Reclaiming the Rights to Land of Rural Women

USAID is supporting initiatives in Southern Tolima for rural women to understand and reclaim their rights to land

2 women sitting at a table looking at a laptopAs part of the Rural Property and Land Administration Plan (POSPR) being implemented in Chaparral, USAID Land for Prosperity (LFP) partnered with Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit to host a series of workshops to empower rural women about their property rights, land ownership, the care economy, and gender-based violence. These workshops, called nucleos de exigibilidad, were piloted first in Ataco during POSPR implementation. During the sessions, 30 female leaders who are participating in land restitution and formalization processes shared their views of their territory and learned about gender-based violence with a focus on patrimonial and economic violence. The women met three times to discuss crucial topics for their personal growth and the one of their communities, as an opportunity to strengthen their leadership and promote gender equality in Southern Tolima.

Social, indigenous, afro-Colombian, and farmer leaders participated alongside presidents of community action boards and victims of the armed conflict. Some of them are beneficiaries of the POSPR implementation and others are in land restitution processes. These neighbors, although they share similar experiences and complex realities, had never met to talk.

two people standing on top of a hillThe strategy was originally implemented in the municipality of Ataco and was recently extended to Chaparral, with the aim of building the capacity of these women so they can multiply their knowledge with their communities and neighborhoods. The work between the URT and LFP coordinates two important public policies: the one for rural property and land administration, and the one for land restitution.

“All exercises were focused on highlighting the role of women in society and identifying the different types of violence that women face. It was an opportunity to be clear about the relationship and the rights that women have to land,” says Héctor Canal, territorial director of the URT.

Advancing together towards our rights

a group of women standing around a craft tableThe participants showed an unbreakable commitment in this process, becoming agents of change in their communities. Edna Liliana Castro, resident of the Guanábano Brasilia village, has stood out not just as a farmer but also as an influential leader, playing a valuable role in the implementation of the POSPR as a community volunteer. Community volunteers are vital, as they encourage the communities to participate, and disseminate the POSPR methodology and objectives so that people understand the benefits of titling their land.

Their involvement in the workshops was vital to strengthen their leadership in a community with a difficult history: “As social leaders in a rural community, unfortunately we are very forgotten. Peasant and rural women have always been forgotten. We weren’t very clear about our own rights, but in these spaces they taught us in a dynamic way, so we can share this knowledge with our communities, demanding the priority and value that women have.”

Edna also mentioned that the events strengthened the leadership of these women, regardless of their age: “During the workshops, women from different ages came together, from teenagers to senior citizens. Despite the age difference, we managed to build deep connections and mutual understanding, creating bonds that were so strong that we felt like a real family.”

Alcyra Carreño, resident of the urban area of Chaparral, said that the workshops allowed her to recognize the value of her own body as a temple, just like the action of claiming equal rights between men and women when it comes to land: “I would like for us women to become land and property owners. I have my small farm, but I don’t have a formal document that recognizes me as an owner, even though I work the land with my son.”

The last session of the workshops coincided with International Women’s Day, and during the event the women held a discussion with public officials from government entities such as the Agency for Rural Development, the Rural Development and the Community Development and Health Municipal Secretaries, and the Municipal Council. The women were grateful for the opportunity to advocate and take action in favor of their rights, both in rural and urban environments.

“These events help us understand that us women can continue fighting for our rights, and that it is important for many women to feel supported, as we are the core of our families and communities.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure

Formalizing Land Through Corporate Social Responsibility

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

“The world is dressing up in diversity.”

two men sit on a motorbikeInterview with a same-sex couple who requested a joint title to formalize their property in Chaparral, Tolima.

Challenging prejudices and building a more equal future where differences are respected, Mauro Julián Sánchez and Nelson Fabián Solano, a gay couple who requested the joint title of their rural parcel in Chaparral, Tolima, share their experience as part of the implementation of the Rural Property and Land Administration Plan (POSPR) led by the National Land Agency with support from the USAID Land for Prosperity Activity. To date, the large-scale land formalization initiative in Chaparral has resulted in three joint title applications that benefit same sex couples.

a man outside working on a houseWhat is the story of your parcel and how did you purchase it?

Mauro: We each lived in our parents’ house, but we wanted to have a joint parcel, something that belonged to both of us. We decided to buy a parcel to have something that was ours. However, we still don’t have the registered property title to our name. The parcel is two hectares and we work on it with our parents. We grow cassava, plantain and cacao in an organic way, without chemicals, to take care of the environment. We are also dabbling in aquaculture, creating ponds for fish farming.

What was your motivation to submit the joint title application to the National Land Agency?

