What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
In February 2010, Mercy Corps organized its first cross-visit on land rights in Cobán, Guatemala, the birthplace of the Tierras land conflict resolution program seven years earlier. Participants included local NGO partners Fundación Darién from Colombia, JADE and ADIM from Guatemala, and staff from Mercy Corps Guatemala and Colombia. It was the first time the Colombian participants had traveled outside of their country to learn from others in land conflict resolution, and the exchange exposed both nationalities to new ideas, enduring friendships and fresh perspectives. Participants engaged in an invigorating dialogue and analysis of their innumerable similarities in land rights issues, including shared histories of land conflict, technical and political challenges of securing land rights for marginalized communities, internal forced displacement, environmental degradation, gender and ethnic discrimination in land rights, and problems caused by infrastructure megaprojects and monocropping. The Colombian participants received in-depth technical training from their Guatemalan counterparts in alternative dispute resolution, land conflict mapping and analysis, land rights frameworks, and administrative and human resource strategies for land conflict mediation centers. They also visited communities and local authorities who had peacefully resolved land disputes through the Tierras program. The Colombian participants took the lessons they learned home and launched the first two land conflict mediation centers in Colombia only a month and a half later. Soon after the cross-visit, however, the Colombians and Guatemalans both recognized that they needed to bridge the distance between the two countries and continue to support each other in their efforts to resolve land conflict and secure land rights for marginalized communities. It was also clear that the newly formed group would need a broader network to perpetuate lessons learned and include other land rights specialists and stakeholders. Modern information and communications technology proved to be the most viable tool for achieving these two objectives. Accordingly, the group decided to build an interactive virtual platform to complement the cross-visits as a network-building activity. After investigating available networking technologies, the Ning platform (www.ning.com) was chosen as the most versatile, user-friendly website option for the land rights network. The groups shared their idea for a land rights network with colleagues, community leaders, government officials and other NGOs, all of whom became excited over the potential of the network. Additional cross-visits in Guatemala and Colombia have also been scheduled to further strengthen the relationships that underpin this exciting new network.
Tell us about the social innovator—the person—behind this idea.
A diverse range of social innovators are behind the creation of Red Tierras. The original Mercy Corps Tierras program in Guatemala was developed by Romeo Euler and Borys Chinchilla, two Guatemalan rural development specialists who dedicated their lives to help impoverished communities amidst rural violence after witnessing the pain and anguish caused by land conflicts. They envisioned the need for viable alternatives to land disputes in northern Guatemala and used their ideas to initiate Tierras. By 2008, Tierras was an overwhelming success in Guatemala. Mercy Corps’ Colombia Country Director, Gary Burniske, met with Borys Chinchilla to discuss the possibility of replicating Tierras in Colombia, which was also facing violence caused by land disputes. Gary was convinced that the Tierras methodology could have a profound impact in resolving land disputes in Colombia. Gary and Borys shared the idea with two headquarters decision-makers, Kathy Fry from the Portland, Oregon office and Carrie Beaumont from the Edinburgh office, and both offered their full support for the initiative. Within six months, they secured funds from the European Union and Irish Aid to launch the program. A team of development professionals with local experience was formed to build the program. Matthew Alexander, with ten years of extensive grassroots human rights experience in Central and South America, was appointed as the Regional Coordinator to facilitate the South-South knowledge exchange between Guatemala and Colombia. He has led the formation of Red Tierras along with three colleagues in Guatemala and Colombia: Carlos Aquino, Miguel Balán and Hugo Gómez. Carlos Aquino is Mercy Corps’ Rural Development Manager and has decades of experience in land rights projects. Miguel Balán was one of the original Tierras land conflict mediators in 2004 and now serves as the National Tierras Project Manager in Guatemala. Hugo Gómez, the National Tierras Project Manager in Colombia, is a land rights professional with experience in areas of intense armed conflict in Colombia. Miguel, Hugo, Carlos and Matthew have built a solid team and a lasting friendship that forms the base of Red Tierras. Mercy Corps plans to eventually transition the leadership of Red Tierras to a Technical Secretariat, which will be comprised of local land rights practitioners from NGOs and communities across Latin America.
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