Everything appears to be firm in Remolino del Caguán, which some refer to as Caguán’s heart: one- and two-story residences, some cement roads, the central square, and the Catholic church. All of this points to a well-organized community that has developed alongside the forsaken populations of Colombia’s Amazonian frontier.

In this assessment of the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá, the land is, ironically, the least stable object. Yes, the land that farmers walk and work on on a daily basis. Most of the families there do not own the land on which they have grown for centuries, and whose ancestors migrated from all across Caquetá and other departments in quest of better possibilities and were encouraged by the state to colonize.

Despite the fact that they act as owners, many have not formalized their ownership of land taken from the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone or have been unable to legalize their possession of the land because it is located within the Special Environmental Interest Area, which makes having titles to these properties impossible.

Land use and tenure are affected in this part of Caquetá by the disintegration of agrarian authorities, armed conflict, and exploitation models in which the State appears to lack the capacity and will to identify who owns the land and control the logging and burning of native forests, which is the most serious environmental crime in the Amazon.

VerdadAbierta.com visited the region, spoke with peasant leaders, contacted specialists, and combed through archives, and the findings are alarming: the State is to blame for most of the agrarian chaos, and there is little indication that it will be resolved anytime soon.

The promised land?

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

“Caquetá is a container for a lot of the mistakes that have been done in land policy in Colombia,” says Daro Fajardo, an anthropologist and professor at Colombia’s Externado University. This department has had a land problem for at least a century.

According to this expert, the 1920s saw the introduction of a more inclusive land policy, particularly between 1926 and 1928, with the goal of allowing small and medium peasant farms to expand. This was made feasible by the emergence of agrarian rules at the time.

Juanita VillavecesIn their text Historical and regional trends in the adjudication of baldos in Colombia (Universidad del Rosario, 2015), Juanita Villaveces Nio and Fabio Sánchez describe how the governments of the early twentieth century promoted the colonization of this region: “The land policy aimed to promote agricultural frontier expansion and colonization in the broadest sense, i.e., the use and occupation of space rather than redistribution. During this time, rules were enacted to encourage immigration to remote areas, particularly in Putumayo and Caquetá in 1913 “.

Decrees 839 and 1110, issued in 1928, encouraged the colonization of uncultivated land, allowing it to be given to small farmers, and the State acknowledged the organization of the countryside into farming communities.

“This is very interesting because it is a sign that there is concern about the distribution of land, which follows a hegemonic pattern of large property,” says Fajardo, who adds that, while there were advances in land policies at the end of the 1920s, they were limited actions because “the correlation of forces has been adverse to land allocation throughout history.” In the years following President Enrique Olaya Herrera’s term, the picture began to narrow (1930-1934).

La de 1936, sobre el régimen de tierras, fue el reflejo de esa situación. “Ya no es una ley que favorezca una asignación generosa de tierras para pequeños campesinos, sino simplemente de formalización de la propiedad”, explica Fajardo.

This condition was reflected in Law 200 of 1936, which dealt with the land regime. “It’s no longer a legislation that promotes a large allocation of land for tiny peasants, but rather a statute that just formalizes property,” Fajardo argues.

During the 1940s, there was a backward movement, accompanied by an offensive against organized peasant communities that had colonized the country’s borders, and who, in the case of Caquetá and other Amazonian regions, had been interested in the trade of white rubber, tobacco, and woods such as juansoco and cedar, but high production and transportation costs, combined with competition from other countries, made the trade unprofitable.

Then came the Violencia years in the 1950s, which saw a vast forcible eviction of peasants from their properties. They looked to the Amazon for a new beginning in the midst of their anxieties and anguish. Caquetá then became a reception zone for peasant migrants, especially from the Huila and Tolima departments.

According to research conducted by the Amazonian Institute of Scientific Research (SINCHI), “the availability of land and peasant family work promised the readjustment of the population and the recomposition of their traditional economy, only that it occurred in geographical, environmental, and historical contexts that were different from those of rural life in their places of origin.”

