A Path Toward Land Title: Property Rights in Peru - MEDLIFE

A Path Toward Land Title: Property Rights in Peru

Lima’s pueblos jóvenes are not like Brazil’s favelas, or Argentina’s villas, or the slums of Mexico City. While most of Latin America’s shantytowns have been haphazardly thrown together, without state assistance, the founding of Lima’s Villa El Salvador (VES) in the 1970s was unique.


The creation of Villa El Salvador, a formal settlement for urban squatters, was a response to the housing needs of over 4,000 families that had invaded land in an area known as Lima’s Southern Cone. Under the Velasco regime, the central government partnered with the community to mutually create an urban plan and assign legal plots to families. Lima’s desert location, with ample unused land, also contributed to the city’s initial success in providing lots for low-income communities. VES remains an important case study for participatory democracy, and marks the first example of government-aided slum development on the continent.


VES old collage


Government officials, community members, and scholars alike recognize the importance of legal land ownership and well-planned urban development. Officials in Peru note the many benefits that property rights bring their residents, including access to credit, access to home improvement loans, and the ability to start new home businesses. Community members themselves are also acutely aware of how it can change their quality of life, especially by connecting them to permanent – not provisional – electricity, water, and waste disposal services. Residents we speak with often cite obtaining land title as a primary concern; without it, they worry that they will have no assets to pass down to their children.


World Bank report regarding a pilot land titling program in Peru indicates that “strengthening tenure security through property formalization in urban squatter settlements has a large positive effect on investment.” A new document released by the U.N. In May of 2012 also highlights the issue of land title, linking it to food security and economic empowerment.


Yet political treatment of new settlements in Peru has varied widely since the 1970s with changes in government administration, swinging from absolute recognition of urban slum communities to their forced removal. These changes have resulted in a patchwork of settlements, rising up from the outskirts of Lima, which remain in various stages of development and legal recognition.


In an interview with Catalino Espinal, a local government official who works as the head of citizen participation in Villa El Salvador, he explained how the current situation has developed in the wake of changing legislation. A law passed in 2004 has now made all forms of land invasions illegal. The primary purpose of the law, says Espinal, is to prevent people from building in “natural risk zones,” on land designated for natural reserves, or on land that is part of the regional housing plan (e.g. areas reserved for hospitals or schools). The law is also a less explicit reaction to the unceasing demand for land, as well as “second generation” invasions caused by slum inhabitants moving out of their parents’ homes to start families of their own.


According to the Center for the Study and Promotion of Development (DESCO), a Peruvian NGO, another important reason listed for the 2004 law was “to stop the activities of the professional traficantes de terreno (land traffickers), and the accompanying complicity of government officials, especially during political campaigns.” A person may “traffic” land in several ways, but it is most simply done by invading prohibited areas and then later selling a falsified land title to other residents. More elaborate schemes, in which temporary houses are constructed and then sold when the property value has risen, also exist. Land traffickers often hold substantial power in their areas. During political campaigns, candidates may court these individuals to offer them legal property titles in exchange for the communities’ political support. MEDLIFE ensures that the communities we aid are inhabited by low-income residents in need, and not areas held hostage by professional land traffickers.


Despite these new and seemingly sensible reasons to limit invasions, residents living in poverty and with little opportunities in the countryside continue to migrate to Lima. Espinal calls this phenomenon “norms versus laws.” The laws change, but individuals – either ignorant to these changes or lacking other options – continue to to invade the city’s land. They also continue to count on government support.


“There is this new law,” says Espinal, “but there is also a section in the constitution that gives neighbors the right to organize. They have the right to possess the land if the government doesn’t remove them within 24 hours.” He admitted that implementing the new law in Peru is extremely difficult, not just for the country’s complicated bureaucracy. “Morally, it’s difficult,” he says, “because we want to uphold the law. But we also see that many of these people are in need. When we see families and children suffering, we want to help them.”


invasion 600


So then, what happens now?


Carmen Lozano is one of the principal leaders in Oasis, a community located within Villa El Salvador. She has a commanding character that radiates strength and authority, and I can see why she is a well-respected neighborhood leader.


On a visit to Oasis, MEDLIFE Director of Peru Carlos Benavides pointed out several signs of skillful community organization. The streets were clean and dotted with makeshift light posts. A member of the community patrolled the streets and provided neighborhood watch. Residents had even grown flowers, which climbed up fences that they had built around their homes.


