Secure Rights to Land: The Key to Sustainable Development


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New landowners holding their land titles in India. (Deborah Espinosa)

By Tim Hanstad

While you are reading this article, perhaps in your office or in a coffee shop, most of you don’t have to worry about neighbors or strangers moving into your home and claiming it as their own or harvesting produce from your vegetable garden or the fruit tree in your yard.


Because you have a land title, deed, lease, or rental agreement that gives you clear and enforceable rights to the land and property you use and depend on.

And it is backed up by an invisible infrastructure of laws, regulations, and institutions (like courts) that protect your rights to your property.

This not only gives you security, but it also gives you incentive to invest and improve your property.

And it gives you the ability to sell your property or mortgage it to access to credit.

But more than a billion of the world’s poorest people don’t have this fundamental right.

They have no legal rights over the land on which they depend.

And what makes this so troubling is that these poor families mostly live in rural areas, with land-based livelihoods. So land is not only necessary for housing, it is their most important source of income, food, credit, power, and status.

So when they leave their hut in the morning, they are not sure they’ll be able to sleep there at night. And when they sow their crops, they are entirely unsure if they will be the ones to reap the harvest.

Now you may wonder how people farm the land if they don’t own it.

But they do.

In fact, farmers from Kenya to Cambodia and Pakistan to Panama have been farming the same patch of earth for generations without legal title to it.

They are indigenous tribes, indentured servants, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers.

This doesn’t just make them vulnerable to being pushed off their land.

It impacts how they farm.

Because they don’t know if they’ll be the ones who reap the harvest of the crop they sow, they often don’t buy more expensive, high-quality seeds.

And because they don’t know if they’ll be farming the same plot next year, they often don’t labor to build a well or improve irrigation or practice soil conservation techniques.

They live and farm day-to-day instead of investing in their land to improve their lives year after year.

And so it is little wonder that these farmers produce small harvest.

And they are stuck, for generations, in extreme poverty and insecurity.

They see no way out.

But the organization I work for, Landesa, does.

We understand that at the root of this generational poverty trap is a structural problem that can be rectified with a structural solution: giving farming families rights to the land they till.

It is clear that the missing invisible infrastructure (of laws, documentation, courts, etc.) doesn’t just frustrate the poor’s attempt to feed themselves and climb out of poverty. It is at the root of so many of the challenges that concern us today. Because the key to getting at poverty and a host of other problems is enabling families and communities to think long term, to invest year to year, rather than survive day-to-day.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any major global challenge that doesn’t intersect with land rights.

Consider food security: The experts tell us by 2050 the world needs to increase its food production by 70 percent. There is no way we’ll get there without property rights. We can’t make more land, so we need to change the incentive structure for farmers.

Consider climate change: Again, we need to change the incentive framework to ensure people have a long-term planning horizon. Planting trees needs to make as much economic sense as cutting them. And that can happen if people have legal control over their land.

And perhaps the most compelling challenge: women’s empowerment. If we are to empower one-half of the world’s population, we can talk about education, health, and nutrition, but it is economic empowerment that will get women ahead and keep them there. Unfortunately, today, we are failing women. Most women around the world inherit poverty, not property.

They need equal legal control over the most important asset in the developing world—land.

Once today’s poor families have that legal control, most can do the rest by the sweat of their brow.

They’ll invest in the land and grow more. They’ll become better environmental stewards. They’ll eat more and earn more. They’ll finally gain a stake in society

When women share in these legal rights to the land their family or community relies on, the benefits are even more pronounced. Farm productivity increases even further. Nutrition and educational outcomes are even better. And domestic violence is reduced.

This is where Landesa comes in.

Our organization was born out of the University of Washington Law School.

For more than forty years, Landesa’s attorneys, economists, and gender experts have worked on structural solutions to this fundamental problem. We’ve advised governments around the world, helping them revise their land laws and create institutions and programs that spark investment and real sustainable economic growth.

What this means is different in each country:

* * *

In China, we advised the central government on a series of three laws that provided farmers with thirty-year rights to the land they farm. And we continue to work to strengthen women’s rights to land and improve farmers security across China.

In Rwanda we spent five years helping the government painstakingly design new land laws based on our field research and interviews with poor farmers. We then advocated for and educated both government officials and the farmers about what these new laws meant. In the case of Rwanda, this meant creating special programs to ensure that women were not left out of the land registration process. And that they not only received titles but also understood the significance and power of these simple pieces of paper.

In India we are partnering with progressive government officials at all levels of government. At the national level to ensure that the government’s housing program for the poor, for example, also provides land on which to build a home so that the program can benefit the poorest of the poor—India’s twenty million landless families. At the state level, we are partnering with governments in five states on a variety of programs that provide land documentation to tribal families who have lived at the margins for generations, and provide tennis-court-size micro-plots of land that allow previously landless families to build a small home and kitchen garden.

* * *

Landesa has worked in forty-seven countries and helped more than 110 million families.

Landesa’s founder, University of Washington law professor Roy Prosterman, started it all almost fifty years ago.

In the middle of the Vietnam War, with bombs going off around him, he helped launch one of the most ambitious and successful “Land to the Tiller” programs in history. His program provided one million tenant farmers with control over the land they tilled. It increased rice production by 30 percent and cut Viet Cong recruitment by 80 percent. And it is a remarkable lesson in the power of land rights.

Today Landesa works in India, China, and Africa.

We are still a relatively small NGO. We have slightly more than one hundred staff worldwide. We have a remarkable record that is possible only through our partnerships with governments, helping them change their national laws, policies, and legal systems to change the trajectory of individual lives, families, and communities.


Landesa is a global development nonprofit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men. Follow us @Landesa_Global.

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