Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2020/The impact of conflict and shifting land tenure on community forestry arrangements on Indigenous Communities in the Colombian Amazon prior to 2016

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Colombia is located in northern South America, and contains 10% of the total Amazon forest (Field Museum, 2013). It is one of the world's megadiverse countries, with 14% of the world’s biodiversity (Global Forest Atlas, 2020). Colombia experienced one of the 20th century’s longest-standing civil conflicts, from 1964 to 2017, involving the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC, for the acronym in Spanish) fighting against the state of Colombia for land reform and anti-imperialism (BBC, 2016). Starting in the 1980’s the FARC exerted considerable power over wide swathes of the Colombian Amazon and controlled many daily activities, including the use of land and forests. This case study examines the impact of changing tenure regimes in two indigenous communities of the Murui-Muina peoples in the Bajo Caguán-Caquetá region, in the Colombian Amazon.


Land management and policy, and particularly the unequal distribution of land in Colombia, has been a source of contention for decades and is considered a key factor in much of the violence in Colombia (BBC, 2016). For example, currently 1% of the land parcels in Colombia cover about 54% of the available land (World Bank, 2017a). There are eight different ministries involved in the granting of land, which complicates the process (World Bank, 2017a). Land policy and restitution will be especially important in the years to come, as many people are able to return to lands that they were forcibly removed from.

Colombia drafted a new constitution in 1991, which is considered one of the most progressive constitutions in Latin America. The Colombian constitution includes a series of Articles that strengthen indigenous land tenure. Article 7 of the Constitution recognizes and protects the cultural and ethnic diversity of Colombia (Constitute Project, 2015). Article 10 recognizes indigenous languages as co-official languages with Spanish in the territories in which they are spoken (Constitute Project, 2015). Issues regarding social, economic, and cultural rights are listed in Articles 42 through 77 of the constitution, many of which relate to land and Indigenous communities. For example, Article 55 outlines the right to collective bargaining, and property rights are guaranteed in Article 58.  

In 2008 Colombia signed an agreement that commits to zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2020 (Global Forest Atlas, 2020). Colombia is a signatory of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF, 2018), and pledges to restore 1 million hectares of forest by 2030 under the Bonn Challenge (Bonn Challenge, 2020). Colombia, along Brazil, spearheaded the Latin America contingent of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, which supports companies in transitioning to zero deforestation supply chains (World Bank, 2017a). Colombia also joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Green Growth Declaration in 2012 (World Bank, 2017a).

Tenure Arrangements

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Numerous studies have shown that when Indigenous communities have both de jure and de facto rights over their land deforestation is lower than in other non-indigenous areas (Ceddia et al., 2015; Nolte et al., 2013; Porter-Bolland, 2012). One study found that deforestation rates inside Indigenous community land in Colombia was three times lower than in other forested areas between 2000 and 2013 (Blackman and Veit, 2018). Indigenous People (IP) make up about 2% of the total Colombian population (Hammen, 2003), but Colombia has one of the most advanced indigenous tenure systems in Latin America (Tropenbos Colombia, 2020).

IP in Colombia live in resguardos, which are designated as indigenous lands. The IPs hold the legal right to access, withdrawal, management and exclusion on their resguardo land, but medium or large-scale logging requires the Indigenous communities to have a permit from the national environmental and development authority, which is often hard to get and requires the community to have a detailed forest management plan (Kusters, 2020). The resguardo system allows indigenous communities to hold their communal land rights in perpetuity (Tropenbos Colombia, 2020). Resguardos are inalienable, but they do limit the options for indigenous communities to receive credit based on land property. Resguardos account for 54% of the Colombian Amazon (Hein et al., 2020), and it is estimated that 43% of natural forests in Colombia fall under resguardo land (World Bank, 2017a).

Resguardos receive intergovernmental tax transfers that enable them to initiate development projects in their communities. These projects are often negotiated in tandem with local municipalities, especially when the development project has implications for both the resguardo and the municipality, such as a road or a hospital. The municipality receives the tax revenue from the Ministry of Finance and distributes the share that is designated for the resguardo(s) (van de Sandt, 2003).

The Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora Resguardos

The focus of this case study will be on two resguardos in the department of Caquetá, along the Caquetá river.

  1. The Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo was created in 1995 and has an area of 17,645 ha, with a population of 84 people in 16 families (Pitman et al., 2019). The Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo is in the department of Caquetá and municipality of Solano.
  2. The Huitora resguardo is north of Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo and was created in 1981 and has an area of 67,220 ha with a population of about 150 people. The population has been falling in recent years as people leave to search for work outside the resguardo (Pitman et al., 2019). The Huitora resguardo is also in the department of Caquetá and the municipality of Solano.


1550s - Resguardo system introduced in what is now Colombia through the Spanish Colonial government (van de Sandt, 2003).

1819 - Colombia declares independence from Spain. The resguardo system is threatened due to an increased focus on economic development, many cabildos dissolved.

Early 1960s - Many resguardos managed by non-indigenous people exploiting Indigenous communities for cheap labor.

1879-1912 - Rubber boom in Colombia (Steffens, 2015).

1932 - Military conflict between Peru and Colombia.

1961 - Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA) enforced new legislation that called for the return of land to IPs. However, INCORA often granted IPs the rights to reservas rather than resguardos, which provides a leasehold to IPs and is therefore less comprehensive than the rights provided under a resguardo (van de Sandt, 2003).

1981 - Huitora resguardo created.

1988 - All existing reservas become resguardos in the Colombian Amazon through Law 30 (van de Sandt, 2003).

1991 - New Colombian Constitution drafted, recognizes the self-governing autonomy of IPs through the resguardo system.

1993 - Natural Resource Management decentralized through Law 99 (Muller, 2006).

1994 - Law 160 is passed, which stipulates that if resguardos do not have sufficient land for all inhabitants then the resguardo must be expanded to fulfill the ‘social and ecological function’ of the resguardo (van de Sandt, 2003). Tax revenue transfers to resguardos began.

1995 - Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo created.

Relevant Actors

Affected Stakeholders

Both resguardos are home to the Murui-Muina people, who live in communities throughout this region of the Colombian Amazon, where primary forests cover 80% of the land (FCDS, 2019). The Murui-Muina are part of the Uitoto linguistic group, and are known as the “children of tobacco, coca, and sweet manioc” (ONIC, 2020). The 2005 census estimated that there are approximately 6,444 Uitoto people living in Colombia. In this case study, the Murui-Muina in the Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos are the affected stakeholders. As rights holders to their resguardos, they control how the resguardo is managed, although in practice the FARC had control over land use decisions in both of these resguardos for more than 30 years.

The Murui-Muina historically have been forcibly removed from their land due to the rubber boom and its associated violence, as well as civil and international conflicts. Over the past century the Murui-Muina have had to relocate to escape enslavement during the rubber boom in Colombia in the early 1900’s (Amazon Conservation Team, 2017). The military conflict between Peru and Colombia in 1932 also caused significant harm to the Murui-Muina, and many of them relocated to what is now Chiribiquete National Park and it’s surrounding areas, including Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos.

Interested Stakeholders

Interested stakeholders in the resguardos of Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora include government agencies, non-profit organizations, international organizations, the FARC, the nearby Predio Putumayo resguardo, and non-indigenous neighboring municipalities.

Government Stakeholders

There are several government ministries with a role in the Bajo Caguán-Caquetá region. These include the National Natural Parks System of Colombia (PNN in Spanish). Both resguardos form an important corridor between two national parks: La Paya National Park and Chiribiquete National Park, the latter of which is the largest tropical national park in the world (IUCN, 2018). PNN does not have control over these two resguardos, but the actions it takes in the nearby National Parks may have spillover effects on the resguardos, especially pertaining to future ecotourism.

