USAID Land Champion: Marcela Chaves

Tell us about yourself.

I manage USAID/Colombia’s Land and Rural Development Program (LRDP). Since 2009, I have worked with USAID and have supported USAID’s assistance to the Government of Colombia (GOC) on land related issues. I lead the coordination and implementation of actions to strengthen GOC institutions so they can better and more effectively reach out to remote conflict-affected rural areas and deliver services that will allow Colombia’s sustainable transition to peace. LRDP is USAID’s largest land-related program globally.

At the national level of the GOC, and mostly in the regions, I have seen evidence of how weak land governance and land policies fuel conflict, open doors for illicit economies to flourish, and limit the opportunities for positive transformation within conflict-affected regions while hampering sustainable development and mobilization of resources. At USAID, we are working closely with the national government, as well as the departmental/municipal governments and communities to address structural issues that have impeded effective implementation of land policies in Colombia.

Why is land tenure/property rights important to your work at USAID?

Land has historically been at the heart of the Colombian conflict. For more than 50 years, Colombia has tried to implement socio-economic development in rural areas and to transform conflict affected regions that have weak land governance and land tenure issues as common denominators. When land rights are unclear, socioeconomic development is either limited and/or unsustainable. USAID-targeted regions have faced displacement (Colombia has the second highest number of displaced people in the world, after Syria), very low public and private investment, and difficulties in securing sustainable results for those who most need development opportunities and are vulnerable due to this limitation. At the moment, Colombia has a window of opportunity to address land policy barriers as a result of the peace accord. If Colombia can begin to properly address land policies, this will lead the way for sustained economic growth, increased agricultural production, strengthened state presence, sound environmental practices, and equality for all its citizens. Although a difficult and long-term task, doing this is mandatory if the interest is to truly generate positive conditions in rural areas of Colombia.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see in addressing land tenure/property rights issues? And how are we tackling these challenges?

Some of the main technical issues have to do with lack of access to land information required to implement land policies; a heavy, confusing, and sometimes contradictory legal framework; a diverse array of institutions involved in each process; diminished institutional capacity to address the magnitude of decades of land governance decay that accumulated during the conflict; and unequal distribution of land. Other more difficult issues have to do with political, economic, and social overlapping interests in relation to land.

USAID provides support to the GOC in three different phases. In 2010, we provided support at the public policy level with inputs to the Victims and Land Restitution Law and with the establishment of the GOC conditions to implement it, including the creation of both the land restitution and the victims unit. In 2012 we provided support with increased capacity in the field to begin the implementation of land restitution while support at the national level to address issues such as cadaster versus registry, access to information, institutional architecture continued. In 2013 USAID transitioned its support from filling a service gap within the GOC to providing tools and support to strengthen GOC agencies and remove internal bottlenecks to in turn enable the GOC entities to be fully responsible for accomplishing their institutional mandates. Furthermore, USAID supports the strengthening of local actors such as youth and women groups, mayors and governors to allow their empowerment and regionally-led approach to land policy implementation. Finally, USAID mobilized funding from both the public and private sectors into the areas where we support land policies to commit their investment in economically viable public-private partnerships based on appropriate value chains for each region. With this approach, the expectation is that land beneficiaries will find the right economic conditions in rural areas to transform their lives and their future.

What are some successes USAID has achieved in the land sector?

One of the main successes regarding information management has to do with the launch of the first digital platform in Colombia that will allow over 10 government entities to access and share land restitution-related information in real time instead of through cumbersome and paper-based transactions. It significantly decreases the time it takes the GOC to address land restitution in Colombia. This required significant effort and investments to recover data from the information systems of each one of the participating institutions, yet this information system is still an important base to address broader land policies mandated in the peace accord.

In relation to land formalization, USAID and the GOC have begun the implementation of the first massive land titling pilot in Colombia through a sweep methodology in which the GOC will test how to address massive land titling instead of on a case by case basis. This pilot is expected to significantly reduce the cost and time it takes the GOC to issue titles in any given municipality of Colombia and will, therefore, allow more conflict affected families to access titles quicker. It will also strengthen land governance in conflict-affected municipalities which will allow them to access investment and programs more easily. USAID also supported the signing of eight public private partnerships in targeted regions to make sure that land beneficiaries find the right conditions to remain in their land and improve their livelihoods. These partnerships are showcasing how the public and private sectors can work with small agricultural producers effectively and to secure gains for all the participants, generating trust across all stakeholders.

Finally, according to a recent evaluation of USAID/Colombia land programming, evidence shows that USAID support contributes to strengthening land restitution, with a strong emphasis on gender and ethnic minorities in the recommendations made to the GOC. This evaluation also showed that USAID programming has significantly strengthened institutional coordination and planning while providing contributions at the policy level that have proposed new and more efficient institutional arrangements, that has facilitated decision making.

Final thoughts?

Land in Colombia remains critical to secure, sustainable, and licit conditions to transition rural areas into thriving economies. However, the technical and bureaucratic complexity that revolves around this matter has not permitted sufficient actions at the highest decision-making levels of the GOC. Technical approaches need to be paired with sustained political will and a strong institutional agenda. While the peace accord is a significant step forward, it is just the beginning of a set of conditions that are required and that, in the longer term, will have effects in land policy implementation. It may sometimes sound easier to try and achieve development in conflict affected rural Colombia without getting involved in the longer term and very complex agenda that land entails. However, international experiences around the world have demonstrated that ignoring land issues is seldom a good idea, Colombia precisely being one of them. I believe one of the main challenges is to continue with sustained support while remaining realistic regarding the process that addressing land issues implies.