Social Work

Land Title Assistance

Clear land titles, in providing security through long-term ownership, can promote better land stewardship and community stability. Soon after beginning the Pumalín Project, we developed a program to assist neighbors in securing legal titles to their land. In remote and recently settled "frontier" areas such as ours, far from government administrative centers, land titles have been slow to be officially codified. Many rural people have no legal title to their property, and often live, farm, or keep cattle on parcels without surveyed property boundaries, which can lead to disputes between neighbors and poor treatment of land. Although the national government has a procedure for granting or processing titles, the process tends to be complicated, costly, and backlogged, often frustrating settlers to the point that they give up the effort.

We began the title assistance program as a means of encouraging landowner security and careful stewardship of the landscape around Pumalín Park, which has more than one hundred neighboring properties. Although the park effort precipitated only a handful of disputes with neighbors over shared property lines, there were twenty times as many conflicts between the neighbors themselves. We took the position that "good fences make good neighbors"—community harmony would improve if people had inviolate legal titles for the land they lived on. At the same time, formal ownership would encourage residents to take a long-term view and care for their property.

At the start of the process, a backlog of nearly 50,000 land title requests sat on bureaucrats' desks in the Ministry of Public Lands. The government's slow and generally dysfunctional system for clearing land titles demanded a parallel, and, in this case, private effort. Consequently, we created a small land title department and launched a nearly ten-year effort, in which tracts were measured by official surveyors, the necessary paperwork was processed, claims between neighbors were settled, opposition by third parties was dropped, and pressure was put on government agencies to process title requests more quickly. This voluntary program cooperated with neighbors, often settling claims in their favor by providing legal services designed to represent them against claims by absentee third parties and always allowing them to challenge a surveyor's assessment. Many of the local residents had filed land claims but lacked the means to hire surveyors or push their claims through the bureaucratic proceedings.

Although a slow and costly effort, it achieved 100 percent success: all land titles were finalized, leaving settlers secure of lasting ownership. This also helped pave the way for Pumalín Park to receive formal nature sanctuary status from the Chilean government in 2005 during the administration of President Lagos. Through years of experience, we have learned how to solve community problems related to land titles and has advised other NGOs throughout the world on setting up land title security programs that benefit nature and people.

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