Corpoamazonia is the regional sustainable development agency in the Amazon region of Colombia, and is officially linked to the Ministry for Environment and Territorial Development (Muller, 2006). Corpoamazonia is responsible for reviewing the forest management plans of the resguardos and approving logging permits to resguardo inhabitants based on the forest management plan (van de Sandt, 2003). Corpoamazonia succeeded INCORA, which was the Institute for Agrarian Reform (Steffens, 2015).

DGAI, the General Office of Indigenous Affairs, is part of the Ministry of the Interior and is broadly responsible for the identification of mechanisms to defend the rights of IPs and the reclamation of their culture (Government of Colombia, 1995). DGAI provides technical assistance to resguardos on matters such as developing their safeguard plans.

The Ministry of Finance and Public Credit provides tax revenue to municipalities who are required to give a share of it to resguardos in the municipality (van de Sandt, 2003). The multi-governance structure and relationships between the interested government stakeholders, municipalities, and the resguardos can be seen in figure 1 below. Arrows imply that there is a relationship but not necessarily control, between the two stakeholders.

Neighboring Interested Stakeholders

To the south of Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo is Predio Putumayo resguardo, which is about 6 million hectares and extends along the Putumayo river (Pitman et al., 2019). The Predio Putumayo resguardo was created in 1988, and was at the time the largest resguardo in the country. About 10,335 people currently live within Predio Putumayo resguardo, which is also a significant reservoir of biodiversity (OPIAC, 2020). Corpoamazonia designated this region as a conservation priority before the passage of the peace deal in 2016.


FARC presence began to increase in the area around what is now the Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos notably in the 1980s (Pitman et al., 2019). FARC controlled many aspects of daily life, including commerce and agriculture. Many believe that FARC control in Colombia prevented the high levels of deforestation observed in Peru and Brazil in that time period (Paulo J. Murillo-Sandoval et al. 2020), however the presence of the FARC also lessened the involvement of other actors, including the Colombian government, universities, and domestic and international non-profit organizations.

While the FARC exerted control over the Colombian Amazon they granted more autonomy to indigenous communities than to campesino communities, the latter of which were in more urban areas that were better connected to markets and means of transportation (personal communication, Nov 16, 2020). However, the FARC did mandate the growing of coca, for both Indigenous and campesino communities (Hammen, C. M. van der. 2003). Because of this, the Colombian government viewed many Indigenous communities as FARC sympathizers and perpetrators of deforestation, and they were thus excluded from government policy processes on reducing deforestation (Ruiz Serna, 2003), including Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) preparation activities (Schroeder and Gonzalez, 2019).

Non-Profit Organizations and Campesinos

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been involved in helping to create development plans for many communities in the region, along with the help of non-profit organizations, including the Amazon Conservation Team, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, the Field Museum, Tropenbos Colombia, and others. Colombian Universities have also worked in the region for many years.

There are many campesino communities that live in municipalities adjacent to the Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos. These campesinos are permitted to enter resguardos but cannot withdraw anything and do not have any other rights to the land (personal communication, November 16, 2020). The only way that campesino communities gain access to a resguardo is to marry into an indigenous community, which is very common in parts of the Colombian Amazon (personal communication, November 16, 2020).

Indigenous Governance and Aims of Community Forestry

The Murui-Muina peoples are represented by several regional and national indigenous organizations, including the Uitoto organization of Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas (ORUCAPU). All indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon are also represented by the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples in the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), as well as the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), which represents all IPs in Colombia (Corpoamazonia, 2019). They are represented at the regional level by the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA, in Spanish), which represents all indigenous communities living in the Amazon, and covers Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (COICA, 2020). The Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos are members of the Association of Uitoto Cabildos of the Upper Caquetá River (AATI-ASCAINCA; Pitman et al., 2019). AATI-ASCAINCA provides legal representation to the two resguardos and also aids with life plans, negotiations and conflict resolution.

