Formalizing Land Through Corporate Social Responsibility

a white house with red shutters

USAID is working with Colombia’s private sector to formalize land and mobilize funds to improve schools and other services.

a bar graph detailing the Land Informality Rates in Bajo Cauca (2019)
Land Informality Rates in Bajo Cauca (2019)

In 2020, when Antioquia’s Secretary of Education unveiled an investment plan to improve the infrastructure of rural public schools and increase attendance rates, the project quickly came to a halt, because the government is not allowed to inject public funds into assets and services on land without a registered land title. All over Antioquia, hundreds of isolated schools have been built on open land, on properties donated by large landowners, or simply on land that never belonged to anyone.

Without a land title, these schools continue to deteriorate and miss out on much-needed public funds.

Formalizing land in Colombia is a long and costly process that involves several government agencies. Rural families who can afford the costs of processing a land title, including lawyer and land surveyor fees, often end up waiting five years or longer for a land title. Relying on local and regional governments, which are cash-strapped or lack technical capacity, is even more unlikely to result in a registered land title.

In Bajo Cauca, one of Antioquia’s poorest regions, land informality rates are some of the highest in Colombia.

What if the private sector destined social development investment towards land tenure security?

Historically, large companies have been wary about getting involved in land issues for fear of appearing to be associated with land grabbing or forced displacement. In the rural areas where investments are most needed, mining, energy, and construction firms prefer to avoid risky security situations and the complex histories related to the armed conflict. Instead, companies aim corporate social responsibility (CSR) investments at economic development, generating employment, or improving healthcare, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandra Peláez stands posted next to a sign that reads "ProAntioquia"Land is a technical topic that is difficult to grasp. Companies may not understand the role of the many government agencies involved or why it is so time-consuming.” says Alexandra Peláez, Director of Education for Culture at ProAntioquia.

In the wake of the 2016 Peace Accords, CSR projects are beginning to recognize secure land tenure as the first step and foundation of rural development. Still, according to ProAntioquia, only 1% of the COP $2.9 billion (USD $1 million) invested by private companies every year in social projects goes towards land formalization.

“The performance indicators are not very attractive either. Due to being such a slow process of creating, and completing cases in order to deliver land titles, it’s not easy to tell a board of directors that they invested money to legalize a case,” according to Pelaéz.

Changing the Paradigm

The privately operated foundation ProAntioquia–which is made up of some of the largest companies in Colombia including Grupo Sura, Argos, Bancolombia, and Nutresa–has spent over 50 years promoting sustainable economic development in the department of Antioquia.

Carlos Lopera stands with another man, both of them holding a certificate.
Carlos Lopera (right) delivering a land title to a beneficiary.

In 2020, USAID Land for Prosperity partnered with ProAntioquia to draw more attention to land issues and raise awareness among its members that by investing in projects that secure land tenure, the private sector could make a social impact, contribute to the goals of the 2016 Peace Accords, and improve the quality of life of rural communities.

Together, USAID and ProAntioquia looked at more than 500 public properties in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region and mobilized COP $847 million (USD $300,000) to title as many properties as possible. ProAntioquia contributed 18% of the total investment, directing funds towards the hiring of a legal expert and land surveyor to fast-track initial property analyses. The team visited 318 parcels, some of which are only accessible by foot or on horseback.

To date, 70 public properties have received registered land titles in six municipalities. The properties correspond to 56 schools, 10 community centers, and four sports facilities.

Ituango’s Secretary of Education and Culture, Leidy Vargas, worked with the teams to identify schools in Ituango, a storied municipality that was occupied by anti-government rebels for years. USAID and ProAntioquia’s support allowed the government to title 15 rural properties in Ituango.

“Secure tenure opens the door to many opportunities in rural development and allows the government to access parts of the municipality that public servants had not seen in over two decades,” Vargas said. Now that these public parcels are formalized, public and private actors can invest to improve them. Last year, the municipal administration of Ituango mobilized COP $300 million (more than USD $100,000) in funds to improve infrastructure and purchase equipment for four rural schools that provide an education for over 225 children.

“These properties may be small in size, but these land titles empower the communities and are a symbol of peace,” says Carlos Lopera, who worked as Antioquia’s regional manager for the National Land Agency during the project.

Engaging the Private Sector

a group of schoolchildren walk in a line Despite the success, convincing the private sector to invest in rural land formalization remains a monumental challenge. Land for Prosperity examined the landscape by looking at nearly 2,000 companies in its eight target regions, and then narrowed down the list to 164 potential partners. A total of 77 companies replied to the proposal and engaged in dialogues and presentations on the subject.

In the end, Land for Prosperity drafted work proposals for five private organizations, but only two projects materialized: ProAntioquia in Bajo Cauca and the National Federation of Coffee Growers, whose investments supported the formalization of 300 coffee farms in rural Cauca.

The partnerships between the private sector and USAID have enormous potential to promote land formalization and rural development. The combination of the private sector’s experience with rapid project execution and supervision and USAID’s ability to coordinate and align government actors and communities, increases the chances for success and generates trust among partners.

“In a country like Colombia, where there are so many unmet basic needs, like sewage, roads, health, education, and malnutrition, one can get lost with what issues to resolve. This partnership between ProAntioquia and USAID has put the issue of land tenure on the public agenda.”
– Alexandra Peláez, ProAntioquia.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure


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