Peeling Back the Layers of Land Ownership in Colombia | Land Portal

Collaborative social work is preparing communities for the historic task of untangling land ownership in a municipality plagued with conflict and displacement.

Land ownership in Tumaco, Colombia, is like an onion. When a layer of history is peeled back, another layer lies beneath it. Over time, these onions—these parcels that once belonged to agro-industrial farms, latifundista families, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities—have been abandoned and reclaimed, again and again.

Tumaco has more than 54,000 parcels registered in the nation’s excadaster, but land experts estimate this number to represent 70% of the actual number of properties. Though the majority of the municipality’s land is designated under indigenous and Afro-Colombian community land reserves, Tumaco’s rural lands are home to thousands, and some are families who have simply come and settled on open land that they perceived had no owners.

Many of the families came to the southwest corner of Colombia attracted by “cheap” land and the profits of growing the coca plant. Some gave money to somebody to purchase their land, but all of these migrant families lack any official land titles or proof that the person from whom they purchased the land was the owner. Many are aware that the land does not belong to them, but many hope that one day it could.

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Community Engagement

Over the last months, rural and urban families had the opportunity to tell some of their stories. These so-called social cartography sessions, which allow community leaders to gather while respecting Covid-19 restrictions, form part of the government’s priority to untangle informal land tenure and promote secured property rights among Colombia’s rural poor. The events are preliminary fact-finding exercises where agents from Colombia’s National Land Agency and land and legal experts meet community leaders to research the history of land ownership and potential conflicts to determine the most efficient way to formalize informally-owned properties and eventually deliver titles to landowners.

Land experts began introducing the communities to massive land formalization objectives in October 2020 and have reached all 19 targeted communities. Due to security concerns stemming from ongoing disputes for territory and the region’s 12,000 hectares of coca production, the teams began with the easiest-to-access communities, such those living in Tumaco’s urban center.

“Here, there are a lot of parcels without land titles, and this opportunity is important for us because it allows the people who live here to contribute to the administration of the land.”
-Carmen Landazury, community leader in the barrio of Union Victoria, located in Tumaco’s urban center.

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The culture of formal land ownership

Over the past year, the USAID-funded Land for Prosperity Activity has assisted Tumaco’s municipal government, led by Mayor María Emilsen Angulo Guevara, to make land issues a priority during her tenure and beyond. With the Activity’s support, the municipality’s Development Plan earmarked funds to push land formalization to the forefront of public policy.

At the same time, the Activity is working with the mayor to build the capacity of public employees, teachers, and community leaders to improve their understanding of land tenure in general, especially under the lens of Colombia’s many laws and decrees.

With USAID’s support, Mayor Angulo has revived Tumaco’s first-ever Municipal Land Office. The Land Office was originally launched in 2014 by the USAID-funded North/South CELI program as a one-stop shop for citizens’ land formalization and property registration services.

Today, the Municipal Land Office’s team of legal experts specialized in land are helping the government compile parcel data, such as which parcels are public or private as well as a list of parcels that support public services like schools and health clinics. The Land Office estimates that there are at least 8,700 informally owned urban parcels and an additional 13,000 rural parcels.


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These efforts are laying the groundwork for the USAID-supported massive land titling pilot, which is slated to begin next year in partnership with the National Land Agency. The community-engagement stage gives leaders the chance to ask questions and flag major land conflicts in their neighborhoods or towns. The information gained through this fieldwork then complements the national cadaster and helps the government formulate Tumaco’s Rural Property and Social Management Plan, which is the blueprint that guides the campaign to formalize every parcel in Tumaco.

The massive land titling campaign is expected to begin by the end of 2021, and the process will take the better part of two years. By the end, Tumaco will have an updated rural land cadaster including high-resolution maps defining property borders with more precision than ever before in the region’s history. A detailed cadaster reduces land conflicts and gives the local and regional governments critical information to plan land use strategies and investments that meet the needs of the population.

“It’s fundamental that we provide a guarantee and constant fluid communication with all citizens, the community leaders, the town councils, and those who know the history of the land,” says Mayor Angulo.

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In the face of heightened security issues, the task to capture the history of each and every parcel seems like a daunting task. Leaders are timid to speak about who owns which property and how long each family has been living there. There are massive landholdings home to between 600 and 1,000 families, who have created local land governance structures, built houses, and set up fences. Still, the biggest obstacle in formalizing land in Tumaco might be getting somebody to answer the door.

“One of the main obstacles we are facing in Tumaco, which is related to security concerns, is that you travel far and when you finally get to a property, there is no one there. We are finding a lot of abandoned houses. It’s because people have been displaced by the violence to search for a better life for their children.”

-Mayor María Angulo Guevara

-Mayor María Angulo Guevara


The History of Land, Lost in Flames

Tumaco’s lack of historical land documents and its issues of land administration are truly intimidating. Over the last 70 years, Tumaco’s urban center, which is located on the Pacific Ocean, has twice fallen victim to large-scale fires. First, a 1947 fire caused by a movie projector burned down the majority of the town’s center. The second fire, in 1988, occurred as a result of a social protest, known as the 'Tumacazo', and damaged several municipal buildings. The government has had little success in recreating the history of the archives—dozens of leather bound ledgers documenting land transactions—lost in these fires. All that is left is what is registered in the nation’s land cadaster, which is in the custody of the IGAC. In addition, while Tumaco’s cadaster was updated in 2015, few families occupying land with large rural landholdings appear on the nation’s land cadaster or as registered landowners.

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