Land: A post-conflict hurdle for Colombia

By Nicholas Parkinson

Since signing a peace deal with the FARC rebels in 2016, the Colombian government has struggled to reconstruct an important part of the country’s history: land ownership.

Photo by Diego Delso

The history of land tenure is a centuries-old tale of colonialism, large landowners, and unsuccessful agrarian reforms. In addition, 50 years of civil strife have left vast sections of the country vulnerable to land record manipulation and outright lawlessness. Under the peace agreement, the government has committed to formalize property, organize the national registry and, above all, recover lands that belong to the nation.

In a warehouse on the outskirts of Bogota, the nation’s property registry authority—the Superintendence of Notary and Registry (SNR)—stores over 80,000 ledgers, some dating back as far as the 18th century. In 2015, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to restore, transcribe and conserve the records, a testament to how land administration was carried out in Colombia during generations and a glimpse into an unfair land distribution model that drove the latest conflict.

In addition to historical documents, the court ordered the SNR to determine how much land has been illegally acquired and how much continues to lie in the hands of unlawful possessors. A year-long investigation shows that at least 30 percent of the national territory—some 5 million hectares of land—was acquired illegally.

“The State had no idea,” explains Clara María Sanín, a land expert working with the SNR. “Colombia’s history has been characterized by a government incapable of protecting its territory, a centralized administration that allowed faraway, rural regions to do what they want with land ownership.”

Now, in the era of post-conflict, the government has pushed rural reform to the forefront of national dialogue, by creating a new land administration authority, the National Land Agency (NLA). With six out of 10 parcels informally owned, the NLA is mandated to begin an ambitious land formalization campaign and coordinate rural development strategies with its co-agencies: the National Development Agency and the Agency for Territorial Renovation.

As the three agencies maneuver in unprecedented ways to ensure that sustainable investments reflect an integrated development approach, USAID’s largest land tenure program in the world, the Land and Rural Development Program, plays a key role as facilitator. On its surface, the program acts as a conduit between national, regional, and municipal administrations, increasing the amount of resources directed to land issues and rural development. At a deeper level, the program affects public policy and governance changes to improve execution within Colombia’s land regulatory framework.

Piloting Massive Formalization

In partnership with the National Land Agency and the Department of Planning, USAID is spearheading a land formalization and multipurpose cadaster pilot in the municipality of Ovejas, a priority municipality in the nation’s post-conflict, which was devastated by two decades of guerrilla and paramilitary violence. The pilot—which is well on its way to updating information for nearly 6,000 parcels and titling 4,000—is streamlining the collection and processing of property and cadastral information in order to reduce costs and provide government land agencies with integrated and reliable land data.

“In the past, the government formalized property in an absolutely isolated manner. This pilot changes the way we do things in rural land administration. In Ovejas, we are focused on resolving all types of land conflicts, from parcel to parcel. The strategy is new, it is massive, and requires a higher degree of institutional coordination than we have ever seen,” explains Juliana Cortés, director of land tenure at the National Land Agency.

The Ovejas Pilot is part of the government strategy to move away from a demand-driven land administration policy to one in which the government assumes the cost of first-time formalization. By doing so, it will alleviate major time and cost burdens that prevent most rural landholders from seeking a valid title. Once a property is registered, future title transfers are much less time and cost intensive.

Institutional Strength

To get this point, the USAID program has worked for nearly five years to iron out a playing field where government entities are more willing to share information and coordinate efforts—horizontally and vertically—to strengthen land tenure, improve land use, and catalyze rural development.

“By framing land tenure with institutional strengthening, the mission is testing a new approach that no longer patches holes along the way. We believe the Colombian government to be capable of land administration, we merely nudge them in certain directions and put effective tools in their hands in order to ease the process,” explains Marcela Chaves, the USAID mission’s land tenure expert.

At the core of strengthening Colombia’s land institutions is access to information and using IT systems to manage and ultimately protect the country’s land and property data. The information gathered through the pilot is then stored in a central database that merges former data collection systems, and is shared with the property registry authority.

At the same time, USAID is digitizing over 4 million land documents, which represent a fifth of the country’s area.

“One of our biggest challenges in formalizing land is the ability to count on and trust the information that we have. What we have now is basic data that is not specific enough to make clear decision in public policy forums,” says Cortés.

Better land tenure policies and systems are already catalyzing rural development. In the new, land-conscious Colombia, the government will not invest in rural public properties, like schools, if the municipality cannot produce a property title. Beyond land tenure, the USAID program is using its rapport with government entities to broker private-public-partnerships, in which more than half of the funds are from the public sector. Making public entities the face of development, rather than USAID, increases the public’s confidence in their leaders and institutions.

In a country wracked by corruption and war, a little bit of confidence goes a long way.

Photo by Luis Eduardo Bernal M.