In late January, my wife Jane and I, along with a small group of Mercy Corps team members, took a trip to Colombia to evaluate the role of Mercy Corps programs in the country, which is still recovering from a brutal 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
While I have been on the Mercy Corps board for eight years, the trip was my first opportunity as board chair to see our programs in action.
Our visit took us to Medellin, a populous city nestled in the northern Andes, to learn about TerraTek.
TerraTek is a Mercy Corps social enterprise pilot program to help people gain legal titles to their land. Land reform has been slow in Colombia since the end of the conflict, and legal land titles are a powerful force of stability and prosperity for the poor and marginalized people living there.
In Medellin we were hosted by representatives from ISVIMED, the city agency responsible for titling land for citizens living in the lowest economic classes in Colombia.
The neighborhood they took us to was poor, but extremely clean. And our conversation with two young men — our self-appointed tour guides and self-described future football stars — helped us understand a bit about the lives of the people living there. They struggle with a lack of opportunities, pervasive but diminishing violence and a dearth of family resources.
On any given plot of land, there could be a number of homes piled on top of each other like Legos, with no official ownership of the homes or the land they sit on.
The titling process through ISVIMED would award indivisible ownership to all the families on the plot.
Our ISVIMED guides began searching for some of the people in the neighborhood who were about to gain land titles on the plots where their very simple homes already stood. It was during business hours, so it was not until the fifth door we knocked on that we found the head of the household at home.
Lucann was amiable and forthcoming. She told us she looked forward to finally really owning her home. And when we asked her what difference it would make in her life, a look of joy and satisfaction spread across her face.
“You cannot imagine. I can now borrow from legitimate sources at reasonable rates to fix my roof and improve my plumbing,” she said.
And, notably, she would have an asset to pass on to her children.
In Medellin and Cali, another highly-populated city in the west of the country, the mayors are pushing hard to have people gain titles to the thousands of squatter homes built on government-owned land, a measure they see as a powerful means of economic development.
The local housing agencies work hard to achieve as many transfers as possible, but the going is slow. Resources are scarce and the process is complex and cumbersome, involving multiple bureaucracies.
Government officials stated that they needed a partner they could trust who had the knowledge, technology and sophistication to streamline the process.
That’s where Mercy Corps comes in. After more than 10 years of working in the country, they have the trust of the local communities — and the experience to help get the job done.