Ahead of the peace vote, Colombia's displaced slum dwellers dream of home

ALTOS DE FLORIDA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The ramshackle community of Altos de Florida and others slums dotted across the windswept hills on the outskirts of Bogota stretch to the horizon.

Here, hundreds of thousands of Colombians, who fled their homes to escape a five-decade war, live in mostly informal settlements struggling to scrape a living.

On Oct. 2, they will get a chance to approve or reject a peace deal ending a conflict that has killed 200,000 people and made millions more refugees in their own country.

Recent polls show the majority of Colombians will back the peace deal, between the government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), paving the way for 7,000 FARC fighters to hand in their weapons and become a political party.

How Colombia addresses the needs of its millions of displaced citizens will be a measure of the war-scarred nation’s ability to build lasting peace.

Isaac Valencia, who lives in a hilltop shack, said he plans to vote in favor of the peace deal in next month’s plebiscite.

“It’s a chance to live in peace,” said the 33-year-old, who was driven from his home in the rainforest province of Choco by violence as a boy.

“But peace isn’t about reaching an agreement and then that’s it we now live in peace. No, peace is a strategy. And if the state doesn’t seek a strategy to improve the quality of life of every Colombian, we will continue to live in the same situation.”


Like most slum residents, Valencia is more concerned about his immediate future - whether he will secure land tenure and have access to water, proper sanitation and decent housing.

“It’s difficult here without work and not knowing if tomorrow you will be kicked out onto the street when someone claiming to be the landowner turns up,” Valencia said.

He sought refuge in Bogota almost a decade ago and - like most displaced residents living here - lacks a formal title to either his land or property.

Saving money earned from construction work, in 2008 Valencia paid $1,000 to purchase a document for a small plot of land on which he built his home using pieces of wood and scrap metal.

But the document does not officially recognize Valencia as a property owner.

“When you have a home that’s yours, you have peace knowing that tomorrow someone isn’t going to turn up and tell you to leave,” Valencia said.

Experts say sorting out unclear land tenure and awarding land titles in urban areas is a pre-requisite for building lasting peace.

The majority of the displaced population lives in urban areas, said Martin Gottwald, acting head of the U.N. refugee agency office in Colombia.

“While the peace agreement mostly focuses on rural areas, these people also require support, particularly regarding the legalization of the informal settlements where many of them live,” he said.

Local government authorities say they are pushing ahead with plans to give people in Bogota’s slums formal property deeds.

But red tape, delays in resolving land disputes and a lack of a proper land registry system are hampering progress, land experts say.


While the peace accord includes plans to promote rural development by giving farmers credit and creating a land bank through which farmland would be redistributed, almost no reference is made to urban land rights.

“The land rights of people who have been displaced and are living in urban areas aren’t mentioned in this accord,” said Daniel Paez, head of the Urban and Regional Sustainability Studies group at Colombia’s Los Andes university.

“One of the reasons why urban land rights aren’t mentioned is because the political capital of the FARC is rural and not urban. It has been a territorial conflict in rural areas.”

Further down the hill along unpaved paths, Alba Lucia Ortiz, who was driven from her home because of guerrilla violence in 2007, laments the life and land she once had.

“We used to live well. Our 120-hectare farm had cacao and fruit trees and pack mules. We had to leave everything behind. I don’t know what happened to my farm,” Ortiz, 58, said.

She now works in a cafe washing dishes and rents a flimsy shack whose roof is made from scraps of corrugated metal held down by bricks.

Ortiz says she will vote in favor of the peace deal, despite doubts about FARC handing in their weapons. But she wonders if displaced families in cities, like hers, will reap the rewards peace could bring.

“I’d ask the government to also look at the needs we have here,” Ortiz said.

“The biggest need I have is housing. It’s my dream to have a small plot of land here. I’d build my house and live there until the rest of my days.”

Another challenge is getting water. With no sewage systems and access to water, slum residents have to pay for expensive water that is delivered by truck about once a month.

“It’s like begging for a drop of water,” Ortiz said.

As peace nears, the government hopes more displaced farmers will be encouraged to return to their lands.

Under a land restitution program started by the government in 2011, about 200,000 hectares of stolen or abandoned land has been handed back, benefiting about 23,000 Colombians.

Yet, despite national efforts to restore land ownership, many displaced families living in Colombia’s cities do not want to return home.

Some say they do not feel safe returning home and do not want to confront painful memories of the past, while others say there are no jobs in rural areas and are reluctant to return to the countryside only to have to rebuild their lives once again.

“I don’t want to go back. If I go back I won’t find my farm as it once was. I wouldn’t be the same,” Ortiz said.