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Modern titles for ancestral lands

Like language and religion, a person’s relationship to land defines his cultural identity. Land is far more than a place to build one’s house and make one’s living.

This is why the issue of legal title to land can be so difficult for indigenous peoples and other groups. These communities need legal title in order to more fully participate in the market economy, but land ownership laws often do not reflect their deep-rooted traditions. How can indigenous people benefit from national development and at the same time retain their cultural values?

This was the subject of a study prepared by political economist Roger Plant and anthropologist Soren Hvalkov for a December IDB workshop on land titling and indigenous people.

The authors point out the tremendous diversity of indigenous land tenure systems. The most basic distinction is between the "horizontal" economies of the Amazon lowlands and the "vertical" economies of the Andean and Central American highlands. In the former, indigenous groups have historically used vast contiguous territories. In the latter, families farm and graze small parcels at different altitudes and ecosystems as a means of supplying a variety of products and reducing risks.

These systems are poorly understood. For example, the Andean model is often misrepresented as collective land tenure systems, whereas ownership by individual families is recognized within the community. When policymakers misunderstand culturally based forms of land ownership, their attempts to liberalize land ownership can cause unforeseen problems, such as the lifting of traditional restrictions on land transfers and the ultimate loss of land to outsiders.

The subject of indigenous land titling is drawing growing attention as countries increasingly affirm their societies’ multiethnic and multicultural character. New constitutional provisions and laws often provide special protection for indigenous lands and resources. But their intent tends to be subverted by new agrarian legislation to promote titling of individual parcels within indigenous communities, in part as a means of increasing agricultural productivity and to remove ambiguities over ownership from earlier reforms.

According to the study’s authors, land titling programs specifically designed for indigenous communities have been few and far between, Colombia being the country that has progressed the farthest. In Bolivia and Ecuador, vast areas have received title by decree, although further steps to resolve problems of overlapping land claims have yet to be taken.

Plant and Hvalkov make a number of policy recommendations. They start with the proposition that, despite the opposing views of many market-oriented economists and "communitarians," indigenous land systems can take the form of private tenure, and can be adapted to market opportunities. But each group must be treated as a special case; mainstreaming land tenure policies for indigenous groups will not work.

They also stress that land titling for indigenous people is a complex issue that requires input not just from legal experts, but also from economists, anthropologists, ecologists, topographers, and even historians.

Plant and Hvalkov insist that consultation on project design take place not only with national level indigenous organizations, but with local organizations and individual community members as well. Where organizations do not exist, they must be created, as was done in the case of an IDB-funded sustainable development program in Panama’s Darién Province. These local groups must be provided with training in land registry and mapping and a relationship with government institutions to ensure continuity.

Finally, the authors recommend that the IDB set up a trust fund—possibly under the Bank-financed Indigenous Peoples Fund—to purchase land for indigenous communities in areas where land ownership is a source of conflict.


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