I’ve long known that land titles mean empowerment for urban and rural poor, especially women, in developing countries. Indeed, a paragraph in my “stump speech” notes that if women farmers could use their land as collateral to gain access to credit at the same rate as men, there would be a 30 percent increase in productivity, enough to feed 150 million people. But during my visit to Batangas in the Philippines last week, the human dimension of this reality was brought home to me vividly.
USAID in the Philippines is working with national and local authorities and civil society on a project to bring to life the “Residential Free Patent Law.” That law provides expedited land titles to people who can show that they’ve long occupied their land. In the Philippines, only about half of the estimated 22 million land parcels are titled. Working with the Asia Foundation and the local Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF), USAID is providing training and technical assistance to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and local government units to speed the titling process.
Last Thursday, I took part in a ceremony where we awarded land titles to long-time occupants of land. No, we didn’t get the attention that a similar ceremony in Colombia attracted several weeks ago, but then again, I’m not Barack Obama, and I wasn’t accompanied by musical superstar Shakira. But still it was a remarkable program.
When I gave one woman her land title, she squeezed my hand and wouldn’t let go until she told me her story. She said that she was 60 years old and had occupied her land for four decades. Each day, she would wake up wondering if, by nightfall, she would be driven off her property by land-grabbers or government officials. She couldn’t use her land to get a loan, and even if she could, she was afraid that improvements on her house or farm land would make it attractive to interlopers. Holding up her new title, she said, “This magic paper changes everything for me, my children, and my grandchildren.” And then she started to cry tears of joy as her family came forward to embrace her.
Only time will tell if that woman’s future is as bright as she imagines. But thanks in large part to mission director Gloria Steele, John Avila, the entire USAID mission, and our partners, this woman and thousands like her are empowered to seek a more secure and prosperous life.