Within just one year after settling, Carmen says, the community gained access to provisional electricity and running water. Residents achieved these goals by organizing to petition the water and electric companies, demonstrating dire need as children suffered from illnesses due to a lack of clean water. Legally, the companies cannot build on informal settlements. But they can build right next to community limits in order to provide services that are then “pulled” into neighboring areas. This explains the presence of a nearby SEDAPAL water tower, despite the fact that Oasis itself has not yet completed the legal formalization process.


oasis pulledlight


When Carmen sat down with me to explain how her community developed so rapidly, she provided a general picture of the settlement process. When her group first came to what is now the community of Oasis in 2006, they built rudimentary houses on the lots they wished to claim. Police then came to remove them, an act that Carlos says is a hallmark of all – even pre-2004 – invasions. In Carmen’s case, she remembers that “the police were using smoke bombs, and some residents suffered minor injuries.” In other cases, there is violence, and in still others, deaths. For Carmen’s community, residents returned, built more permanent homes, and began to organize.


At this point, there are three ways that a legal title can be acquired. The first is, in the case of private property, to purchase the land through direct sale from its owner.


The second path toward title is to wait until 10 years pass, at which point property rights can be acquired under a law called the prescripción adquisitiva de dominio. Here, “prescription” simply refers to a manner of acquiring land through peaceful and consistent possession, which must be proven in court or to a notary. The government’s 10-year rule is a seemingly adequate amount of time for legal owners to reclaim their land or, if they wish, take squatters to court.


The Commission for the Formalization of Informal Property, or COFOPRI, has historically been the principal government body to consider and award land titles; to date, the agency has awarded approximately 1.5 million of them. COFOPRI was started in the late 1990s with the goal of developing a legal framework for land distribution. The idea was originally proposed by the ILD (Institute for Liberty and Democracy), and was eventually accepted by the Peruvian government under Fujimori to become a formal organization within the Ministry of Housing. As of 2003, it also represented the largest government land titling program geared toward low-income residents in the developing world. But as part of the new legislation, much of its authority has been ceded to the municipalities. According to the 2004 law, provincial municipalities are now responsible for the physical and legal wellbeing of their slum communities, as well as overseeing the process of legalizing individual lots.


Thus, a third option for communities is to petition their respective municipality in order to become recognized as an “association.” Carmen says the requirements depend on the municipality. The ones given to her community were: a minimum of five years residency, the submission of all required documentation, and payment of a small, symbolic fee.


These types of negotiations are often tense, but still tend to favor families, especially when the communities are highly organized. Another DESCO report explains, “one requisite for this [legal recognition] was that the occupied area possessed an urban plan which respected the urban norms and with space left for streets and urban equipment.” Government representatives continue to stress the importance of respecting established rules for urban planning, as was initially accomplished with VES. Importantly, MEDLIFE’s construction of staircases and roads in these developing communities helps them to meet these requirements, connect more quickly to the urban service grid, and get on a faster track toward legalization.


stairs landscape pamplona


The involvement of several different agencies makes the process of legalization a murky one to navigate. For this reason, residents across several different communities have voiced a need for more education regarding these processes. Espinal also echoed this sentiment, stating that one of the main roadblocks to development is that “citizens simply don’t know the laws, or their own rights.” Recently, MEDLIFE has begun to include the topic of property rights in our educational workshops. We are also currently in the process of developing a “Mobile School” program that will provide ongoing education around this topic, amongst other legal issues that community members face.


When I asked Catalino Espinal if government money should be directed toward improving life for rural residents or continuing to grow city aid – an impossible question – he pointed to an overall lack of resources. “The government simply does not have enough money to help everyone,” he said, throwing his hands up in a sign of exasperation. “That is what stops us from developing.”


The DESCO report notes that Peru’s government has increased its spending on poverty alleviation over the last 10 years, but that the money “has gone principally to the rural areas, despite the majority of the poor living in the cities.”


For this reason, Catalino says, NGO work is extremely valuable in Peru. “The government sees these organizations working to alleviate poverty as very important partners,” he says. “Their work here, along with residents’ ability to self-organize, is very necessary.”


MEDLIFE Peru will continue to work closely alongside the municipal government and other local institutions to help provide support in the face of scarce resources, as well as a comprehensive response to pressing issues in urban development.