A monthly report from

The Carter Center

Carter Center helps resolve lingering land disputes in Nicaragua

Nicaraguan leaders are moving quickly toward resolving tens of thousands of property disputes that have entangled the country's politics and impeded its economic development and democratic consolidation for the past 15 years, according to a report released by The Carter Center's Latin American and Caribbean Program (LACP).

The report cites a conference held July 4-5 in Montelimar, co-sponsored by The Carter Center and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Belizean Prime Minister George Price. The conference brought together for the first time a group of Nicaraguan leaders representing the entire spectrum of affected interests, including President Chamorro and her cabinet, the Nicaraguan Assembly, party leaders, owners of confiscated land, and beneficiaries of reforms.

"The Montelimar meeting was an important accomplishment in itself," said Robert Pastor, LACP director and professor of political science at Emory. "The forum reflected an important maturing of Nicaraguan society as participants from all sides of the issue came together to discuss differences in an atmosphere of respect and constructive problem-solving."

Stemming from the redistribution of land and property during the Sandinista government, Nicaraguan property issues have involved fundamental debates over whose rights to property should take precedence. The disputing groups are as varied as peasants waiting for titles to land granted under agrarian reform, Sandinista and contra ex-combatants seeking land in the countryside, and prior owners from Nicaragua and abroad demanding return of or compensation for houses, factories and land confiscated, expropriated or abandoned. The amount of land claimed by the former owners constitutes 25 percent of the nation's cultivable land area, and the estimated cost of compensating them ($650 million) is the equivalent of 35 percent of Nicaragua's economy, or two years of exports.

After intensive debates, consensus on three main points was reached at the conference:

*First, poor families occupying small-sized properties should be protected from evictions and lawsuits until final titles can be issued.

*Ownership of larger properties, the most controversial issue, should be settled by requiring recipients either to return or to pay for those properties.

*Owners of expropriated land should be compensated with improved bonds.

An 18-member commission representative of the groups attending the conference was established and met for the first time on July 14 in Managua under the auspices of the UNDP. The commission's initial task is to translate the general proposals of the conference into specific decisions and laws. The commission set a deadline to accomplish all goals within three months.

"The solutions and principles identified at the conference were a powerful statement about the ability of Nicaragua to move forward to resolve this difficult and divisive issue," said Jennifer McCoy, senior research associate for LACP. "Nevertheless, while these principles may serve as a starting point, the real test will be as the National Assembly, the executive, and a follow-up commission take the concrete steps needed to carry them out."

Under U.S. foreign aid law, the secretary of state was required to certify progress on property issues by July 30 to continue aid to Nicaragua.

Ann Carney is publicity associate at The Carter Center.