Paradise under threat

No land, no future – these four words summarise the struggle many farmers face. For the inhabitants of a Columbian village on the Pacific coast, the concerted efforts were worthwhile.

The palms sway in the wind on La Barra’s unspoilt sandy beach. In summertime dolphins and whales can be spotted just off the coast in the Pacific ocean. Attractive freshwater lagoons are located only a few metres inland. “A genuine paradise” is the claim of the local Afro-Columbian community in a short publicity leaflet. In recent years the local village farmers have set up several basic accommodation facilities and a campsite. Visitors from Bogotá and Calí are taking up these offers. 

But there was a risk that not only the tourists would enjoy this unspoilt area of nature. The regional authority could have easily sold the seaside promenade to a foreign investor. The community of La Barra had not received its deed of ownership, although it can be proved that generations of local farmers have used the land. The situation under Columbian law is clear: the local farming community is entitled to the land.

Delight - too soon

The community asserted their legal claims with the responsible national authority ten years ago. The process began to lose momentum until SWISSAID became active in 2009 and supported the farmers in their dealings with the authorities. The authority sent a finding committee to travel around the district, which compiled a sympathetic report and in late 2012 declared that the community would be granted the deeds of ownership. The people of La Barra organised a celebration.

But they had counted their chickens before they had hatched. This September when the deeds were finally due for transfer, a dry and terse message arrived in the village from Bogotá: the claim would be refused without stating grounds. Farmer Santides Santiesteban feared the worst after this setback, “Without clearly defined land ownership we are afraid that they will drive us and our children out, and that they can take everything away from us.” The 57-year-old farmer has learned from experience that in Colombia this is more often the rule rather than the exception.

No sewage system

The direct impact is certainly drastic: the authority stated that no investment will be made in laying water pipes or in basic sanitary facilities as long as the community cannot show any legally valid documents. Moreover no commitment will be made to social support or to protect against erosion. A sense of hopelessness spread in La Barra.

Giving up was out of the question

But the 130 families pulled themselves together again: with the support of SWISSAID they collectively organised a petition. When this didn’t produce the desired result either, the local community set up a petition to appeal for international support. After all, the village residents had just overcome the worst – hunger. Thanks to SWISSAID’s training the farmers have learned in recent years how to produce higher yields from organic farming and no longer need to spend money on fertilisers and pesticides. The earnings from fishing and agriculture are sufficient to make ends meet. The extra income, which the women and youngsters earn with food stalls and simple bungalows for the fledgling tourist industry, is extremely welcome. Today, keeping small domestic animals also helps ensure that hunger is consigned to the past. It was out of the question to give up the fight for their land rights now.

Long overdue reward

In Colombia the authorities work very slowly. But the concerted effort was worthwhile. Years after the claim submitted by the 464 residents of La Barra for collective land ownership was recognised by the responsible authority, the dream finally became a reality. In July 2015, the small community received a deed that certifies their official ownership of their land. The small strip of land, bordering a long beach, a wide belt of mangrove fields, and built up with a few dozen very simple wooden houses belongs to the right people at long last.

Project code: KO 02/13/11

Duration: until 2015

Costs: 38,586 Swiss francs

Beneficiaries: 464 women, men and children