Nelson: We are the kind of couple that is not common, that sometimes is frowned upon in some rural areas, but we are breaking stereotypes, which is beautiful. We have to start teaching communities that the world is dressing up in diversity. Our motivation is to make sure diversity is understood and respected, specifically when it comes to land formalization and access.

What does it mean to you to have your land titled as a same sex couple?

2 men sit with a woman typing on her computerMauro: It means a lot to us. In rural areas, homosexuality is sometimes negatively perceived, but our idea is to settle down and to be economically stable in the countryside. We want to access benefits such as loans to continue expanding our productive project and become a business. We want to be role models, show the community that the countryside can be profitable not just through production, but also through transformation. We don’t want to be seen just through discriminatory eyes, we want to show that we are capable of doing things better than a straight couple.

Do you think this process highlights the importance of a gender and inclusion approach for the LGBTIQ+ community when it comes to land access?

Nelson: The inclusion of every person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is fundamental to guarantee equality and respect for the rights under land use planning and administration. We participated in a registration session to promote the inclusion of the LGBTIQ+ population in the formalization process, as part of the implementation of the government’s agrarian reform outlined in the Peace Accords.

What would you say to other same sex couples that are considering applying for joint titling?

a family sits with a man typing on his computerMauro: We want to tell them that, regardless of differences, as same sex couples we have the same rights and abilities. We should work together and show the world that homosexuality is not something out of the ordinary. Submitting an application for joint titling is a way to confirm our equality, to give visibility and promote the acceptance of diversity by the wider society, when it comes to land access.

Do you think that improved access to land and property rights helps close existing inequality gaps and reduce gender-based violence?

Nelson: Yes, access to land is an opportunity to close inequality gaps in the life projects of same sex couples. It gives us access to resources and projects offered by regional government entities, providing us with more development and improvement possibilities. We want to change the perception that some people have of us, and show society that we can achieve our goals, overcoming the obstacles that limit our objectives.

What does land mean to the LGBTIQ+ community?

Mauro: Land has an important meaning, especially for us, as we have our roots in this area that was hard hit by the conflict. Access to land means food security. Land is life, it is our origin and our destiny. From land we receive everything we need as human beings. That is why we have to work hard for its conservation, recognizing the value and respect we owe it.

A Neighbor Worth Trusting

Social leaders in Colombia are supporting rural women and promoting property formalization.

Yudy JiménezWhen Yudy Jiménez divorced her husband three years ago, she did not know the “rules of the game.” The couple, who was married for over 14 years, tried to divide their assets: her ex-husband kept the farm, and she kept the house.

But this year when she went to title her property with Colombia’s National Land Agency, her ex-husband tried to request a joint title. Yudy is a 33-year old mother with five children and lives in El Limón, a village of the municipality of Chaparral, in Tolima.

“The topographers came to measure my parcel, and he came to say this was also his. It was not fair, because he had kept the farm and had already sold it,” explained Yudy.

The land surveyors were working for a large-scale land formalization initiative being implemented across the municipality by USAID under direction from the National Land Agency. Fortunately for Yudy, the land surveyors were accompanied by experts in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), social workers who mediate land and property-related conflicts through arbitration, negotiation, and conciliation as an alternative to legal processes. The majority of these types of conflicts are between family members

a house with lots of plants hanging on the outside wall With the presence of social workers, Yudy felt supported as a single mother and as the owner of her parcel, and despite the pressure of her ex-husband, she completed the application to receive her property title in her name.

“Knowing that I will have a title to my property is a blessing. That I am a landowner and that I can continue building without being evicted is a legacy that I want to leave to my children,” she said.

Community Leaders

After that experience, Yudy wanted to play a more active role to make sure other women in Chaparral did not have to go through similar injustices. She found the opportunity to do it as a community volunteer supporting the implementation of the Rural Property and Land Administration Plan (POSPR), the official name of the government’s efforts to increase land formality in her municipality

Throughout the implementation of the POSPR in Chaparral, technical teams visited most of the 10,400 parcels in the municipality. In many cases, these visits involve talking with and collecting information from the owners of the parcel. In order to do this, a network of more than 230 community volunteers act as a liaison between the community and the team of professionals. Almost half of the volunteers were women.

The volunteers learned about conflicts related to land use and tenure, a differential approach to land ownership, as well as environmental and legal restrictions on land use and ownership.

a group of volunteers sit listening to their instructorIn her role as a community volunteer, Yudy helped to identify conflicts like the one she had with her ex-husband. “I remember when a couple fought because the husband wanted to apply for individual titling. I was there to teach them about the care economy and the women’s rights to joint land titling,” said Yudy.

USAID trained the volunteers on the POSPR methodology, land policies and the 2016 Peace Accord, as well as women’s land rights, and through community outreach activities. As a resident, people like Yudy can insert credibility into the activity and encourage an otherwise isolated community to formalize their property.

