Red Tierras: A conversation with co-founder, Matthew Alexander
Disputes over land are a common source of conflict, even escalating to violence at times.
Red Tierras, one of the winners of the Changemakers Property Rights: Identity, Dignity & Opportunity For All competition, is securing land rights for marginalized populations by resolving land disputes – especially in Colombia and Guatemala.
Matthew Alexander, co-founder of Red Tierras, talked to Changemakers about his experiences working on land issues in Latin America, and with the competition:
What is Red Tierras, and what do you do?
Red Tierras is essentially a South-South network for connecting people to share lessons learned and best practices in land conflict resolution and land management. We want to support marginalized populations so they can secure land rights and manage their land in a sustainable and productive way.
On the one hand, we help people secure formal land rights, but on the other hand, we understand the importance of self-determination and customary land tenure systems. For this reason, we also spend a lot of time listening to people in the communities and learning more about their perspectives on land.
We have found that many of the indigenous communities are very open to using new technologies and approaches to secure land tenure. Red Tierras wants to meet this demand – it’s a matter of matching aspirations from local communities with a network of support.
What kinds of technology are you using?
We are still investigating the technology available for Red Tierras, and are currently in a planning phase for the virtual platform. One of our goals is to use technology to overcome barriers to access, especially with regard to geographical, cultural, and linguistic limitations to participation. There are a number of different technologies we are looking into, including:
- Mobile phones – to receive/send information of all sorts, including training, policy news, geo-referencing information, and to mobilize participation;
- Speak-to-tweet – to engage users who are illiterate and/or in remote areas, especially because most of the indigenous communities traditionally use oral communications, this technology could be especially effective for promoting a more inclusive land dialogue;
- Community-led video – to promote participation in the network and bring visibility to land tenure successes and challenges;
- GPS and ArcGIS Explorer – to map land, identify conflict, and monitor natural resource use.
We want a mechanism to connect people, and fortunately we are able to do it through the technology that is available – it’s just a matter of determining which technology is the most relevant to the communities we support.
The case of Egypt has been inspiring to us in so many ways … especially in demonstrating the technological tools that are available to strengthen relationships and connect people in a way they never could before. When I was a Human Rights Observer in Chiapas, Mexico in 2000, I remember witnessing the power of the Internet to protect human rights. For the first time in centuries, oppressed indigenous communities were able to defend their rights by galvanizing support across the world. And now, with Egypt, we see how much that potential has grown over the last decade. From Chiapas to Cairo, the Internet has proven to be an invaluable ally for human rights.
It is important to note that we will not use technology to define the agenda - that should be determined by the local communities. Our goal is to offer people a platform where they can identify common needs and challenges, and respond to them through the network. We are thrilled about all of the possibilities.
Where did you get the idea for Red Tierras?
I started working at Mercy Corps as the Regional Coordinator for Latin America and managing the new South-South Initiative between Guatemala and Colombia in 2009. Originally, we facilitated onsite cross-visits that sent Guatemalans to Colombia (and vice-versa) to learn about methodologies for land conflict resolution.
During conversations with my colleagues Miguel Balán and Hugo Gómez, we began discussing how we could make the South-South exchange more dynamic, and disseminate the information more broadly so others could learn and share their experiences – that’s where the idea of Red Tierras was born.
What is so important about land rights?
Through my work with Mercy Corps in Colombia and Guatemala, it became increasingly clear that inequitable land distribution was at the heart of the conflict and poverty that plague Latin America.
Why did you enter the Changemakers property rights competition?
We saw it as a great opportunity. We did not enter the competition with the goal of winning the prize money – we actually entered with the intent of meeting other professionals who are dedicated to land rights – and that, without a doubt, has been the most valuable take away from the competition.
This competition is really just the beginning for us, especially in terms of building relationships with other land rights practitioners. We have already met some really incredible people through the Changemakers experience, and we are looking forward to cultivating long-term relationships with them in the future.
Beyond the network of new land rights friends, the support from the Changemakers staff was consistent and helpful. It was refreshing to experience, and made the competition feel less like a competition and more like a collaborative effort.
The prize was really just the icing on the cake.
What advice would you give to future competition entrants?
- Enter early so you have plenty of time to revise, based on feedback from the Changemakers network.
- Aim to build relationships with like-minded social entrepreneurs – that is the real value of the competition.
- Reach out to the Changemakers team. They are accessible, supportive, and highly knowledgeable.
What do you and your team plan to do next?
We want to match existing technologies to the real needs of citizens, and are working with experts to identify the appropriate technology to do so. We are also looking into expanding Red Tierras to include Haiti in the near future, and will be having discussions with local partners there later this month.
Matthew Alexander joined Mercy Corps in 2009 as the Regional Coordinator for Latin America. For more than a decade, Matthew has focused on participatory and sustainable development initiatives across Latin America, including in Cuba, México, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador. From 2004-2009, he served as founder and president of Ahmsa, an organization that builds inclusive enterprises for internally displaced persons and other marginalized populations in Colombia. Previously, Matthew had worked with a variety of development organizations, from grassroots groups supporting the rights of indigenous peoples to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He will study social entrepreneurship at Harvard University as a Mid-career MPA student during the 2012-2013 academic year.