Why Land Issues Matter in Rural and Urban Development

Municipal Land Offices throughout Colombia are providing local leaders with the tools to execute major development projects.

A Town with Encanto

The sleepy municipality of El Carmen was declared a National Heritage Site in 2005, but tourists did not start streaming in until 2016 when the government signed a Peace Accord with the FARC rebel group. Isolated in the lush mountains of Norte de Santander, the long-lasting conflict paradoxically served as a cushion to conserve its cobblestone streets and colonial houses, making it one of the country’s most authentic pueblos mágicos.

Now municipal leaders are following through on a strategy to give visitors a better taste of their town in a breathtaking setting by improving the town’s malecón and opening up trails to beautiful viewpoints like the Cerro de la Cruz and the Filo de la Virgen. The first step was to make sure the parcels were formalized as municipal property. The Municipal Land Office, created and supported by USAID Land for Prosperity, provided the municipality with the tools and skills to administer the land and process the municipal land titles. Once the properties were formalized, El Carmen mobilized over $830,000 USD to invest in the projects.

Over the last two years, El Carmen’s Municipal Land Office has played a noticeable role in the formalization and titling of public properties, including schools, a police station, and the site of a new hospital in the town of Guamalito, which lies 10 kilometers north of El Carmen. In 2023, municipal leaders took the first steps in executing a $3 million USD ($12 billion COP) project to establish the town’s first hospital, which will serve its population of more than 3,800 people.

For years, the residents of Guamalito and El Carmen had to travel two hours south to Ocaña to receive professional health care services. Last year, outgoing mayor, Wilfredo Gelvez, purchased a parcel neighboring the current health clinic in Guamalito as the hospital’s new home. But without the Municipal Land Office, administering the new piece of land would not have been so straightforward. In this case, the Municipal Land Office played a key role in managing the two parcels and transferring the land in the name of State-run Regional Noroccidental Abrego, which provides health services in El Carmen.

“This is all possible thanks to the coordination between the Municipal Land Office and the government land agencies in our region. The formalization of public properties allows leaders to finance infrastructure projects in areas of public interest like recreation, education, and community centers,” says Gelvez.

Facilitating Urban Development

These stories are indicative of how land tenure issues lie below many investments in essential public services and infrastructure in Colombia’s rural municipalities. In Santander de Quilichao, the largest municipality in Northern Cauca, a region known for land conflicts and violence, land informality rates hover above 50 percent. More than half of all parcels do not have registered land titles.

Santander de Quilichao’s Municipal Land Office was one of the first such offices established over a decade ago with USAID support. The Municipal Land Office is synonymous with urban planning and development. Thanks to secure land tenure administered through the office, Santander de Quilichao leveraged more than $12.5 million USD ($50,000 million COP) in investments over the last four years, more than any Municipal Land Office in Colombia.

Formal land markets discourage the illegal occupation of urban parcels and ultimately result in higher revenues from property taxes. The Municipal Land Office titled hundreds of urban parcels, including public properties like health clinics and schools as well as lands critical to public infrastructure like aqueducts and roads. Land titling has led to investments in a University of Cauca satellite campus, a SENA campus serving 1,500 students, a transportation terminal, and a hospital, among others.

“The Municipal Land Office has generated an important change in how we operate. Before, the issue of land ownership was the last thing we looked at and the reason that investment projects fell through. Now we initiate investment projects in the Land Office,” explains Santander de Quilichao’s mayor, Eduardo Grijalba.

Housing Opportunities

Recently, Santander de Quilichao’s Land Office and its 5 employees focused efforts on lifting a $3.5 million USD housing project off the ground. The Villa María housing complex, which is already connected to public services, is expected to provide a secure home for over 400 vulnerable families while providing a park and sports field for families. Santander de Quilichao’s Land Office already delivered the first 100 land titles to Villa María residents and expects to deliver the other 300 property titles in coming months.

In this case, secure land tenure enabled the municipality to provide dignified housing options and contribute to urban planning and growth in an organized manner. Perhaps most importantly, the Municipal Land Office, which is part of the Planning Secretary, provides residents a place to ask questions about land and property issues, fielding dozens of queries every day.

“People are no longer frustrated with contacting Bogotá or a lawyer to seek information about land formalization. We have a population with more opportunities and knowledge, and the Municipal Land Office has generated solutions for all,” says Mayor Grijalba.

A Successful Strategy

Since 2020, 42 USAID-supported Municipal and Regional Land Offices have helped local governments mobilize more than $87,000 million COP ($31.4 million USD) for investment in public spaces and infrastructure projects. The Land Offices have delivered over 6,800 land titles to families living in the urban areas of rural municipalities and formalized more than 500 public properties.


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