Inspiring Confidence

Volunteers are critical in strengthening the people’s confidence in land-related initiatives of the national government. Martha Leal also volunteered to work as the connection between her community and land formalization teams in Chaparral.

Thanks to the work of community volunteers such as Yudy and Martha, the government can achieve more community participation and social inclusion in rural land administration and formalization processes.

“It’s vital for rural people to be empowered on the topic of land tenure in order to understand the importance of having a registered land title. With a land title, they can access benefits such as loans or agriculture subsidies.”

-Martha Leal, community volunteer from the village of Betania in Chaparral.

Voices of the Social Leaders

Adela Méndez, smiling.“I am proof that women can also play this role. I have spread the message to the entire community, visited every farm, and ensured that everyone, including women, can participate and benefit from land formalization.” – Adela Méndez, Potrerito de Aguayo

“I became a community volunteer because I see that our rural community is vulnerable. They are not informed about the projects and the things happening outside of the countryside.” – Martha Leal, Betania.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure

Sharing the Gold Medal Experience

A Gold Medal

a graphic of a gold medal for cacao of excellence This year at the Cacao of Excellence Awards, Colombian cacao beans garnered the world’s attention. Competing with more than 220 cacao samples from over 50 countries, Workakao, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Meta, was awarded a gold medal and shared the big stage with 18 of the world’s top cacao producers.

Wokakao’s criollo bean–the only Colombian sample awarded a medal–was described as “complex” but “mild”, a “creamy moderate cacao” that is well balanced with a “pleasant caramel note that lingers in the chocolatey long-lasting aftertaste.”


liquid chocolate being spread on a metal slabWorkakao’s winning sample was the result of hard work to improve quality, yields, and processing through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that was facilitated by USAID in 2021. Motivated by the stakeholders of the PPP, Workakao has encouraged its 900+ cacao farming families to sell their “wet” cocoa beans to its collection center, enabling the cooperative to standardize post-harvest processing and achieve a consistently higher-quality bean after fermentation.

“The gold medal is the result of the work we have been doing with the support of PPP stakeholders and the cacao farmer field schools that taught us to apply the acquired knowledge on our farms,” said Leonel Murrillo, a member of Agroguamal, one of the cacao organizations under Workakao.”

a woman sorting through cacao beansIn the wake of the historic moment, USAID’s Land for Prosperity Activity wanted to take advantage of the momentum. Farmers under additional USAID-facilitated PPPs in the cacao value chain traveled around the country for multi-day experience-sharing workshops to learn more about how Workakao and Meta-based producers are improving cacao processing and marketing as well as how to improve the integration of youth and women into the value chain.

The 16 cacao organizations from Cauca, Meta, Norte de Santander, and Nariño met with key actors to share valuable experiences related to technical processes and management of the bean, operating farmer associations, training rural farmers across a large area, and finding niche export markets for quality aroma cacao. The farmers also shared their experiences with organic certification and environmentally-friendly farming models based on commitments to end deforestation.

“We were immensely happy because the gold medal represents the work of our entire cacao community. It also has injected us with strength and hard work, because the real commitment starts now. We need to be able to sustain the quality of our cacao and give our products an added value, so the benefits reach our communities well into the future.”

– Leonel Murillo, cacao farmer and member of the Workakao Cooperative, Meta, Colombia

The Women at the Heart of Cacao

“We have learned so much on this journey. We have learned that we need to prioritize quality in order to reach buyers willing to pay a better price. Workakao is an example for all of us to continue working towards that quality,” explained Arcelia Prieto, a cacao farmer in Norte de Santander and member of Asoprocanor (Association of Cacao Producers from Norte de Santander and Catatumbo).

Prieto joined the events to share her experience with the creation and promotion of the Women with a Heart of Cacao (Mujeres con Corazón Cacaotero) strategy, which has engaged 70 women producers from the conflictive region of Catatumbo, which is located in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. The empowerment strategy encourages the development of new capacities of women farmers, including technical skills to process and transform their cacao into final products like chocolate.


“What we have learned here with Workakao is that we have to start small, from the base, in order to be successful.”

– Arcelia Prieto, cacao farmer from Norte de Santander.

The women-led strategy also takes into account other aspects of their lives and business such as who will replace them and take over their cacao plantations. The long history of illicit economies in the region and the border with Venezuela have made it difficult to keep children safe and insulated from risky behavior and illegal activities. To confront this harsh reality, the women have incorporated their children into the cacao plantations to teach them essential farming techniques and how the bean is processed.

“As mothers, we all suffer as we watch our children fall victim to drug addiction or illegal activities. They are losing their childhood. So we have included our children to be part of the agribusiness. It’s important to show them from an early age. They are the future and have the potential to show the country that Catatumbo is not just a place for illicit economies.”