It was a drastic adjustment for the new immigrants, as the soil they had to work with had a very thin layer of productive soil, making agricultural production difficult: harvest cycles are long, and it is required to let it rest and fertilize it before using it again. As a result, cutting down sections of forest to continue collecting and producing food is an alternative.

Farid Murcia, a social activist from Cartagena del Chairá, comes from a family of forced migrants, according to academics. His grandfather and father fled the bipartisan bloodshed in the Caquetá piedmont in the 1930s because they were liberals.

They arrived from the municipality of Algeciras, in Huila, after four days of travelling through the bush and traversing the Eastern Cordillera, and made their ‘fundo’ at the community of Santana Ramos, in Puerto Rico, Caquetá. They devoted their lives to agriculture and livestock farming, travelling over tough terrain to sell their produce.

While his grandfather and father battled the jungle, Murcia finished his education and went on to become a corregimiento instructor and eventually the coordinator of nucleus 4, a self-organized group of hamlets. For years, he saw how peasant families met their community’s needs while never formally claiming ownership of the land on which they had laboured.

“Everything in the Caquetá department was achieved through popular struggles led by peasants. Nothing has been given to us here, but it is nothing “Murcia underlines as he recalls his own and his neighbours’ pasts. These communities banded together to provide services that the government couldn’t adequately supply, such as health, education, housing, and infrastructure.

Protected area stresses

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The Republic’s Presidency published Law 2, which governed the forest economy for the conservation of water, land, and wildlife in seven sub-regions of the country, in the beginning of 1959. The Amazon Forest Reserve Zone, which covers 34 million hectares and encompasses substantial areas of the departments of Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Guaina, Guaviare, Huila, Putumayo, and Vaupés, was established as a result of this statute.

However, the presence of hundreds of people living in the Caqueta jungle at the time, as well as those who continued to arrive in search of a ‘fundo’ to live on, contradicted this pattern. To answer to them all, the newly established Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora), established by Law 135 of 1961, issued Resolution 041 on March 2, 1964, reserving “a sector of uncultivated land for a particular colonization in San Vicente del Caguán and Puerto Rico, Caquetá.”

To put it another way, a huge portion of the Nation’s uncultivated territory was subtracted from the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone to accommodate the peasant colonization that had been going on in Caquetá for more than a decade.

But then came the first governmental blunders, such as the provision of subsidies to promote these settlement processes aimed at cattle activities, in an attempt to replicate the Caqueta foothills haciendas that had been enforced from the early twentieth century.

The SINCHI Institute stated in its analysis that “the institutions that guided the colonization process, such as Incora, were partly responsible for the reproduction of models that would later be defined as inappropriate, non-viable, and unsustainable in the Amazon,” referring to cattle ranching and monocultures such as African palm.

Peasants were also dissatisfied with the state’s policies in the early 1970s. As a result, the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC) organized enormous rallies in Caquetá, calling for increased state help in the implementation of programs to support colonization, such as credit, roads, education, health, and higher crop prices.

The ANUC encouraged the “seizure of lands,” including those of rich landowners, so that they might be seized by the state and divided among landless peasants in the remainder of the country. This pressure was met with vigour by landowners, who began requesting evictions from the Public Forces and, via their clout, were repeated by the then-republic President Misael Pastrana Borrero.

The so-called Chicoral Pact was signed on January 9, 1972, in the premises of the Caja Agraria in that town in the department of Tolima, as a consequence of the pressures of rich landowners. According to some scholars, this agreement was an agrarian counter-reform scheme that prevented a fair distribution of land ownership, hastened its consolidation, and resulted in a vast exodus of peasants from their homelands to the Orinoco and Amazon regions.

