passed the Land Restitution Law for Victims. ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos for FAO
Right: Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit, with the technical support of FAO, has helped farmers to revive their livelihoods and restart organizations, like the Apacambi association, which work to build strong communities. ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos for FAO

The Government of Colombia and the FARC group asked FAO to help implement the first point of the peace agreement: comprehensive rural reform, which includes land access and tackling hunger, two sides of the same coin. Giving back land means giving back livelihoods ­— the first step in ending poverty and hunger.

Ending hunger and malnutrition and achieving peace and rural development are not separate tasks but different aspects of the same challenge. - José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General

As part of the peace deal, the government of Colombia is rolling out more than 80 special laws and 1,000 programmes, ranging from rural electrification projects and job retraining to income support schemes for former militia members.

The government also approved the “Land Restitution Law for Victims,” which meant that Robinson could have his land back, 18 years after he was forced to leave.

After so many years, Robinson didn’t know in what state he would find their land. He returned to see that it was now in the middle of a jungle and was hard to access.

“It had nothing but weeds. That was it,” says Robinson.

Little by little, he built a house. With support from the Government of Sweden and the Land Restitution Unit, he was able to clear the land and start growing crops. He also received five cows. Now he has 16, which he can sell for money to invest in the farm.

His wife remained in the town with their children as two of them are disabled and they lack school services in the rural area. The income from the farm helps to support his family. Although he works by himself on the farm, he says that he is happy with the way things have turned out. “We learnt new things. For example, FAO showed us how to make and use chemical-free fertilizers for our crops and how to better raise our cows,” he adds.

Lasting peace depends on fostering rural development and rebuilding communities that have been scarred by the conflict. These are investments that Colombia is making for its future. ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos for FAO

Robinson’s dream is to increase his herd, build a self-sufficient farm growing plantain, cassava, and yam, and own an orchard full of fruit trees.

And last but definitely not least – to live peacefully.

“What we need is peace, because if we have economic stability and food, we will succeed and will be free from the problems we see in the urban areas. We are building peace little by little,” concludes Robinson.

Funded by the Swedish government, the FAO-supported project entitled Strengthening the Sustainability of the Land Restitution Process is focused on promoting integration, reconciliation and resource-sharing, benefitting some 500 people - about half are returning farmers, the other half are farmers in the host communities located in the Nariño, Sucre, Córdoba, Tolima and Magdalena departments of Colombia.

The project also established a collective irrigation network, which captures and stores rainwater. In an area that is often dry, this irrigation method is crucial to giving farmers regular access to water.

With the assistance of Sweden and Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit, the project also supported farmers in milk, coffee and honey production – providing infrastructure, equipment like small farming tools, and training in sustainable agricultural practices.

FAO is continuing to work with the government of Colombia and civil society organizations to provide policy advice on tenure rights, rural development and food security to help the country maintain a lasting peace. FAO is proud to be working alongside the communities in helping to build this new phase of peace in rural Colombia.

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1. No poverty, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 16. Peace justice and strong institutions