– Arcelia Prieto of Asoprocanor.

100 Years of Cacao

To understand how cacao can be a driving force of family integration, the women of Catatumbo need to look no further than the farm of Betsabeth Álvarez, a cacao legend in Colombian hailing from the municipality of Padilla, Cauca. Betsabeth celebrated her 101st birthday this year and is still participating, hand in hand with her family and community, in the marketing strategy of her now famous chocolate balls: Choculas.

“If you ask me, chocolate meets all your nutritional needs. It will make you strong and improve your memory. Look at me, this is life, and I am happy,” Betsabeth said.

Betsabeth started her life dedicated to cacao as a young child tending her grandparents’ and parents’ trees, who taught her how to process cacao with a mortar and pestle.

“My entire family is involved, my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, everybody is part of it, and I hope they never let it disappear, because this is a beautiful tradition.”

In addition to cultivation and processing, the experience sharing events focus on land rights, women’s rights, and a better understanding of the care economy. Most of the women who work in land and agricultural activities also spend a large part of their time doing unpaid care work: such as caring for, feeding, and raising children, as well as activities that are vital for a healthy society, such as caring for the elderly and disabled.

“Being with women cacao farmers from other regions has allowed us to recognize, recover, and share ancestral knowledge that is in all of us. Afro-Colombian women have that feeling of being resilient to protect our communities.”

– Fanny Rodríguez, member of the cacao farming group from Rescate Las Varas, an Afro-Colombian community council in Tumaco, Nariño.

Rediscovering History

It is believed that cacao first grew in the Amazon basin and then spread north and south throughout the Americas, including to the Aztec and the Mayan civilizations, who developed successful processing techniques. For them, the plant was a symbol of wealth, and its beans were used as currency.

Today, cacao is grown primarily in tropical climates around the Equator. Approximately half of the world’s cacao comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa. Despite ideal climatic conditions for cacao cultivation, Colombia is not even in the top 10 cacao-producing countries. Low levels of education and aging cacao crops have limited small-scale cacao farmers productivity and earning potential.

A Future for Cacao in Colombia

In 2022, Colombia produced more than 62,000 metric tons of cacao beans, positioning it within the top 20. Unfortunately, Colombia’s cacao exports are minimal and the majority of what is produced is sold domestically. For now, this is one of the challenges that cacao producers like Workakao have solved.

Over the last four years, Land for Prosperity has facilitated the creation of seven PPPs related to the cacao value chain that include over 33,600 farmers, 41% of which are women. In many parts of Colombia, such as Tumaco’s Pacific coast and the mountains of Northern Cauca, women represent half of the workforce.

“USAID has been there for us since the beginning. They have helped us obtain training, they come to our farms to teach us about becoming organic farmers, and above all, they have helped us become visible to a market that did not exist before.”
– Enith Zanabria, cacao producer from Meta and member of Workakao cooperative.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure

Requesting Land for their Culture

With USAID support, 7 indigenous Pijao communities in Tolima have applied with the government for communal landholdings to establish indigenous reserves.

The territory of their dreams

The Los Tambillos farm, located in the mountains of Southern Tolima, could become a reservation or a “dream territory” for a Pijao indigenous community in the municipality of Chaparral. People say that this 200 plus hectare farm was once the land of a group of Pijao ancestors called Los Tambillos.

Jose María Leal stands smiling
Jose María Leal is the ancestral guide of his community and he has played an important role throughout the process of identifying, negotiating, and applying for the role of his ancestors.

Today, the indigenous council of this community, called Ivanazka Lemanyá de Calarma, has presented the Los Tambillos farm to the Colombian government as an option to establish their reservation.

“We longed to have this land because we are focused on recovering ancestral knowledge, ancestral medicine, and medicinal plants. We want to recover all the species that are in this area to take care of them, preserve them and multiply them.”

– Jose María Leal, ancestral guide of this community.

a group of indigenous people stand performing a ceremonyWith the recent implementation of the Rural Property and Land Administration Plan (POSPR) in Chaparral, the Ivanazka Lemanyá de Calarma community is one of the seven Pijao indigenous groups who are submitting applications to the government to establish reservations. In total, the seven applications encompass 16 parcels covering 1,800 hectares.

POSPRs are an ongoing government strategy to untangle land use and administration issues and comply with the 2016 Peace Accords. The Land for Prosperity Activity, USAID’s biggest land tenure programming, is supporting these schemes to update the rural cadaster, formalize property and strengthen land administration in Colombia.

During the information collection process of the POSPR, the government now requires technical land experts to include indigenous communities with the goal of preserving their identities and protecting their land rights.