But it wasn’t just the landowners that hounded the peasantry who were trying to make ends meet. Those who owned land were subjected to pressure from emerging illegal armed organizations and organized crime, which began extorting them and affecting their families’ economies.

Eucario de Jesus Bermudez arrived in this context, hand in hand with his parents, to colonize territories deep in the heart of Caguán, to the northwest, in the present-day villages of Campo Verde and Libano. In 1977, his family was forced to relocate from the municipality of Balboa, Risaralda, to avoid extortionists who sought to tax his father’s coffee crops.

“‘Instead of giving that guy those loads of coffee, I’m going to sell them and we’re going to disappear,’ my father said, and then he told my mother, ‘We’re going to Caquetá.’ We’re going to get land to work on over there,’ I’ve heard there are unoccupied lots over there “Bermudez recalls.

In effect, they left Risaralda and traveled to the south of the country, where they purchased land in the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá, a journey that took eight hours by boat on the Caguán River and another eight on foot. They recommitted themselves to agriculture there.

Poor state management

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

A major chunk of the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone was withdrawn from the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone in the mid-1980s to legalize the lands of settlers in Caquetá’s Middle and Lower Caguán regions.

367,500 hectares were subtracted from this reserve for the benefit of families in Cartagena del Chairá and Solano under Agreement 65, issued on September 25, 1985 by the National Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and Environment (Inderena), which represented 22.6 percent of the 1,620,000 hectares initially requested by Incora for subtraction.

According to the Agreement, two fundamental considerations were taken into account in makinAccording to the Agreement, two fundamental considerations were taken into account in making this decision: on the one hand, the communities of the Middle and Lower Caguán “are characterized by a high degree of organization through the Community Action Boards coordinated by the Colonization Committee, with a coverage of 95 percent of the villages and settlements,” and on the other hand, the communities of the Middle and Lower Caguán “are characterized by a high degree of organization through the Community Action Boards coordinated by the Colonization Committee.

The text, on the other hand, states that “the development of an incipient ecological conscience has been perceived, which permits people to grasp their responsibilities toward renewable natural resources.”

However, the subtraction work was done from Inderena’s workstations in Bogota, rather than through technical visits to the region. The result could not have been worse: the subtracted polygon’s rugged shape does not correlate to the river’s folds, resulting in portions where the portion deducted for titling is more than 28 kilometers in a straight line from the river, and others where it is less than 1.5 kilometers.

However, it is not the only issue that has arisen as a result of the Republic’s capital. Melquisedec Betancourt, who has been organizing community processes in 10 Bajo Caguán hamlets clustered in nucleus 5 for 14 years, points this out. His desire to know who owns the land has prompted him to seek for farms with property titles in places that have not yet been removed from the Amazon Forest Reserve.

According to his own research, “some 20 to 25 households are in the Law 2 zone and have titles” exclusively in the villages of Sardinata Alta, La Holanda, and Panamá Uno, where he exercises his authority. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Las Quillas, where just one family out of the 18 residents has a property title.

Low qualification

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The weak peasant economy, which lacked the infrastructure for the commercialization of crops, and the restrictions imposed on land use influenced the agrarian disarray in Caqueta’s land tenure and ownership, leading hundreds of farmers to migrate to the cultivation of coca leaf for illicit use in the mid-seventies, promoting new repopulations in the process.

The DANE data on Cartagena del Chairá reflect this population growth: between 1985 and 1993, the population expanded by 163% in the urban region and 296% in the rural area, putting strain on the forest, which succumbed to the coca leaf’s march

Caquetá had a planted area of 26,603 hectares in 15 of its 16 municipalities in 2001, according to UN data, with Cartagena del Chairá (13,551 hectares), Solano (4,005 hectares), San Vicente del Caguán (1,713 hectares), Solita (1,170 hectares), and Valparaso being the most affected (1,240 hectares).

