Land disputes in El Salvador

Recently, a number of organizations have been highlighting the plight of the community of Santa Marta:
The hand-painted sign strewn tightly across the road read: “Don’t undermine the dreams of Santa Marta ’s children.” In front of the sign, representatives of 50 families from the small community located in El Salvador ’s northern Cabañas province. For the last eight months, they have been threatened with eviction from the land they have worked for 20 years and owned for thirteen.

Community authorities hold a title to the land, which was purchased for $26,400 in 1994, but the validity of that title was recently challenged in court by the former owner, Ms. Maria Elba Beltran, who says that she never received compensation for the land in question.

Beltran filed suit last September and was able to legally nullify the 1994 sale of three parcels to Santa Marta residents. She has allegedly offered to drop further proceedings if the community pays another US$100,000. The legal decision rendered the land title useless, but community members and supporters decided to fight. They have vowed to stay on the land and have refused to pay a penny more.

Santa Marta residents are blocking the road to their community because an April 28 eviction order deadline has been handed down by a local judge. For the eviction to take effect, the judge must first verify that residents have not abandoned the property in question and are not complying with the initial order. Community members believe that delaying verification will buy them time to pursue other avenues to resolve the conflict.

Over the Mayday weekend, their were no attempts to illicitly cross the blockade.

You can read more about the dispute at the website of the NGO, CoCoDa.

Land title disputes, particularly between populations newly settled on land after the civil war and the former owners, are not uncommon El Salvador. The match in court between the wealthy former owner and the poor landholder is usually stacked against the poor, as the Santa Marta story illustrates. Uncertainty over land titles has a real cost for the poor -- they can't obtain mortgages on land with a clouded title, can't sell the property, and live in fear of the possibility of being dispossessed.

Even where there is not a title dispute, the process of registering property can be out of the reach of poor landholders. In a June 2006 report USAID commented on problems in land title registration process in El Salvador:
The allegation that grand corruption was a problem in El Salvador land registration was not corroborated. Yet, given the overall institutional weakness that permeates the political economy of El Salvador, including that of the state agency in charge of administrative oversight of the CNR, this possibility cannot be ignored.

In closing, it is worth reflecting on an interesting fact: El Salvador is considered a world-class reformer with respect to the property registry—a tested and proven case of successful modernization. At the same time, although this report does not allege that the property registry has been wrongfully “captured,” it nevertheless points to the presence of inherent threats. Put simply, this report cannot ignore the fact that modernization and economic progress just for the few, for so long the curse of El Salvador, is playing out again. Why this trend sharply differs from the more egalitarian developments that underline the registry reform processes in other countries should be the subject of investigation.

Although it is not a glamorous topic, working for a land title system which is efficient, fair, certain and, most importantly, free of corruption, is important for the country as a whole.


Anonymous said…
back home in toronto, after having spent the last week of my trip to el salvador living with a family in santa marta, and i have to say that the community's resistence to the threat of land expropriation is inspiring. it appears to me, and this is based on only a cursory understanding of the background here, is that what's going on here is flat-out intimidation and extortion of a people who legally purchased title to these lands aftter the armed conflict. the people of santa marta have survived so much horror, but they are not going to just lay down and be walked over in this struggle. tim, please keep the word coming, for those of us who can't be in el salvador, it is vital to have an alternative source of news from the ground!