Ancestral Guides: Land Protectors

two indigenous men stand side by sideBefore working on the applications of the seven reservations, Land for Prosperity carried out Free, Prior, and Informed Consent sessions with 11 communities that represent more than 2,500 people. After giving their consent, each community elected an Ancestral Guide to act as a point of contact for all communication and harmonization between the communities and the team implementing the POSPR, which is backed by Colombia’s National Land Agency (ANT).

The network of Pijao ancestral guides is made up of four women and seven men, including José María Leal. One of the most important responsibilities of the ancestral guides is identifying possible parcels that could be used to request communal land.

The 16 parcels which were identified as ideal to establish indigenous reservations are all privately owned. The ancestral guides then coordinated their possible purchase with the owners.

a group of four men observing a parcel of land
With support from the Land for Prosperity Activity, the ancestral guides have accompanied the land formalization teams to carry out almost 700 visits to dozens of parcels and to negotiate with their owners

Some of the factors that they take into account when choosing the parcels are: their proximity to the community, the presence of water sources, the productivity of the land for agriculture, the presence of sacred sites, and the size of the parcel to build their communal and ritual spaces.

“As an ancestral guide I’ve had the opportunity to connect with other guides from other communities of the municipality to share our experiences. It is very gratifying to guarantee the security and protection of our land and to share knowledge with the community.”

– Marco Fidel Cuadro Vargas, governor and ancestral guide of the Matora de Maito indigenous community.

Ancestral guides are responsible for reaffirming and protecting the power and worldview of their communities and play a key role in guaranteeing that the protocols of their territory are respected.

A large group of people stand, smiling, next to a sign that reads "Programa Nuestra Tierra Próspera" An Opportunity for Indigenous Communities

As part of the implementation of the POSPRs, USAID has worked with 45 indigenous communities and 15 Afro-Colombian groups from six municipalities (Tumaco, Santander de Quilichao, El Carmen de Bolívar, Ataco, Chaparral and Puerto Lleras) to collect information and advance the necessary procedures to request collective land from the ANT.

“I see a great opportunity to make progress on the long-term objective of establishing the Pijao reservations in the municipality of Chaparral.”

– Andrés Mauricio Méndez, member of the Amoyá la Virginia indigenous community in Chaparral.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure

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.

Meet Zambia’s Conservation Gender Champions

In Zambia, the wildlife and conservation sector is male dominated. A number of factors account for this, including structural barriers in recruitment and training and gender norms that see the public sphere as a male domain. Yet evidence suggests that women’s involvement in natural resource management leads to better conservation outcomes, as well as increased wellbeing and economic opportunities for women, their families, and communities. 

To help address this gap, USAID facilitated a Women’s Leadership and Empowerment course, a training-of-trainers approach to strengthen the capacity of conservation leaders to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment within their own organizations and the communities they serve. USAID facilitated four cohorts of 100 non-governmental organization professionals from 25 conservation and land organizations, as well as one session for staff from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Post-training, these cohorts remain connected via an active WhatsApp group, serving as a community of practice for gender champions in the conservation space in Zambia. 

In a follow up survey, participants reported that they are using the skills gained to: reach out to over 22,000 community members (8,000 women, 14,000 men) to increase their awareness on women’s land and resource rights and their role in natural resource governance; hold sensitization meetings with 300+ traditional leaders to promote greater gender inclusion in the chiefdoms; and train government employees from Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Forestry Department, as well as wildlife police officers and community scouts, on the importance of women’s empowerment in the wildlife space.  

Below, learn how four champions are advancing women’s empowerment within their organizations! 

“At an individual level, I am more confident and certain about the things I want to do with the women’s mentorship project I implement. The training helped me believe in myself and realize that I have the skills to work on women’s empowerment and I can and am learning more every day!”

Maina Malaya, is a Communication Officer for Wildlife Crime Prevention, where she manages a mentoring program for young women joining the conservation world. Maina had no gender training before the USAID course, but now has become the gender equality resource person for her organization, working to refine the gender strategy and expand gender-responsive programming. “The [gender] intervention is growing and causing us to invest more. Four more Wildlife Crime Prevention staff are undergoing the Women’s Leadership and Empowerment training soon,” said Maina. She notes the organization has started up a new partnership with Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Chunga Training Centre to help train wildlife police officers and community scouts on gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) mitigation.

“The Women’s Leadership and Empowerment training deepened my understanding of factors that keep women out of natural resource management and how to address these challenges and increase impacts of our programs. I am now able to adapt my work and reach out to the vulnerable groups, which is allowing our program to have a broader reach.”

