Leveraging institutional strengthening to improve Colombia’s land governance and rural development capacity.
The history of land rights in Colombia is a centuries-old tale of colonialism, highly concentrated land ownership and unsuccessful agrarian reforms. Fifty years of civil strife have left vast sections of the country’s land undocumented, vulnerable to land record manipulation and outright lawlessness. Under the landmark peace agreement, the Government of Colombia has committed to addressing the land issues that have so often been at the heart of the nation’s conflicts – by formalizing property rights across the country, organizing the national registry and recovering lands that belong to the state.
In a warehouse on the outskirts of the capital, the nation’s property registry authority—the Superintendence of Notary and Registry (SNR)—stores over 80,000 paper-based property ledgers, some dating as far back as the 18th century. In 2015, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to restore, transcribe, digitize and conserve the records, seeking to modernize the disorganized and unreliable land administration system that had persisted for generations.
In addition to organizing the historical documents, the court ordered the SNR to determine how much land had been acquired irregularly (without formal documentation) and continued to be held unofficially. A year-long investigation showed that at least 30 percent of the nation’s territory—some 5 million hectares of land—was acquired irregularly.
“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 post-conflict era, the national government has pushed rural land reform to the forefront of national dialogue by creating a new land administration authority, the National Land Agency. The agency is mandated to begin an ambitious land formalization campaign—in response to the fact that six out of every ten parcels in Colombia are informally owned—and coordinate rural development strategies with its sister 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, through its Land and Rural Development Program, plays a key role as facilitator. On its surface, USAID’s program acts as a conduit between national, regional and municipal administrations, improving intergovernmental coordination and making it easier for sub-national government agencies to mobilize domestic resources to address land issues and rural development. At a deeper level, the program is fostering critical public policy and governance changes that are improving Colombia’s land regulatory framework.