Current conditions in Ecuador may present a window of opportunity for progress on land tenure and property rights, for three primary reasons. First, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution and progressive legislation such as the new Public Finance and Planning Code, the Decentratization Code, the National Territorial Strategy, and the National Plan for Well Being have increased effective representation of all Ecuadorians and created opportunities for public participation in political processes, including advocating for improved land rights and support for the rule of law. Second, a growing awareness of the importance of environmental issues in Ecuador provides an opportunity to bring tenure issues to the forefront, as they are closely related to conservation of biodiversity and use of natural resources including land, water and forests. Third, USAID program success in the areas of conservation, protection of biodiversity, and land titling and registration may provide a platform for increased activity in all of these areas.
KEY ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERVENTIONS
- Improve municipal capacities in land governance. Decentralization has provided local governments with the opportunity to have a greater voice in land matters, but some local governments lack the capacity to take advantage of the recently devolved authority. Through its Municipal Strengthening Project, USAID is providing technical expertise to promote effective and accountable governance at local levels. The project plans to provide at least 20 local governments with training and technical support for institutional strengthening, income generation, and civil society participation. The Municipal Strengthening Project creates an opportunity for the GOE to strengthen capacity in land administration at the local level. Working with the framework created for the Municipal Strengthening Project and drawing on the experience implementing the USAID Integrated Management of Indigenous Lands Project, USAID and other donors could extend the scope of the assistance provided to local governments to include capacity building and institutional strengthening to support land administration functions through technical training and assistance developing and refining systems and procedures.
- Expand and update data on land markets. Empirical data on land markets in Ecuador is old and much of the secondary research is anecdotal or limited to discussion of general trends. It is important to understand levels of formality and informality in the land markets, and to quantify numbers of titleholders and registered parcels. Also, more is needed to understand the reasons for legal and institutional constraints on land market development. As part of more general support for the decentralization process, USAID and other donors could work with the GOE and local government institutions to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the status of rural and urban land market development and analyze the legal, institutional, political, economic, and cultural reasons for weak land market development.
- Support efforts to update and simplify the land registration system. Registration records are outdated for over half of all rural properties, and an additional 12% of rural properties lack titles. Registering a land transaction takes upward of a year, and the administrative structure for registration and titling can in some cases be duplicative and lack transparency. USAID and other donors could work with the GOE to improve, update, and simplify the land titling and registration systems for both rural and urban land.
- Increase access to formal urban land markets for the poor. Increased numbers of migrants to urban areas and natural population growth in the cities have propelled rising demand for housing in urban areas. At the same time, constraints in the formal market, such as a lack of land suitable for development, have kept prices for housing in the formal sector out of reach for the poor and for many middle-income families as well. Land invasions have ensured and informal settlements are common. Most urban poor have insecure land rights and their living conditions are inadequate. The GOE is implementing a new program through the Ecuador Institute of Social Welfare (IESS) to provide poor families with a subsidy and bank credit for housing purchases. USAID and other donors could help the GOE ensure that the new program provides the intended benefits to poor families by conducting baseline and preliminary research and surveys of vulnerable populations, developing targeted pilot programs, creating procedures and processes for the program that ensure its benefits reach the most marginalized groups, and helping local NGOs identify beneficiaries and support their participation in the program. Donors can also provide the GOE with technical assistance and support for plans to formalize the rights of poor families to plots in informal settlements and help to identify and address barriers preventing poor people from accessing the formal land and housing markets in urban areas in the future.
- Strengthen women’s land rights. Although the law provides that women enjoy the same land rights as men, this is not the case in practice. Additional research is needed to determine how to make this legal equality a reality on the ground, especially in regard to land titling and registration. Any future donor initiatives related to land titling, registration, or conflict resolution should incorporate strong gender components specifically aimed at promoting women’s rights to land.
- Support indigenous rights to land and forest resources. Indigenous territories are critical in Ecuador because they cover a fifth of the country and indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized in Latin America. Many indigenous peoples have a long-term vision that combines biodiversity conservation with sustainable use of renewable resources in a strategy to improve the quality of their lives. USAID and other donors have been active supporters of projects to formalize the rights of indigenous communities and provide them with the technical and institutional resources to manage their land. These efforts — including USAID’s Conservation of Indigenous Territories project, Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon, and Sustainable Coasts and Forests project – will be generating a substantial amount of data and experience that could be useful to the development of expanded and related programs. USAID and other donors can help ensure that project experience is captured and evaluated and lessons learned and best practices collected and disseminated in order to inform the refinement and expansion of current projects and development of follow on projects.
- Strengthen measures to mitigate deforestation. Ecuador‘s ecosystems are under extreme pressure. The country‘s high deforestation rate is a result of oil exploration, logging, road-building, and market demand for agricultural products such as daily, meat, and palm oil. However, the GOE is committed to combating further environmental degradation through the ―Nature‘s Bill of Rights‖ in the 2008 Constitution, and as a member of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), which has developed criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management and a platform for dialogue between national forestry authorities and through its efforts to achieve REDD+ readiness. (REDD+ is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.). USAID and other donors could build upon Ecuador’s commitment to combating deforestation by supporting programs that protect existing forests, restore degraded forests, promote sustainable livelihood activities for local communities outside of forest areas, and encourage dialogue among all stakeholders currently using forest resources.
Ecuador is a small and densely populated country and has the 11th highest rate of biodiversity in the world. Land distribution within the country is highly unequal along geographic and class lines; a result of this is that the rural poor tend to work in agriculture, have limited or no access to land, and work low- productivity land.
Rapid urbanization and increased informality have put pressure on Ecuador‘s cities to provide land, housing, and infrastructure. The current status of land ownership, which is fragmented, is a function of changing patterns of land tenure and land ownership in the urban periphery driven, in part, by land reform policies.
The legal framework for land tenure and property rights,though well intentioned, has been limited by gaps or contradictions in laws, lack of implementation, poor intergovernmental coordination, and corruption. The institutional framework to support laws has been constrained by limited financial resources, continually shifting mandates and responsibilities, and lack of capacity.
Securing formal property rights through titling remains a significant challenge. Registration records are outdated for over half (60%) of all rural properties, and 12% of rural properties lack title. The titling and registration system is characterized by a lack of accessibility, lack of resources, high transaction costs, slowness, corruption, and lack of transparency. Squatting in both urban and rural areas is common.
The GOE has been progressive in recognizing and formalizing land rights of indigenous groups, but conflicts exist between the state and indigenous groups as they relate to ownership, use, and access rights.
Women‘s land rights are divided along customary and legal lines. While formally women enjoy equal rights, they are less able to own land and have secure access to loan and credit markets. In some regions of Ecuador, however, women constitute a majority of landowners because of the particular characteristics of land tenure practices in those regions.
It is difficult to assess the current status of the land market empirically due to a dearth of data on land transactions in both urban and rural areas. What is known is that the market is distorted by a preponderance of informal land sales, rentals, and leases.
Within Ecuador, land-related conflicts exist at many levels: between indigenous groups and settlers; between communities and private sector industry; and between illegal settlers and property owners.
Ecuador is rich in water, forest, and mineral resources. However, stresses on water systems, ongoing deforestation, and land conflicts associated with mining pose significant threats to the stability and biodiversity of the country.