Sara Banda, is a Lead Community Officer for We Forest, responsible for promoting inclusive community forest management in the Muchinga landscape. After Sara attended the USAID training in 2022 with three other colleagues from We Forest, the organization has worked to reform its programming approach to make it more inclusive. “The training made me realize there were missing dots in the way we delivered our work, which is why less women were involved. Unless attention is paid to gender equality, the participation of women in community forest decisions is missed.” We Forest has also made changes to their reporting system to better capture gender and age disaggregation. What’s more, all projects are now required to complete a GBV assessment to help the organization better understand local dynamics and tailor programming to address these needs.

 “Through the training, I gained insights into the specific risks and challenges that women face in relation to land ownership and access. This knowledge enabled the National Land Titling Program to design and implement targeted strategies to mitigate these risks, such as information packages on GBV for radio and community meetings, GBV sensitization to community leaders and referral support.”

Miyoba Masinja, is the Field Director for Medici Land Governance, a private company partnering with the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources to implement the National Land Titling Program. Miyoba leads a team of 12 USAID-trained women’s land rights champions working in different departments to ensure the land titling process is inclusive. “The training equipped us with an understanding of Zambia’s legal and policy framework on women’s land rights that empowered our team to implement gender integration activities in the program. The advocacy techniques we learned have helped us to increase the buy-in [for gender] internally and with our stakeholders.” Her team meets monthly to discuss progress on gender integration and so far, has seen an increase in joint titling compared to previous efforts. 

“Before I came on the training, my challenge was how to deal with negative social norms. We saw men in uniform abuse power, which in some cases negatively affected our work, but it was difficult to find the entry points. The training was timely. It gave me the skills to engage law enforcement officers and navigate the social norms to bring in more women in our work.” 

Frackson Sakala, a Senior Human Wildlife Co- Existence Officer for Conservation South Luangwa, works with communities to increase awareness on wildlife safety and promote effective engagement in conservation activities in areas surrounding South Luangwa National Park. Since joining the Women’s Leadership and Empowerment course in 2022 with two other staff from his organization, GBV mitigation has been a large focus of his work. “As a man I challenge my fellow men on issues of masculinity and norms, they open up and are able to listen to me. I present myself as a role model.” Frackson notes that addressing social norms and creating GBV awareness among the men in law enforcement helps to create an environment that is more friendly towards women. He notes that he has seen family relations among law enforcement officers improve post-training.

These champions are leading the charge to make Zambia’s conservation sector more inclusive, participatory, and sustainable, reducing risks for those involved.

“The cadaster is made for the people and with the people”

Q&A with Gustavo Marulanda, Director of IGAC, Colombia’s cadaster and mapping agency

a portrait photo of Gustavo MarulandaUSAID’s Land for Prosperity Activity is updating the cadaster of 11 municipalities in eight regions of Colombia and the Chiribiquete National Park, the largest protected area in Colombia, to support formal land markets and protect biodiversity. In this interview, Gustavo Marulanda, IGAC’s Director, talks about the cadaster as an essential component of property formalization and regional land administration.

How up-to-date is Colombia’s rural cadaster?

Approximately 905 of the country’s 1,101 municipalities have an outdated cadaster, and some were updated 30 years ago. This means that there are people that are only paying a small percent of what they should be paying in property taxes. The average property tax payment is just COP $28,000 (USD $7). This is what everyone pays, not just smallholder farmers but also the large landowners. So, updating the cadaster allows us to make significant progress with the process of promoting equality and improving tax redistribution.

How does updating the cadaster help with the implementation of the Peace Accords?

Point 1 of the Peace Accords is comprehensive rural reform, and an updated cadaster is fundamental here. The Peace Accords aim to formalize seven million hectares and redistribute three million hectares, but the first thing we need to achieve this is detailed property information, to know who are owners and who are occupants. By updating the cadaster, we can achieve more equity in the distribution of land. For example, many of the large landowners in the country, who often have unproductive and unused land, are not paying property tax.

How does the IGAC support land formalization?

a group of people gathered around a mapAt IGAC we have a legal responsibility to know the current and allowed land uses, we have to know what each piece of land is good for and how we need to protect it. The cadaster is the map of landowners who have secure tenure rights to their property. The cadaster generates knowledge and detailed information about our rural territories and provides us with inputs that are fundamental to administer land and property in a way that is socially responsible and promotes sustainable land use and production.

How do the communities benefit from the cadastral update?

Citizens benefit from the cadaster when they ask themselves things like “Where is my farm located? What are its boundaries? Who are my neighbors?”. It is similar to opening your smartphone and using mapping and navigation apps to know your location. An updated cadaster allows the municipality to make better decisions and to know where its population lives and what their needs are. The municipality knows if there are schools, health centers, or where to build infrastructure such as roads in a more efficient way. Additionally, by collecting property taxes, the municipality will increase its budget. The cadaster ensures that taxes are fair, so the ones who have more, pay more. Today no one is paying, neither the ones who have the most nor the ones who have the least.