IPs typically have two types of organizations within their community. Caciques are hereditary and define the community life plans that set priorities and plans over the next several years (van de Sandt, 2003). A cacique is led by a chief and a wise leader who both provide spiritual guidance. A cabildo manages land use decisions and interactions beyond the community, and is made up of an elected governor, secretary, prosecutor, secretary, treasurer, and any other roles deemed necessary. Cabildos are the highest governing body in a resguardo and are considered by the Ministry of the Interior as the resguardo’s official public authority (Tropenbos Colombia, 2020). Cabildos are responsible for administering and overseeing the implementation of legal norms in their resguardo (van de Sandt, 2003).

Aims of Community Forestry

The Murui-Muina see the management of their forest as part of their communities’ life plan. The forest has spiritual meaning for them while also providing medicinal and spiritual plants from the forest (Pitman et al., 2019). They use many Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for food, but because they are in a remote area of the Colombian Amazon that has been disconnected from the rest of Colombia due to the conflict, they have very little access to markets (Amazon Sustainable Landscapes, 2020). Therefore, their aim is to conserve the forest for their own use. These two communities are not involved in logging, beyond what they themselves need to build their houses and canoes (Pitman et al., 2019).

The Murui-Muina define their own wellbeing around the idea of abundance, or monifue, that is provided by the forest and encompasses chagras, fishing, hunting, and collection of NTFPs from the forest (Acosta Muñoz et al, 2016). Furthermore, they see the relationships between humans, animals, plants and spirits as vital. These relationships are dependent on preserving the ecosystem for food security and the spirits of the forest (Acosta Muñoz et al, 2016).

The Murui-Muina grow crops and practice agroforestry traditionally on their land in chagras, which are small agricultural plots that are rotated seasonally to maintain soil nutrients (Torres-Vitalas et al., 2019). Salt licks, or areas where salt is naturally secreted from the soil, are commonly found in both resguardos, and the communities hunt in these areas due to the many animals that are drawn to the salt. Bajo Aguas Negras is also involved in ornamental fish harvesting (Pitman et al., 2019).

Chagras are allocated to resguardo residents by the head of the cabildo (Muller, 2006). If there is a need for a communal task like building a maloca (large structure for community gatherings) or a household has a need for extra agricultural labor, then a minga ( a collective work festival) will be held and provide all those participating with food, drinks, and dried coca leaves (Torres-Vitales et al., 2019).

It should be noted that because many indigenous communities in resguardos did not have complete autonomy in the past due to the presence of the FARC, many of them are just beginning to draft their forest management plans. Community forestry in Colombia is therefore in early stages of development compared to other countries in the region (Amazon Sustainable Landscapes, 2020).

The Ministry of Environment in Colombia helps to strengthen the capacity of these communities in forest management through dialogue. They address IPs lack of food security and expand productive value chains for access to income generating activities. Both resguardos are located in the municipality of Solano, Caquetá, and the Ministry of Environment provides support to the municipality for increased monitoring and enforcement to prevent deforestation (Minambiente, 2013).

The Huitora resguardo has signed an agreement with Corpoamazonia on the use and management of natural resources, but the Bajo Aguas Negras resguardo has not (Corpoamazonia, 2019). Both resguardos have been guaranteed increased safeguarding of their rights in 2012 through a safeguard plan that they themselves developed with technical help from DGAI, which defines the main risks and sources of vulnerability that the communities and natural resources on resguardos face (World Bank, 2017b).

Power Analysis

The power that each stakeholder holds in the management of natural resources can be analyzed by determining the importance and influence of each of the stakeholders over the resource. In this case we will examine the power of each relevant stakeholder in the The Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos.

Resguardo habitants are the only stakeholders whose livelihoods rely on the forest in the resguardos, therefore they are the only stakeholders for whom the resource is important. Cabildos, as tenure holders and decision makers over land use decisions are therefore both influential and depend on the resource (“high influence and high importance”). Because cabildos are elected they reflect the preferences of resguardo residents overall, assuming that cabildos are elected freely and each resguardo resident has a vote. Caciques on the other hand do not make land use decisions, and therefore have less influence on the management of the resource.

