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DEVELOPMENT: Formal Land Titles Necessary But Not Sufficient

Humberto Márquez

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Mar 24 2005 (IPS) - As soon as they purchased land with a collective loan, a group of peasant farmers in San Francisco, in Ecuador’s northern Andean department (state) of Imbabura, divided the property into small plots for each family.

Indigenous people “look to the past and say collective land ownership was imposed by the colonialists, and look to the future and want to leave a plot of land to their children,” Wilson Navarro, with the Ecuadorian Populorum Progressio Fund, told IPS.

“But on the other hand, all of their public services – from water to the football field – as well as their work (in the form of ‘minga’, an indigenous word for community work) are collective,” he added.

Navarro spoke with IPS during “Land is Life”, an international conference on secure access to land organised by the International Land Coalition (ILC) in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

Although the ILC – which describes itself as “a global alliance of organisations working together with the rural poor to increase their secure access to natural resources, especially land, and enable them to participate directly in policy and decision-making processes” – meets every two years, this is the first time its global assembly was held outside of its Rome headquarters.

Delegates of 80 non-governmental organisations, including indigenous and small farmers associations and trade unions, and international bodies like the World Bank, the European Commission and several United Nations agencies met Sunday through Thursday in this Bolivian city.

Formal land title deeds are a dream shared by millions of small farmers around the world, even if that piece of paper takes them two generations to obtain, and once they win it they realise it does not suffice to pull them out of poverty, due to delays in government land reform programmes.

In Venezuela, the government launched a renewed agrarian reform effort this year, occupying portions of large cattle ranches that it deems unproductive, and granting temporary “land charters” to cooperatives or individual families to allow them to farm the land that has been seized, with aid in the form of government credit and machinery.

In Zimbabwe, which became an independent nation just a quarter century ago, title deeds were in the hands of white colonialists, and most local farmers were pushed onto marginal land, so these problems are associated with the independence struggle, activist Tanyaradzwa Furusa told the ILC gathering of representatives of organisations from nearly 30 countries.

The fight for formal land titles also forms part of larger movements in countries like Bolivia, where indigenous communities struggle to reclaim their native identity and assert their collective rights to enormous extensions of land that they consider their “ancestral territory”.

“We are demanding legal title to our land, to preserve it as we see fit, with its plants, water and animals,” said Anacleto Supayabe, a leader of the Yuracaré-Mojeño Amazon indigenous community, which is laying claim to 100,000 hectares.

“It will all belong to everyone. Each family will have just a plot of land on which to survive,” David Góngora, another community leader, told IPS.

But Esteban Aladi, an Aymara indigenous campesino who like so many others migrated from Bolivia’s altiplano in the west to the province of Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands, told journalists that “what we need are title deeds, to be able to apply for credit and develop our small farms.”

In India, the struggle for land titles is often so complicated that it can take 50 years, or two whole generations, said Rohini Reddy, an activist with the South Asia Rural Reconstruction Association, who pointed out that India has 28 states, each of which has its own laws with respect to property ownership.

Isabel Lavadenz, with the World Bank, also referred to the case of India, where an estimated 60 percent – and in some states as much as 90 percent – of civil court trials arise from land disputes.

According to the ILC, “Secure access to land, water and related productive assets is basic to lasting solutions to hunger and poverty. It results in greater productivity, increased family income and sustainable land use.”

Of the 1.1 billion people living in extreme poverty around the world, 800 million live in rural areas, and most of them are landless peasant farmers and members of indigenous groups or other marginalised communities.

In September 2000, the U.N. General Assembly adopted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, improving infant and maternal health, providing greater access to education, ending gender discrimination and curbing pollution, among other objectives.

The number one MDG is to halve the proportion of the world’s population living on less than one dollar a day by the year 2015.

One key aspect that must be taken into consideration is the fact that women in many countries are often denied access to land, said participants in this week’s conference.

A study by Carmen Deere, the head of the Centre for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, on 13 agrarian reform programmes implemented in the region in the 20th century found that the proportion of women beneficiaries was never higher than 17 percent.

One exception was the case of Cuba, where although only five percent of those receiving individual land grants were women, 35 percent of the members of the cooperatives that were collectively allocated land were female.

Lisa del Grande with the Association for Rural Advancement in South Africa advocated efforts in favour of collective land titling as a guarantee against the sale of property to large landowners and a way to defend the rights of women, who in many countries have more of a chance to become beneficiaries within a cooperative or community than as individual owners.

The ILC conference’s final statement points out that women are frequently denied the right to own land because of discriminatory social and cultural practices and laws.

Del Grande also said the granting of individual title deeds invites the state to leave land reform efforts incomplete and ignore its other responsibilities in promoting rural development.

The final declaration states that access to land in and of itself does not guarantee progress if it is not accompanied by greater access to credit, technology, training and markets.

Referring to the question of individual or communal ownership of land, Roger Juárez with Nicaragua’s Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives told IPS that “we must not be ‘married’ to one form of property ownership or another, or any combination, but should let each community decide for itself.”

Nicaragua is a prime example of incomplete agrarian reform efforts, because “land was distributed to campesinos, but the formal titling was not carried out, and while the old owners are still demanding the return of their property, the new occupants have no way to put up collateral to obtain a loan from the private banks,” said Juárez.

“The problem with incomplete land reform programmes…is that the ‘changes’ do not really change anything deep down, and are encouraged by conservative sectors in the countryside and defenders of neoliberal economic policies to discredit the struggle for equal access to land,” Edson Teófilo, a consultant to Brazil’s Ministry of Agrarian Development, commented to IPS.

In its final declaration, the ILC global assembly underlines that the eradication of rural poverty helps fight urban poverty, because where access to land does not exist, rural migration fuels poverty and violence in the cities.

The head of the ILC, Bruce Moore from Canada, told IPS that “when we began, in 1995, only NGOs subscribed to our thesis of negotiating and reaching accords for access to land and rural progress, but little by little we have helped changed the perception, policies and even legislation of bodies like the World Bank and the European Union.”

Governments and other entities in countries like Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Indonesia, Niger, the Philippines, South Africa and Uganda have also invited the ILC to give them advice on agricultural policies.

“The Coalition will monitor the proposals that have emerged from this conference. There are and will be many difficulties and problems from here to 2015. But I’m optimistic,” said Moore.

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