How have you involved citizens more in these topics?

a woman in uniform speaking to a small group of peopleBefore, the community was not actively involved and that was a problem. That is why our logic is that the cadaster is made for the people and with the people. This is advantageous, because we can explain to the public why the cadaster is useful. People say “they update the cadaster and then my taxes increase, so I will have to pay more”, but they forget that they are also supporting land formalization and will receive a property title. And without a title they cannot access loans or subsidies.

What are the Intercultural Cadaster Schools that USAID is supporting in Chiribiquete about, and how are they connected to the communities?

When we talk about the cadaster with the communities, we have to work with people, empower them, engage them with all these messages so they can make significant contributions to the information collection process and its sustainability. This is what the Intercultural Schools are doing, under the Geography for Life motto. They learn mapping exercises in an effective way, they understand why it is useful and how the community fits into their territory. Through mapping, communities can get to know their surroundings better and strengthen their spatial relationships. Sustainability is only achieved when people are empowered.

How does the cadaster contribute to conservation and environmental protection?

The information collected through the multipurpose cadaster contributes to the defense of strategic ecosystems in our country and continent, because we are connected to the Amazon and to the rivers that flow through it. This is why we have to know about them, their location, and have detailed information that allows us to make better decisions to defend and protect the environment. We have to monitor the levels of deforestation and illegal mining to defend our regions effectively.

How does the IGAC work with other government entities for land formalization?

a group of people sat on classroom benches while taking notesIn Colombia, the land administration trio of agencies includes IGAC, the National Land Agency (ANT) and the Superintendence of Notaries and Registers (SNR). IGAC is responsible for collecting and managing detailed information, and in areas that have been prioritized by the government, we receive support from the ANT as a cadastral operator. The ANT then administers the land that has been formalized or that will be redistributed and continues with the formalization and title delivery processes. The cycle then finishes with the SNR, which registers and issues the land titles.

USAID coordinates inter-institutional cooperation among Colombia’s land administration entities.

Why is the support of international donors important?

Donors, such as USAID, play a vital role, not just because they provide financing, but they also transfer knowledge, best practices, and technical capacities, which make us more efficient. We can also learn from international experiences, of how it has been done in other places or how we can improve information processing. The Intercultural Schools come from international experiences and from what donors have done elsewhere. The Land for Prosperity Activity has carried out property surveys and through trial and error helped to create a lot of the new methodologies we have today. Donors also have an added value because they coordinate institutions, because sometimes we are so busy with our day-to-day tasks that we have no time left to sit down and coordinate actions together.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure

Women’s Land Rights Champion: Emile Ako

This interview with Emile Ako, USAID/Côte d’Ivoire, is part of the REFS/CNE/LRG Women’s Land Rights Champions series, which profiles staff across USAID Missions and operating units who are working to advance women’s land rights.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Project Management Specialist in USAID’s Democracy, Rights, Governance and Conflict Prevention office in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. I joined USAID in September 2021; however, my commitment to the Agency goes back nearly 10 years. Previously, I was involved as a consultant and later as an awardee under the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, where I helped rebuild broken intercommunal relations after the 2011 post-electoral crisis. During this time, USAID produced a short film about my work. Subsequently, I was one of the 12 Young Ivorians selected to participate in former President Obama’s Flagship program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (MWF-YALI) in 2015. My career in the international development sector started in 2016 when I joined the American NGO Search for Common Ground as a Project Manager in western Côte d’Ivoire. In addition to working in Côte d’Ivoire, I have worked in Ghana, Liberia, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  

In Côte d’Ivoire and in the DRC, local land-related conflicts have exacerbated tensions between communities. My efforts helped to broker peace between communities and resolve land conflicts in both countries. In western Côte d’Ivoire, I led the mediation process that resulted in the reconciliation and land agreement between the previously opposed Baoulé and the Guéré ethnic groups in the town of Kaade. In the DRC, as a Project Manager with Search for Common Ground, I contributed to securing grouped land titles for several thousands of small farmers, including the Twa/Batwa community in the Luberizi Groupement of the South Kivu Province.

Why are women’s land rights and resource governance important to your work? And to other USAID development work?