The other stakeholders involved in these two resguardos do not depend on the resource (with the possible exception of the FARC). However, some of these stakeholders do influence land use decisions in various ways. Corpoamazonia is responsible for granting logging permits to resguardos and reviewing forest management plans, and therefore has influence over how the resguardo is managed. DGAI provides technical assistance to resguardos and therefore also has influence. The Ministry of Finance provides tax revenue to the resguardos, which ultimately may influence land use decisions depending on how these revenues are used by each resguardo.

As explained earlier, the FARC has had control over the resguardos since the 1980s. The FARC is placed in the “low importance, high influence” category because as a national level organization the FARC did not depend on the resource in the same way as the resguardo residents, even if they did extract revenue from illicit crops grown on resguardos.

Other stakeholders may exert some indirect influence, but their influence originates from their neighboring geographic location or by their voluntary technical assistance provided (non-profit organizations and universities). These types of stakeholders would be in the “low importance, low influence” category. At the moment these stakeholders have low influence, but there are scenarios that could result in some of them having more influence in the future. The power analysis of stakeholders in the Bajo Aguas Negras and Huitora resguardos is below in figure 2.

Figure 2

Challenges facing the Resguardos

It is not enough for IPs to have recognition of their land, they must also “have a sufficient resource base and be free from undue outside interference for these institutions to function properly” (van de Sandt, 2003).

The greatest challenge the Murui-Muina have faced in the resguardos of Baja Aguas Negras and Huitora is the conflict brought from external parties and their continuous displacement.This lack of recognition of their rights has been something the Murui-Muina have lived with for decades.

Besides the direct impact of conflict on the Murui-Muina people, the area has also seen other challenges that are common in much of the Colombian Amazon, including wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, mining, cocoa cultivation, and colonization of land by outsiders (Nature Conservancy, 2020). Logging in protected areas in Colombia (including resguardos) accounted for 25% of the total timber that was extracted from 2010-2012 (World Bank, 2017a).

More broadly, other resguardos in the Colombian Amazon have faced challenges with illegal logging done in their resguardos without their knowledge, by either state actors (such as Corpoamazonia) or non-state actors (such as the FARC; van de Sandt, 2003). This has led to distrust and conflict between Corpoamazonia and the indigenous communities on the resguardos, because there are often disagreements over where the timber originated from.

There is risk that the resguardos’ neighboring communities do not have formal tenure to their land, considering that only 320 out of 1,102 municipalities in the country have an updated land cadastral system (World Bank, 2017a). This could lead to conflict within the municipality and cause spillover effects in the resguardos. The close proximity of each resguardo to two large national parks, especially Chiribiquete National Park, could result in overlapping tenure claims if a conservation corridor between these two National Parks becomes a priority. The international recognition and attention that has been given to Chiribiquete National Park in particular could lead to an influx of actors in the region in coming years.


One recommendation proposed by the communities in the two resguardos is to establish a regional conservation area in the Bajo Caguán-Caquetá region that is managed in close collaboration with indigenous communities and campesinos in the municipality of Solano. The management structure would build on already existing local governance structures and would provide capacity support to the indigenous communities seeking more expertise on planning and management of community forests. This would be similar to the role of the British Columbia Community Forestry Association, which uses its convening power to negotiate with other actors and provides capacity support to individual Community Forestry Associations.

These communities may be able to apply some lessons from Jozani forest in Zanzibar. While ecotourism in the region is just beginning, due to the geographic location of these two resguardos to La Paya National Park and Chiribiquete National Park, the communities have a role to play in the management of the national parks and the larger ecoregion, and therefore may have claim to some of the revenue from these activities. The communities have experience managing tax revenue from the Colombian government, so this would be a natural next step if ecotourism in the region is realized.

Colombia has aimed to reform its land tenure system with some of the most progressive laws in Latin America, but these reforms have often not been implemented. Despite progressive policies, in practice there are conflicts on the ground, such as missing or overlapping tenure claims. Some studies recommend that mechanisms for resolving these claims should be a first priority, as well as balancing indigenous priorities for rural development with large-scale commercial rural development, which Colombia is currently prioritizing (Segura Warnholtz et al., 2019).


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