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Pro Bono Work in Honduras

At Oppenhuizen Law Firm, PLC, we think giving back is important, so we make an effort to do pro bono work when we have the ability.

As a member of the International Property Institute Observatory (in Spanish: “Veenduria International del Instituto del Propiedad” or “VIIP”), Mr. Oppenhuizen is heavily involved in a land rights project in Honduras. This project aims to stabilize the economy by providing clear title to homes for the large numbers of Hondurans who live in extralegal settlements and provide access to capital to Honduran entrepreneurs. An estimated 80% of land in Honduras is either untitled or subject to disputes between alleged owners. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people live in settlements on these disputed lands. This includes amazing entrepreneurs carefully and quietly building businesses that provide wanted and needed services at a fair price.

Examining the Problem

Expansion is often not a good option for these entrepreneurs, whose businesses could support many jobs. Two reasons unduly hold back these entrepreneurs. First, if the business grows too much, local and international gangs often demand a substantial share of the business’ income as “protection” money. Therefore, the entrepreneurs do not want the community to know of their successes or growth.

Second, without a clear title to their land and their home, entrepreneurs cannot leverage their biggest asset to obtain capital. This means that up to 80% of the potential capital that could develop businesses and provide stable jobs is lost. This problem is not particular to Honduras but is endemic across the developing world. An interesting book, called The Mystery of Capital by Hernando DeSoto, does an excellent job of presenting issues that unclear private property rights and titles have on the developing world.

In addition to the lack of clarity of ownership, Honduras, like many other developing world nations suffers from corruption within its governmental offices. This includes the Property Institute, which is in charge of multiple aspects of private property titling and the implementation of the 2004 property law. This well-crafted law provides a path to regularization and ultimately legalization of parcels of real property. If appropriately implemented and executed, ownership of 80% of land in dispute would become clear. Hondurans would unleash their access to capital. Although early law implementation was successful, the legalization process slowed to a crawl after dealing with the bureaucracy, corruption, political patronage, and other inefficiencies.

Finding the Solution

The VIIP operates in a supportive role with The Association for a More Just Society to oversee and hold the Honduran Government accountable for specific and well-defined changes to the Property Institute. These changes focus on transparency within the Property Institute, effective and efficient titling of land, and the elimination of corruption. Partners Worldwide and The Association for a More Just Society(“AJS”) created the VIIP. Partners Worldwide is a Christian organization directed at eliminating poverty through partnering business people from North America with local entrepreneurs in the developing world. The two work together to build a mutually supportive relationship and encourage business growth and the creation of sustainable long-term jobs.

Partners Worldwide is active in over 28 countries throughout the world, including Honduras. AJS is a Honduran NGO dedicated to creating a more just society in Honduras. It is one of the most prominent NGOs operating in Honduras, and while it is Christian at its roots, it receives funding from diverse sources including the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and generous individuals and foundations throughout the world. Its work falls primarily into anti-violence and anti-corruption.

Land rights and land titling issues have been a substantial point of emphasis at AJS since its inception. The websites of these organizations show the difficulties faced by entrepreneurs in the developing world, but also the amazing amount of hope that can come from it. There is a huge worldwide market that is open to each of us. We can all have a profound impact if we treat our business as our calling, as a service to others, and a service to God.

Examining the Impact

Since its inception, the VIIP has had some important milestones. In early 2015, the VIIP, AJS, and the Honduran government signed an agreement to provide the VIIP and AJS unfettered access to the Property Institute. The Honduran Government has upheld its end of this bargain.

The initial review of the Property Institute revealed a weaker and more corrupt institution than expected. They installed new leadership and committed to a plan of improvement. This plan is broad in scope and shows substantial promise over the short, middle, and long term. In the short term, the Property Institute is focused on implementing many significant changes to increase its efficiency in dealing with disputed lands.

For example, they’re implementing a workflow manual created by AJS to ensure accuracy and accountability in the titling process. Before the implementation, the Property Institute (under its former leadership) handed out 5000 titles, with a 100% fatal error rate. In the next event, 33% of the sampled titles contained fatal errors. Since the implementation of the workflow manual, the error rate is 2.8% and the errors are not fatal. Instead, they simply involve minor typos that are easy to correct.

Furthermore, the Property Institute recognized that data access and data security are of the utmost importance. They implemented a software program that provides access to information while limiting and logging anyone permitted to make changes. This step towards building trust provides the VIIP, AJS, and more importantly the Honduran people with better accountability and transparency. They also created a pilot program to allow titling and recordation of mortgages in transactions not involving disputes. Bank employees conduct these steps while overseen by Property Institute staff. This frees up Property Institute staff to work on titling the extralegal settlements.

Looking to the Future

These changes are now being implemented and have a long way to go. However, they are a start that gives hope for the Honduran people. The rule of law, at least in the Property Institute, seems to be gaining a foothold. This rule of law directed toward benefitting the people is the only way for a government to earn trust. The small part that the VIIP can play in this process is rewarding. There is nothing quite like using your skills, knowledge, and gifts to benefit those truly in need. Having the opportunity to support strong and capable groups who have taken up the causes of the vulnerable is a great honor. It is always important to note that those groups are the ones creating and sustaining the impact.