LA HORMIGA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When gunfire and cylinder bombs erupted around their farmhouse, nestled in the jungle in Colombia’s southern Putumayo province, Jesus Alebio Portillo and his family took refuge under a bed and, trembling with fear, waited until the fighting stopped.
A decade ago, battles between paramilitary groups and their most bitter enemies, the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), took place almost every week as the two sides fought for territorial control.
The unrelenting violence prompted an exodus of thousands of villagers from the farmlands around the town of La Hormiga and across Putumayo during the peak of violence in early 2000s.
“We were caught in the middle of the crossfire,” Portillo, a farmer and father of two children, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Once the FARC told us we had to leave as there would be a confrontation with the paramilitaries. They gave us two hours to leave. The whole village left, 80 to 100 people,” he said, recalling the first of four times his family had to flee.
More than five decades of conflict have forced 6.7 million Colombians to flee their homes, many of them poor farmers like Portillo, making the country home to the second biggest internally displaced population after Syria.
Some of the land left behind was abandoned, left idle for years as farmers sought refuge in nearby towns. Other land was seized by paramilitary forces with farmers often pressured by the armed groups to sell out at cut-rate prices.
The government itself estimates that 6.5 to 10 million hectares of land - up to 15 percent of Colombian territory - have been abandoned or illegally acquired through violence, extortion and fraud.
Portillo is one of the lucky ones, back on his land as part of a 10-year government program launched in 2011 to return millions of hectares of land, address unequal land distribution and reduce rural poverty.
The national effort to restore ownership and tenure is unfolding as peace talks, now in their third year, continue between the government and the FARC, the country’s largest guerrilla group, in Cuba.
How Colombia ensures those who were displaced can return safely to their lands and rebuild their lives is a measure of state territorial control and prospects for lasting peace in war-torn provinces like Putumayo, experts said.
Under a historic land restitution law passed five years ago, the government of Juan Manuel Santos has handed back 200,000 hectares of land, together with land titles awarded by judges, benefiting about 20,000 Colombians.
But this accounts for just a fraction of the millions of hectares of land stolen and abandoned.
Of the 80,000 land claims lodged so far with the government authorities less than half are currently being processed, hampered by bureaucratic red tape and sorting out who legally owns disputed and abandoned land.
For Portillo, returning to his plot of land means the promise of a better future.
Under the land restitution scheme, he has received a grant, fertilizer and seeds, and an agronomist visits the pepper farm every month to provide technical support.
“When we came back everything was covered by the jungle. We lost everything. We had to start all over again,” said Portillo, as he and his wife tend to rows of pepper trees surrounded by dense jungle where parrots and monkeys chatter.
“The land is how I breathe, live and survive. Working the land is the only thing I know how to do. I can’t survive in the city. I can only beg for food there.”
Portillo, 56, hopes the hip-high pepper trees will bear their first harvest in eight months time, bringing in an income of about 990,000 Colombian pesos ($335) a month, nearly double the monthly minimum wage.
The trickle of families returning to their small vegetable and cattle farms around La Hormiga is a showcase of government efforts to help displaced families rebuild their lives.
A 2003 peace accord led to around 35,000 paramilitary fighters handing in their weapons, largely bringing an end to battles between rebel and paramilitary forces.
Attacks by the FARC have also largely stopped in recent months after rebel commanders declared a unilateral ceasefire last July as part of ongoing peace talks, encouraging more displaced farmers to return to their lands as violence has ebbed.
But many are still too afraid to return to deserted villages surrounding La Hormiga as the shadow of violence lingers.
Bullet holes and faded graffiti scrawled by armed fighters remain on some of the facades of abandoned brick homes.
“Some neighbors haven’t come back. It’s too painful for them to return. Many innocent people, women and children, were killed,” Portillo said.
ROOT OF CONFLICT
Unequal land distribution was a key reason why the FARC took up arms back in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired agrarian movement that fought to defend the rights of landless peasants.
Today just over one percent of Colombia’s landowners hold more than half of the country’s agricultural land, making land distribution in Colombia among the most unequal in the world, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
It is an issue at the center of the peace talks. The FARC and the government have agreed to promote rural development and create a land bank through which farmland would be redistributed.
If a peace accord is signed, it would likely pave the way for a deluge of new land claimants and encourage more displaced farmers to return home.
Another successful land claimant, Andrea Gomez, who was displaced three times, hopes her new one-hectare pepper farm will bear its first produce next year.
Reached by a narrow dirt path cut through humid jungle, her wooden hut on stilts is surrounded by pepper plants irrigated by a drainage canal, along with orange, plantain and cacao trees.
“It’s changed my life and that of my family. The land gives me everything I need, all my food. Without it I don’t have anything,” Gomez said.
Gomez, 30, says she felt emboldened after she received a land title in her name in 2013.
“Having a land title makes me feel important. I feel valued. I now have rights. I can decide about the future of my farm. No one can take it away from me,” she said.
Returning land in the cases of Portillo and Gomez was relatively easy because it involved unoccupied farmland and there was no one to dispute their ownership.
But other land claims involve plots snatched by organized crime networks and guerrilla groups, bent on maintaining control of their fiefdoms, cocaine-smuggling routes and illegal mining.
In recent months, renewed violence against land rights campaigners threatens to undermine gains made in Colombia’s land restitution efforts.
While paramilitary groups have demobilized, thousands of former paramilitary fighters morphed into new drug gangs, known as BACRIM, which the government now regards as Colombia’s biggest security threat.
These groups “are still systematically violating human rights ... and interfering with the restitution of (stolen) land,” Todd Howland, the U.N.’s human rights representative to Colombia, said in March.
Last year 105 community leaders, including land rights activists, were killed in Colombia - a 35 percent rise compared to 2014 - according to the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre, a Bogota-based think tank.
Around 3,000 community leaders, including land campaigners who have received death threats, receive protection from the government, ranging from bodyguards to bullet-proof vests.
In Putumayo, returning land is also slow and difficult because parts of the province remain under guerrilla control, and the region’s vast coca fields - the raw ingredient used to make cocaine - are controlled by criminal gangs and FARC rebels.
Heavily armed police standing behind sand-barricade checkpoints and army tanks stationed along the partly unpaved main road that reaches Colombia’s border with Ecuador, are signs of the government’s tenuous control here.
Another is the sight of several plain-clothed guerrillas belonging to the FARC’s network of thousands of urban-based informants hanging around on a street corner, less than a kilometer away from the nearest police checkpoint.
“It hasn’t been easy. In some areas it’s not possible for the state to enter because the FARC still have a very strong presence,” said David Narvaez, who heads the Putumayo office of the government’s land restitution agency.
“The president decided to start this land restitution process in the middle of the conflict and despite the fact that the war isn’t over, which is why we’ve come across many difficulties and what makes this process unique in the world.”