In Good Faith: land grabbing, legal dispossession, and land restitution in Colombia

Abstract / Resumen / Resumo

Colombia’s 2011 “Victims’ and Land Restitution Law” (the Victims’ Law) seeks to restitute hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to displaced conflict victims. Forced displacement in Colombia has largely been understood through a focus on violent “land grabbing” dynamics through which armed actors (typically paramilitary forces) displaced rural populations to utilize the stolen land for large capitalist ventures. Through a focus on land restitution in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region, I detail the precise legal measures used to prosecute these legacies of land grabbing, as well as the controversy arising when those powerful legal measures are trained upon relatively small, “good faith” owners of once-dispossessed land. This article examines land restitution as an important means of undoing violent patterns of land concentration, yet cautions against presupposing that all patterns of violent displacement can be understood through a land-grabbing analytic. Those who come to own land in the wake of conflict may have directly used violent means or, contrarily, have acquired land without direct or indirect recourse to violence. How land restitution programs detect and manage these distinctions bears upon post-conflict legal land regimes’ precarious capacity to either ameliorate, or potentially exacerbate, violent legacies of forced displacement.