YLAI 2017: Colombian Fellow and Landesa Find Common Ground in the Fight to Secure Land Rights

A 50-year conflict between the Government of Colombia and illegal armed forces including Paramilitaries and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has drastically changed the discussion of land tenure in Colombia. Since 1964, the fighting has internally displaced more than seven million individuals. This amounts to the second largest internally displaced population in the world following Sudan. 

While this alone is problematic for land tenure, land tenure insecurity is exacerbated by the lack of formal documentation and limited communication between the eight different Colombian agencies that deal with land tenure information.  While exact numbers are difficult to determine, it is estimated that between 20 percent and 60 percent of Colombians do not have up-to-date, formal records of their ownership and use rights to the land on which they live, some of which includes previously state-owned forest land.   

With nearly four million hectares of land abandoned due to the forced displacement of over 350,000 families, there are nearly 2,000 families that are currently living on land claimed by others.  Many people find themselves in legal battles, but lack the funds necessary to hire a lawyer. Inequality in access to and use of land was seen as one of the driving forces behind the armed conflict in Colombia, and the lack of solutions was a main draw for civilians to engage in the armed conflict – for those who originally created and joined the FARC.



2017 YLAI Cohort – Seattle


After 50 years, this is still very much a cause for concern as an estimated 62 percent of Colombia’s best land is held by 0.4 percent of the population. Sadly, the lack of state presence, both in documentation of land tenure and in local government representation for certain war-ravaged areas, created the ideal environment for the seizure of land and the forced displacement of individuals, especially of land-owning women and minorities whose rights to land are even less well documented and protected. Even though the conflict has ended, these issues of security, documentation and equity of land tenure rights in Colombia are largely still unresolved.  

The Peace Accords recognize the need to improve land tenure and Colombia has the capacity to do so.  While the problems persist, the issue of land tenure rights in both Colombia and around the rest of the world is not one that goes unanswered. There are champions of land tenure reform in public, private, and civic organizations that create awareness about land tenure issues, the impact of securing land rights, and viable solutions to the problems faced by countries like Colombia.

Colombia Rural (a Colombian social enterprise) and Landesa (a global NGO headquartered in Seattle) are two such champions who are participating in and benefiting from the U.S. Department of State’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI). Started under President Obama, YLAI brings young entrepreneurs and leaders throughout Latin America to the United States for a month-long fellowship with US-based organizations like Landesa. These partnerships address the opportunity gap for youth and women by providing Latin American civic leaders with the network and training needed to improve and expand their work within their country.

A pilot YLAI program in the spring of 2016 brought 24 entrepreneurs to the United States. Following the success of the pilot, the first full cohort of 250 fellows arrived in October 2016 and participated in fellowships in 21 city hubs across the United States. After the two successful implementations that first year, the Department of State and Meridian International Center once again collaborated to bring a new cohort of fellows this year. 

Of the 2017 cohort in Seattle, Margarita Varón, CEO of Colombia Rural SAS, is working with Landesa to exchange expertise on land tenure work as it relates to both Landesa’s program throughout the world and her work in Colombia. Colombia Rural is actively engaged in shaping Colombia’s post-conflict land policy and Landesa has worked in more than 50 countries around the world, tracing its roots to South Vietnam’s land reform during the Vietnam War. As a global organization with offices in Asia and Africa, Landesa partners with governments to develop land laws and implement programs that have the power to lift rural women and men out of extreme poverty. The YLAI fellowship allowed a rich exchange between the two organizations. It has planted seeds of lasting collaboration that stands to contribute to Colombia’s post-conflict land tenure. 

A cornerstone of Landesa’s work is its focus on gender in its data collection, programming, and policy advocacy, emphasizing the need for women to experience secure and equitable rights to land. There is strong evidence to suggest that securing women’s land rights has a profound ripple effect across households and communities, including positive outcomes for household income and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and rates of domestic violence.

In short, secure land rights can empower women financially and socially. This can be critical to a country like Colombia, where women constitute 51 percent of all displaced households and have limited access to credit and formal employment opportunities. Land informality and the risk of being displaced inhibits citizens and public entities from gaining access to the critical investments and tools they may need to properly work the land upon which they live.  Often citizens who informally inhabit the land have little to no incentive to sustainably manage the natural resources and are at a greater risk of exacerbating the environmental degradation.

Colombia Rural SAS, an organization of four individuals, works to combat informality and lack of documentation within the Colombian land reform agencies.



Catalina Restrepo, Margarita Varon, and Javier Caropresse of Colombia Rural SAS


While studying for a Graduate Degree in Law at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Margarita Varón was asked by a professor and her thesis director to help with the evaluation and comparative analysis for the government of Colombia’s efforts regarding land reform policies. With eight different agencies overseeing a varied collection of non-digitized information regarding land access, the task of acquiring and analyzing data for any evaluation is not an easy one.

Colombia’s armed conflict led to a set of agencies not normally included in land reform: the Land Restitution Unit, which prepares and presents land restitution claims, the Special Administrative Unit for the Assistance and Comprehensive Reparation of Victims, which collects information on the internally displaced victims, and the Directorate for Comprehensive Actions against Antipersonnel Mines, which indicates the presence of antipersonnel mines within the areas deemed safe for land restitution.

With an estimated four million land files to digitize and store for better data management, this effort even includes the government drawing on outside expertise and assistance from Colombia Rural SAS and others such as Diana Ocampo, a lawyer specializing in agrarian law; and topographers to gather the data required to adapt to the issue of the informality of land tenure.


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Maria Perea, and Catalina Restrepo of Colombia Rural SAS


For the members of Landesa’s Seattle headquarters, Margarita brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Her fellowship raises the potential for collaboration on Colombian land tenure issues given her knowledge of best practices in communicating with the local population and navigating the administrative process of the governmental agencies of Colombia. For Margarita, the YLAI fellowship is a chance to understand how Landesa develops and implements projects around the world to clarify and improve the land tenure rights of millions of people. Margarita is connecting with various Landesa teams to hear about their experiences and work in other countries with similar problems and hopes to learn about bold solutions for different stakeholders and interests, one of the main areas of gridlock to further land efforts in Colombia.

Looking to the near future, Margarita Varón is insistent on utilizing the current state of peace between the FARC and the government of Colombia to address the issue of land tenure. With 7,000 FARC weapons turned over, a newly organized FARC political party working within the rule of law accorded them by the peace treaty, and 21 pilot programs for multipurpose cadaster and formalization projects currently being implemented in different areas of Colombia, the time seems right for land tenure and land reform to play a pivotal role in the presidential elections happening in Colombia next May.

With concern that another political party may come to power and reject the current peace treaty with the FARC, there is a small window to see what the government can do for the land in previously FARC controlled areas and the people who inhabit them. It is within that window that YLAI, Margarita Varón, and Colombia Rural SAS could be key figures in land tenure reform within Colombia.

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