Advancing Land Rights in Colombia

August 19, 2021

In recent decades, Colombia has become a regional leader on policies to further the autonomy of Afro-Latin American communities, promote sustainable livelihoods, reduce deforestation, and conserve biodiversity. A legal landmark in this process was Law 70, passed in August 1993, which created a legal pathway for Afro-Colombian communities to receive collective title to historically occupied territories in rural areas. This right to collective title has major potential ramifications for environmental conservation, as research indicates that lands collectively managed by their inhabitants are less vulnerable to degradation than privately owned lands or even, in some cases, public conservation lands.

In a new white paper, “Advancing the Land Rights of Afro-Colombian Communities: A Qualitative Evaluation of Efforts to Implement Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993,” ESI examines the objectives, achievements, and challenges of Law 70, and offers recommendations for the future.

The white paper was written by a team of ESI and affiliated researchers including lead author Caroline White-Nockleby, a PhD student in the MIT History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society Program. It was developed under the ESI Natural Climate Solutions Program, with support from MIT’s Martin Luther King Visiting Professors and Scholars Program, which sponsored the appointment of Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia, an author of the paper and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, as an MLK Fellow.

Law 70 and its challenges

When it was passed nearly 20 years ago, Colombia’s Law 70 broke new ground by offering an innovative way to advance four key goals: racial justice, economic autonomy, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation. Yet due to a number of challenges, the Law still has not been fully implemented.

ESI’s new white paper presents the results of interviews with individuals engaged in Law 70’s formulation, operationalization, or implementation, including members of Afro-Colombian communities and employees in the nonprofit, academic, private, and government sectors. These interviews seek to illuminate what Law 70 has achieved so far, how it has been put into operation, the reasons for delay in its full implementation, and what processes and resources would be most useful to advance the law’s objectives and operationalization in the future.

Analysis of the interviews indicates that Law 70 has generated some significant achievements in granting both land rights and greater visibility to Afro-Colombian communities—but also that the collective titles granted by the law are widely perceived as deficient and unstable. While challenges remain to realizing the vision of Law 70, the law still has enormous potential to advance its crucial goals, including conserving the biodiversity of Colombia and better managing its lands to mitigate climate challenge.

ESI is committed to community-based conservation, with a particular interest, through the Natural Climate Solutions Program, in Afro-descendant and Indigenous collectively owned lands. Much of the natural wealth in the Americas is located in the territories of Afro-descendants and Indigenous communities, where vital environmental services, including biodiversity conservation and carbon capture and sequestration take place. By publishing this analysis of Law 70, ESI aims not only to provide key insights for stakeholders and decision-makers in regard to Law 70’s future, but also to spur further research into community-based conservation in Latin America and beyond.

Read the full white paper.