By Anastasia Moloney
OVEJAS, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Forced to flee her home to escape violence during Colombia's half-century civil war, farmer Diana Vitola has been waiting decades to receive a formal document proving she is the lawful owner of a small plot of land.
Living in the former war-torn municipality of Ovejas in northern Colombia, Vitola belongs to a farming community set to receive nearly 3,000 land and property titles, making this the first area where most land is formalized.
"We've been waiting years for this," said 45-year-old Vitola, who grows maize and cassava.
"As a woman, it's really exciting. Before women were marginalized. Now we can appear somewhere on a document. We feel important, that we have rights."
"For the past 18 months, government officials have been visiting farms and thatched adobe homes in Ovejas on foot measuring, surveying and identifying plots of land.
Farmers now have the chance to register their property with the national land registry and receive formal titles for free.
CORNERSTONE OF PEACE
Granting land titles is part of government efforts to promote rural development as set out in the 2016 peace deal signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.
Unequal land distribution was a key reason why the FARC took up arms in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired agrarian movement that fought to defend the rights of landless peasants.
The peace accord pledges to address unequal land ownership and foster development in neglected rural areas hit hard by violence.
The government aims to formalize 7 million hectares of land, of which so far nearly a quarter have been titled, according to the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
"The land reform package is part of the attempt by the state to deliver to small farmers what has historically been denied to them, which is access to land and a dignified existence in the countryside," said David Huey, Kroc Institute representative in Colombia.
Formal land titles will also help farmers to get access to government programs and credit, he said.
For villager Albeiro Rivera, who was also displaced by Colombia's conflict, getting a property title to the home he grew up in and informally inherited from his father brings financial and legal security and allows him to get a bank loan.
"During the conflict, getting a land title wasn't a priority. The priority then was to survive," said 37-year-old Rivera.
"Having the property title means it is ours, it belongs to me and my wife. It's a huge step. It's now worth more and nobody can take it away from me. It would've been too expensive to have registered the property myself," Rivera said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is partly funding the pilot project in Ovejas, said it hopes to roll out similar initiatives over the next couple of months in other regions.
"The problem here is the lack of clarity about what land belongs to whom," said Larry Sacks, USAID's mission director in Colombia.
"Without the clear land rights it's considerably more difficult to create the conditions that you need to transform rural areas to help licit markets flourish, to trigger private investment and spark economic growth," he added. FEW LAND TITLES
With property titles, the villagers of Ovejas are rather the exception than the rule.
Across rural Colombia, six out of 10 plots of land do not have a formal title or are not registered, according to USAID.
Granting land titles in Ovejas is relatively easy because no one disputes ownership of the plots.
Yet sorting out tenure is far harder in other parts of Colombia where land was seized by paramilitary forces, rebel groups or drug traffickers, with farmers often pressured by armed groups to sell out at cut-rate prices.
Attempts to restore landownership started during the previous government of Juan Manuel Santos, which launched a program in 2011 to return millions of hectares of stolen or abandoned land to their rightful owners.
The government then estimated 6.5 to 10 million hectares of land - up to 15% of Colombian territory - had been abandoned or illegally acquired.
Nearly three years after the peace deal was signed, security in some former conflict areas and FARC strongholds is fragile, slowing efforts to implement land reform.
According to government estimates, about 210,000 Colombians have been driven from their homes by violence since the peace deal.
Another alarm is the rising number of human rights and land activists being killed across Colombia despite the peace deal. According to Colombia's Ombudsman Office, murders of activists increased to 178 in 2018 from 126 in 2017.
"The threats and murders of social leaders who are working on this issue need to stop so there is confidence in the peace process," Huey said.
Myriam Martinez, head of the government's National Land Agency (ANT), created as part of the peace accord to implement land reform, said poor security in some areas is hampering its efforts.
She cited the troubled northeast Catatumbo region and the northern Uraba region near Colombia's Pacific coast where ANT officials have received threats from illegal armed groups, while other areas can only be reached with a military escort.
"There are very difficult areas of the country where it's very complicated ... which implies the response of the state is not as agile as it can be in other parts of the country," Martinez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Martinez said the government had "total will" to implement reforms but along with poor security, an incomplete land registry and a lack of funding are holding back progress.
Under the peace accord, a land bank was created to redistribute three million hectares over the next decade to mainly landless, and poor and displaced farmers.
The bank has about 840,000 hectares of land, and plots confiscated from drug traffickers will also be added to it, Martinez said.
About 40,000 farmers have applied in the past year to receive land from the bank and some have already received plots, she said. But the agency could not provide figures to show how many farmers have so far benefited.
For the mayor's office in Ovejas, land titling means being able to collect more property tax.
Residents hope income raised from taxes means local authorities are more likely to provide drinking water and build paved roads, schools and hospitals in rural areas.
"It's a win-win for everyone," said Xavier Penalosa, head of the new municipal land office in Ovejas.
"The resources from land titling will be invested in the people's wellbeing. This opens up a series of possibilities to invest in agriculture and development."