Returning the Land they Own

The Municipality of Santander de Quilichao is delivering land titles and improving compliance with land restitution rulings

In the early 2000’s, the small town of Lomitas, located in southern Colombia, was the epicenter of several years of paramilitary operations. The violence took the lives of many and displaced hundreds more. When residents returned to their lands, their crops were destroyed and their animals were gone. What’s worse, their properties were in the hands of several sugarcane companies.

Orfanis Sandoval returned to Lomitas in 2008 to find her house had been destroyed. Sandoval’s land was first owned by her grandfather more than 60 years ago. Her father inherited the land, and she and her siblings inherited it from her father.

“Before my father died, my siblings and I decided who would get what pedacito (piece) of land. We worked hard and built what we could,” explains Sandoval.

In 2012, with the support of Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit, the Sandovals and the people of Lomitas began a multi-year legal battle to recover their land and seek compensation for their suffering. Over the years, restitution judges have issued several rulings in their favor, including orders for reparation measures that benefit the entire community. More than 20 restitution rulings have come down in favor of the town, including one that requires the Government of Colombia to title their property.

Orfanis Sandoval (right) and her neighbor, live in Lomitas.

The Guarantees of a Land Title

The titling of the victims’ property is an essential part of land restitution rulings and provides people with a guarantee that their property cannot be stolen from them again. In 2023, Orfanis Sandoval and some of her neighbors received the land titles that were promised to them under the restitution rulings. The land titles, which were delivered more than five years after the initial ruling, may have taken longer if it weren’t for the efforts of the Municipal Land Office.

The municipality of Santander de Quilichao is the main city in the mountains of northern Cauca, approximately 80 kilometers south of Cali. The Municipal Land Office was created in 2017 with USAID support and plays a prominent role in land administration as liaison with Colombia’s National Land Agency as well as with the victims of Lomitas.

Equipped with the capacity to quickly survey a property or research the history of a property deed, the land office team overcomes the typical challenges associated with land administration in Colombia, and they do it from the Municipal building.

The Santander de Quilichao Municipal Land Office has delivered over 600 land titles and mobilized nearly US $15 M in public funding for infrastructure and city improvements thanks to secure land tenure.


“The mere presence of the Land Office is important. We are the social workers who reach out and coordinate with victims in Lomitas, and we provide assistance to the National Land Agency when they come to make technical visits to the parcels being titled,” explains Bernardo Pinzón, a social worker in Santander de Quilichao’s Municipal Land Office.

Over the last decade, USAID has invested resources and expertise to strengthen Santander de Quilichao’s capacity to respond to land restitution rulings. USAID helped create a localized Land Restitution Subcommittee, which supports compliance with restitution rulings. Thanks to the land administration experts embedded in the administration, the municipality has developed and implemented a portion of the collective and individual measures contained in the ruling, proving to be crucial for the community.

The Municipal Land Office has formalized community spaces such as the soccer field, and the municipality built a children’s playground. USAID and the municipality have also organized service fairs in the community, where health entities offered vaccinations to children and adults, dentists provided check-ups, and banks offered financial products.

“Knowing that the public spaces of Lomitas have been legalized by the Municipality gives us the chance to enjoy them without worrying about landowners showing up to claim they own the land,” explains Orfanis Sandoval. “We have more confidence to hold community events.”

Santander de Quilichao's Municipal Land Office Team

“Now we are the owners of the property, and they can’t take that right away. Now we can plant our gardens without fear. We can have chickens. We can invest in ourselves and not feel like we could lose it all again.

Our community feels that the Municipality has been aware of our issues. And we hope that more residents will get the same opportunity.”

-Orfanis Sandoval, Community Leader in Lomitas, Santander de Quilichao


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