Equitable and unobstructed access to land for women has a direct impact on poverty reduction, reduces the propensity of violent conflicts, and decreases gender-based violence in the long-run.  According to the FAO, while women produce between 60 and 80 percent of subsistence crops in developing countries, they face incredible challenges in gaining access to land and resources, like funds to fertilize their soil or increase their production.¹ The situation is no different in Côte d’Ivoire. The recent 2021 Demographic and Health Survey in Côte d’Ivoire revealed that the percentage of women aged 15 to 49 who reported that they do not possess land has increased from 75 percent in 2011 to 88 percent in 2021.² Moreover, land and resource-related conflicts are frequently identified as a leading cause of conflicts and violence.³ Securing land ownership and access for women is a key contribution that USAID can support to reduce poverty, remove women from abusive and toxic subordination, and make it possible for them to fully participate in the market-based economy. Elevating the status of women also holds a great potential for women’s political participation; as their economic power increases, they become better equipped to challenge regressive social norms and increase their leadership in their communities. 

What are some of the biggest challenges in helping women secure land rights and what are some things being done to overcome them?

A political economy analysis conducted as part of the USAID-funded Improving Land Access for Women (ILAW) activity revealed that social norms, traditional practices, and patriarchal beliefs constitute major challenges to women’s access and ownership of land. Other assessments have revealed that, as women are empowered and become economically independent, male patriarchal norms and practices are perceived as threatened, so women are therefore prevented in some traditional societies from having full access and control of land and resources. 

In addition to traditional norms, the length and cost of procedures to establish legal land documentation and/or pursue litigation in case of conflict prevent many women from attempting to seek legal or administrative protection for their land. The process of establishing land ownership for rural and urban lands in Côte d’Ivoire has several stages, each with their own costs, long time delays, and specialized procedures. The whole process requires multiple visits to multiple administrations and excessive time and money, so gaining legal land rights can last several months or even years. These challenges can disincentivize rural women, who typically have less income, often lack formal education and have more pressing daily domestic demands. Furthermore, the absence of qualified lawyers in remote areas that can provide legal assistance to these women adds an additional layer of difficulty. 

To address some of these challenges, ILAW piloted a multilayered approach that combined awareness, social dialogue, behavior change communication, land mediation and direct legal and organizational support to women and communities. The project initiated educational campaigns to raise awareness about recent positive changes in Ivorian property rights and inheritance laws and behavior change communication campaigns by a local theater group. In addition, the project provided direct livelihood assistance through the introduction of the Gender Action Learning System (GALS),⁴ which allowed about 500 community members to define their collective vision for a more viable and inclusive future for women and girls. The project also provided legal assistance for women to facilitate legal access to land. 

What are some of USAID’s successes in the area of women’s land rights?

ILAW is a three-year pilot activity, but even after two years of work, community partners have reported tangible changes at both the individual and collective levels. Below are a few anecdotal successes:

  • The village chief from the village of Kapounon on the border with Burkina Faso decided to double the amount of land reserved for women’s agricultural activities following his participation in social dialogue and GALS sessions, despite his initial reluctance.
  • Another farmer in northern Côte d’Ivoire reported the following: “Before going to the (GALS) training, I used to work alone, I did not inform my wife and my children of what I earned. But now I bring them together, we talk, and we budget our expenses. It is not a common practice for men and women (husband and wife) to have open communication in our culture. But now I have understood that it’s when we talk to each other, and we get along, that we can give each other new ideas to move forward, and everyone is happy. So, I talk, I discuss, and now they are no longer afraid to come and talk to me.”
  • A village chief in western Côte d’Ivoire was quoted saying: “After being village chief for 32 years, I can say that this project has completely transformed my village.” He then described how the training and awareness-raising events led him to divide his land equally between his children, legally marry his wife, and integrate three women into his council of elders. 
  • The National Rural Land Agency (AFOR), impressed by the GALs tool, initiated dialogue with other international donors to integrate the tool in potential future projects.
  • Moreover, AFOR recently partnered with ILAW to pilot a new village land registry. There are also fruitful conversations occurring between the World Bank (WB) and ILAW to share lessons learned for future WB programming in Côte d’Ivoire. 

These success stories reveal the transformative power of increasing access to land for women and communities. ILAW has increased communities’ understanding of land regulations, improved the collective bargaining power of rural women, and provided opportunities for women to secure land across target project communities. To date, USAID has reached 6,214 community members in rural western and northern Côte d’Ivoire. 

 Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Land access for women is an area where USAID can make a sustainable, positive impact in Côte d’Ivoire. However, the success of ILAW remains localized to pilot communities, while land issues are widespread. Consolidating the gains and creating connections with the private sector, linking the women supported under ILAW with microfinance institutions, and facilitating their access to markets in urban areas are a few examples of high impact actions for USAID to pursue in the future. 


¹ FAO. 1984. Women in Food Production and Food Security in Africa. Report of the Government Consultation held in Harare, Zimbabwe, 10-13 July 1984, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

² Jean Chrésus, Côte d’Ivoire: Niellé, un litige foncier au centre de violents affrontements entre les populations fait des morts et des blessés in (retrieved on 10/19/2023).