Since the early 1980s, the now-defunct FARC guerrillas have attempted to “manage” this illegal activity through a number of fronts, collectively known as the Southern Bloc: they promoted coca leaf cultivation, regulated coca paste prices, imposed a tax on coca production, and collaborated with a number of drug trafficking cartels. They made billions of pesos to fund the battle against Colombia’s government.

According to Sinchi’s analysis, the fact that coca leaf was grown on many colonized territories in the 1980s and 1990s led to the lack of interest in land titling. Eucario Bermudez, who has served as a nucleus coordinator and head of the community action board in Cartagena del Chairá, backs up this assertion: “People were committed to cultivating coca, planting coca, and subsisting on coca.” People were unconcerned with titles.

This lack of interest in land titling, according to Bermudez, was more of an attitude of “the new immigrants,” those who arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, drawn by the “coca boom.” Many colonists were anxious about formalizing their lands and securing titles before that time.

These crops have been drastically diminished over time, thanks to government intervention such as fumigation and illicit crop substitution tactics, and many coca leaf growers have departed Caquetá. According to the United Nations, 2,076 hectares were registered in 2020, with the majority of them situated in the Bajo Caguán region, near the Putumayo department’s border.

Those who stayed, many of whom were descendants of the original settlers, began to reclaim the abandoned lands, “building farms” and converting them for cattle ranching, which is currently the dominant industry in the Bajo Caguán region. However, many lacked land titles, limiting their ability to obtain bank loans to boost their productivity.

“That’s why we had to ask the government to send someone to give us ownership of the land. Incoder appeared: it was of little benefit to me, and it was good for some but terrible for others “According to Murcia, the requisite titling has not been completed.

With the demobilization, disarmament, and reincorporation of the extinct Farc under the Peace Agreement with the Colombian State in 2017, the issue of property ownership “becomes a very serious problem,” according to him, because a new repopulation arrived with the purpose of seizing the land.

“As soon as the FARC leaves the territory, people from neighbouring municipalities in Caquetá and the interior of the country rush into the forest reserve zone to claim their land, which can be as large as 200 or 300 hectares for a single individual,” explains this peasant leader.

And the serious problem about which this leader speaks is not only environmental but also the response of President Iván Duque’s (2018-2022) government, which responded to the new repopulation with Operation Artemisa, a military strategy to combat deforestation that has resulted in serious human rights violations, as denounced by the communities.

VerdadAbierta.com requested information from the National Land Agency (ANT) to update data on the number of rural property titles in Cartagena del Chairá and land formalization actions in the municipality’s Forest Reserve Zone, but received no response, despite the communications office claiming to have the answer ready at the time of this report.

They set limits

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The Colombian government enacted Law 160 in 1994, which established the National System of Agrarian Reform and Rural Peasant Development, whose main goal was to “control the occupation and use of the Nation’s uncultivated lands, providing precedence in their allocation to low-income peasants.”

The Family Agricultural Unit (UAF) was defined as a “basic agricultural, livestock, aquaculture, or forestry production enterprise whose extension, in accordance with the agro-ecological conditions of the area and with appropriate technology, allows the family to remunerate its work and have a capitalizable surplus that contributes to the formation of its patrimony,” according to this regulation.

Incora set the size of the UAFs in Resolution 041 of 1996, which were defined based on the land’s production characteristics. A range of 86 to 117 hectares was defined in the case of Cartagena del Chairá, which was included in the Altillanura del Caquetá zone.

This means that, in order to avoid land grabbing, the State has to allocate vacant lots in accordance with the established UAF and only provide one property per family.

According to public deed No. 225 of February 19, 2009, registered in a notary’s office in Florencia, Bermudez is one of the beneficiaries of the adjudication of 117 hectares. The contradiction is that they are located within the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone, which means that 70% of the land will be used for cattle and the remaining 30% will be used for conservation.

