Land battle

True story accompanying image

When Isabella* holds the title to the land she lives on, it’s more than just a piece of paper – she’s holding answers. For the first time in 23 years, she no longer has to question whether she has paid the right person, or whether someone else can claim her home. She has the proof of ownership in her hands.

Isabella moved to her current neighbourhood in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, in 1990. When she and her family set up homes on the originally empty hillside, they didn’t know who owned the land they lived on. However, as the community grew and amenities were added, alleged owners began stepping up, demanding payment for the land.

The land ownership system in Honduras is complicated and technical, often shifting potential land owners between government agencies and requiring dozens of forms. This leaves those most vulnerable to losing their land least able to obtain a title for it. People who are able to navigate the system can claim ownership of land where others have lived for years; and suddenly residents face steep rents or evictions from these supposed owners.

“I can have something I say is ‘mine,’” Isabella said, “But when I go to the bank, they’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, but it says here you didn’t pay.’ Without the legal title you can lose what’s yours.”

Isabella tried to obtain a land title for the home in her nephew’s name, where she has been living. She understood the security that owning land gives. Although she was willing to start paying, it wasn’t clear who she was supposed to pay.

While one branch of the government told residents to stop paying, another office continued to charge them. By the time the government had sorted out who had to be paid, the payments had accrued interest and put residents even further away from their titles. For someone like Isabella, who only has a first-grade education, the process seemed almost impossible to navigate.

Things changed when Isabella met the team from the Association for a More Just Society, Transparency International’s chapter in Honduras, who had gone to her neighbourhood to help sort out the legal status of residents and offer legal counsel and assistance.

With our support, Isabella was finally able to obtain her title. Today, she’s using her knowledge to help others – as a member of one of our community groups, she’s speaking with her neighbours on why titles are important, and assisting people in legally becoming owners of the land they live on.

It’s people like Isabella who motivated us to start fighting for a fairer, cleaner land registration process in Honduras. Since we met her we’ve investigated reports of corruption and mismanagement in the system – finding widespread evidence of abuse.

Already our work has prompted the government to fire the national property institute’s board of directors and launch an official investigation, and we’re pushing to ensure this change goes further. Read more about our work here.

*Name has been changed.

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