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Land Title Represents Victory at Summit of the Americas, but Caution Required

Land Title Represents Victory at Summit of the Americas, but Caution Required

Many pundits argue that the Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia produced little worth celebrating. But for Afro-Colombians in the town of San Basilio de Palenque, the celebration hasn’t stopped, and rightfully so.

During the summit, Palenque officially received a collective land title to more than 3,000 hectares of rural land, land they have been fighting to secure for years.

President Obama and Colombian President Santos presided over the titling ceremony, where Obama noted, ¨Giving you and so many Afro-Colombians title to this land is part of ending this nation’s long conflict. It gives you a new stake in a new Colombia[H1]

Obama’s comments hint at a policy the US actively supports in Colombia: land titling. In 2011 the Colombian government passed legislation known colloquially as ¨The Land Law,¨ which seeks to return more than two million hectares of land to rural Colombians displaced by the country’s conflict. It is an ambitious law and an important one, as more than 5 million Colombians have been forced off their land in recent decades.

While Palenque’s land titling process went through mechanisms established in Colombia’s 1991 constitution and so does not fall precisely under the new land law, progress toward collective and individual titling in Colombia is, as Obama noted, a critical way to give rural Colombians a stake in their country.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has dedicated significant funds to land titling efforts over the last two years in Colombia and is providing extensive technical assistance for related projects. The law has largely been received with applause by Washington. US support for resolving long-standing land disputes in Colombia should be applauded, and victories like Palenque’s must be celebrated. But the US should not overlook the hurdles and even the dangers of the Land Law[H2] .

From 2010 to 2011, 20 land leaders were assassinated[H3] , The victims were primarily small-scale farmers, leading their communities in the process to gain title, or return to land they hold title to but were forced to leave. In many cases, these murders are preceded by threats and then appeals from the victims to the government for protection. Sadly, the government´s response is limited and rural Colombians attempting to go home, or get land titles  are left vulnerable to intimidation and violence. Too often this leads them to abandon the ¨return¨ process. To date, no effective measures have been put in place by the government to protect these leaders.

For those farmers who do return without incident, they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to farming success. Access to credit is limited, government investment in rural infrastructure is poor, and extension services for small scale farmers are insufficient.

USAID is investing  in rural development projects in Colombia, but these projects are not broadly tied to those farmers returning to their land. Unless US and Colombian investments are combined to both protect land leaders from violence and also support small-scale development for returning farmers, Colombia´s Land Law will not succeed. The price for this failure will be counted in the loss of lives and livelihoods.

By participating in Palenque’s titling ceremony, Obama joined in an important advance for Palenque at the Summit of the Americas. But his policies must reflect the words he spoke there: that ¨…title to land is part of ending Colombia´s long conflict.¨ Titles are just that, a part. The other pieces must include policies to protect returning farmers from violence and targeted investments in rural livelihoods. Only with these policies in place, will the US be making a significant contribution to ending Colombia’s conflict.

Land Title Represents Victory at Summit of the Americas, but Caution Required

President Obama and Palenque Community Council President, Sebastian Salgado in Cartagena, Colombia

(Photo Credits: MercoPress and Reuters)

My organization, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), along with other national and international groups, accompanied Palenque’s leaders in their process to secure collective title to their land. Today, LWR stands with Palenque in celebration.






 [H3] U.S. Office on Colombia, ¨Against All Odds: The deadly struggle of land rights leaders in Colombia.¨ 2011.



Annalise Udall Romoser

Annalise Udall Romoser resides in Bogotá, Colombia where she works as the Latin America Communications Officer for Lutheran World Relief (LWR), an international relief and development organization. Annalise served as LWR´s Director for Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, DC and before that as Senior Associate at the US Office on Colombia. Annalise holds a MA in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego. She began her career at Americans for Indian Opportunity, a non-profit organization which serves as a catalyst for Native American and international indigenous initiatives.