“I was quite concerned about the deeds in my situation,” admits this rural leader. “Without possessing land, without working the land, and without it belonging to the State, no…,” I used to remark. So, in 1999, I travelled to Incora. And, ten years later, after arguing that he should be subject to agrarian reform, he was able to persuade Incoder to give him the land on which he worked: “and I am one of those who are within the fringe of Law 2 of 1959, but there are a lot of others who have titles, deeds, like me.”

“The state is incapable of recognizing its own errors,” he continued. “They forced you to have at least 50 hectares of pasture in order to get a loan or a title,” he explained, holding out the papers for the mortgage loan he obtained from the Agrarian Bank a year after getting his title.

“Where are the state-provided job chances for peasants?” What happened to low-interest loans? “They send you to deforest and then blame you for all the evils?” Bermudez wonders.

A thorough examination of this farmer’s property documentation reveals agrarian institutional dysfunction as well as the State’s lack of awareness about the inventory of unoccupied land and borders. According to what this portal was able to establish with georeferencing mechanisms, the property is actually in San Vicente del Caguán and in an area protected by Law 2. The title deed and real estate registration folio place the property in the jurisdiction of Cartagena del Chairá, including the payment of the property tax in this municipality, but according to what this portal was able to establish with georeferencing mechanisms, the property is actually in San Vicente del Caguán and in an area protected by Law 2.

Restrictive decisions

Foto: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

In 2013, more than 50 years after the enactment of Law 2, the Colombian State decided to carry out a zoning and management procedure for each of the forest reserves established by that law, in addition to the constraints imposed by the UAF for the adjudication of uncultivated lands.

The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development adopted the corresponding zoning and management of the Amazon Forest Reserve for the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, and Huila, covering an area of close to 12 million hectares, through Decree 1925, issued on December 30, 2013, in order to have a better development planning tool.

There are three sorts of zones: A, which is highly restricted on the conservation mission; B, which is slightly more permissive for other activities; and C, which allows for agroforestry, silvopastoral, and other economies that are environmentally friendly.

Farmers in Cartagena del Chairá were impacted by this policy since a substantial portion of this Caqueta municipality was designated as category A, the most restrictive for agricultural activity, putting them once again between a rock and a hard place.

The researcher Fajardo adds that these regions have not been the subject of a coherent policy: “People have just arrived there, in some cases titled, in the midst of the most awful turmoil.” And what is the best way to get through these obstacles?

On the one hand, to advance in the implementation of the Peace Agreement, particularly with regard to the Comprehensive Rural Reform, which includes among its guidelines “to delimit the agricultural frontier and protect areas of special environmental interest,” for which it is necessary to generate for the peasant population that occupies or borders with them balanced alternatives “between environment and well-being and good living, under the terms of the Peace Agreement.”

On the other hand, an agrarian reform should be implemented in which “the peasants who have been expropriated, dispossessed, and exiled would be given access, not over there, on the agrarian frontier, in this case, to these forest reserves, but in the interior, that is, to areas with quality soils, access to markets, and infrastructure, which has been impossible, particularly since the Chicoral Pact.”

Although the academic believes that protected areas will be protected if peasants are stabilized in areas suitable for use and access to rural property, social leaders such as Luis Antonio Valencia, a teacher who has worked in the region for 23 years and coordinates the Mesa Municipal de Concertación Agroambiental por el Derecho a la Tierra in Cartagena del Chairá, believes that reorganizing so many families who have lived on these lands is a distant prospect.

Valencia stated, “These lines must be grounded.” “Alternatives for removing some trails and land use rights in other zones must be investigated. So that he doesn’t keep getting scammed, the farmer needs a document that verifies he owns the land.”

Keep an eye out for our upcoming instalment: VerdadAbierta.com looked into how and why deforestation has escalated in the previous four years, who the deforesters are, and what the State’s judicial and military initiatives to confront the situation have yielded.


The help of Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, as well as the Mesa Municipal de Concertación Agroambiental por el Derecho a la Tierra de Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá, made this piece possible.