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Decades of work, but no land titles to show for it

With no legal claim to their land, many Colombian peasants can't afford seeds, fertilizer or basic machinery.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land. And although plots can be bought and sold with informal documents, these papers are of no use when applying for loans.

Peasant farmers are not alone in their frustration. Despite his political connections, Vargas, the mayor of La Macarena, has been unable to secure title to his land — a 250-acre cattle ranch he inherited from his father.

“I’ve struggled for 15 years and have yet to achieve this dream,” Vargas said as he sat behind the desk of his Spartan office just off the town’s main square.

In addition, efforts to build health clinics and roads and to put up cell phone antennas to connect rural communities to the outside world often run aground amid uncertainties over who owns the land.

“It’s a vicious circle in which the lack of land titles blocks development,” Balcazar said.

Even the Colombian army has become embroiled in disputes with La Macarena residents over a military base built on the edge of town on land of disputed ownership.

Guillermo Giraldo grows mangoes, guavas and avocados on nine acres next door to the base. He’s just the kind of law-abiding small producer the Colombian government would like to see flourish.

But without title to his land, Giraldo has no chance for bank loans to upgrade his farm. Now, after five years of struggling, Giraldo points to the weeds taking over his fields and admits that he’s thinking of selling out.