Q+A: Land rights can make a world of difference

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 1 May 2012 11:00 GMT

AlertNet speaks to Tim Hanstad, chief executive and president of Landesa, a global land rights advocacy group

This article is part of AlertNet’s special report "Solutions for a Hungry World"

By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON (AlertNet) – Owning the land rights to even a tiny plot of land can help poor people to get out of poverty and improve their access to nutritious food, research has shown.

AlertNet spoke to Tim Hanstad, chief executive and president of Landesa, a global land rights advocacy group, about how owning the legal title to your land can help improve food security and nutrition, lead to long-term investment by small farmers and what steps Rwanda and China have been taking to improve land rights.

Landesa says more than 1 billion people, most of them in rural areas, are estimated to lack legal rights over the land they use to survive, causing poverty to persist over generations and contributing to malnutrition and hunger.

Q: How can land rights make a difference to food security?

A: The issue of food security has to be looked at the household level. Many of the food insecure people in the world, ironically, are involved in agriculture but still don’t get enough food for their own family. Many of those families are landless farm labourers…It is not just about getting food that is produced somewhere else into the mouths of hungry people, it’s about empowering farmers, so that they can at least produce some of their own food. Land access and secure rights to land are fundamental to that.

Just having access, without secure rights, often means that people are not producing optimally because they don’t have the incentives to make long-term improvements that are giving a return on investment over a period of years … Families are not going to have the incentives, or the access to credit, to make… investments typically unless they have legal, secure rights to land. It also enhances their ability to get credit to have land rights.

Q: Your research shows that legally owning even a tiny plot of land can make a difference?

A: Yes, especially with regards to food security… How much land does a family need in order to get a meaningful benefit from that land? Would it be ideal if every family had five acres of land? Yes, it would be ideal but it’s impractical …What we have seen in our research is that the first tenth of an acre is by far the most important …

It gives a person an address, and the ability and security that comes with an address is extremely important for access to credit, for access to government programmes.  And just to have a home, the security it brings to have a home, not just somewhere to live but something they can invest in.

If the plot is big enough, and a tenth of an acre typically is, you usually have some space around your dwelling for a kitchen garden or a place to keep animals. It cannot provide all of income one needs but it supplements in very important ways your nutrition and income.  You can do many things that can provide a wealth stream over many years.

Q: Do you sometimes meet with opposition from local people who may say we’ve been here for centuries, what do we need a law for?

A: In formalising customary rights it’s absolutely crucial to recognize they are neither all good nor all bad. They are aspects to that custom that have worked well, and one has to tap into what is working and what is socially legitimate and providing good outcomes for the community, including the most vulnerable members.

On the other hand, one has to recognize that only because it’s a customary right that is indigenous doesn’t necessary mean that it is working well.  So, one should weed out what doesn’t work, in particular in a rapidly changing environment. Sometimes, people living under customary rights may not recognise how insecure they actually are until a powerful outside interest wants to grab their land.

Q: What can be done to ensure “land grabs” don’t damage local people’s rights?

A: It’s important to look at the broader context that is driving this. The fact that you have investment flowing into a country is a good thing. We need more investment in agriculture. It is how that investment takes place.

The food crisis, the financial crisis have conspired to place upward pressure on farmland prices throughout the world. Unfortunately, most of the places where there is available farmland, or where it is perceived that there is available farmland, are country settings where land rights are weak, or ambiguous and poorly governed. So, it allows governments to reach deals with investors that give them access to land and land rights in a way that poor people are displaced from that land.

What I would like to see is for companies to see, from their own investment risk perspective, that people have been displaced from the land they access… and that there is potential for unrest, so your investment can be ruined. There have been developments, for example in Madagascar and West Bengal, where governments were overthrown partly because of those issues. What I would love to see companies doing is to do a land tenure assessment, just as they are required to do an environmental impact assessment, to view it not just as something humanitarian but as a business risk issue.

Q: Rwanda, for example, has done some good work on land rights. What did the government do?

A: Over the past 10 years it has started by establishing a land policy that was data-driven in the sense that they were really trying to understand the data on the ground. That policy was then translated into legislation, an organic law that, among others things, aimed to formalise the customary land rights that existed on the ground. That formalisation process had been rolled out across the country.

They have taken good first steps in making sure that women’s voices are heard and that women are part of this process to make sure that their rights are protected. They could be doing an even better job but they have done at least a decent job. And we see that when rights are being formalised, good things happen.

Q: Where do you see China heading in terms of land rights?

A: China’s leaders face a difficult problem. The law gives farmers rights to 30-year renewable leases that they can also transfer. That is a major step forward for China. About half of Chinese farmers haven’t yet received the legal documents to put that structure in place but they’re rolling it out across the country.

One of the biggest threats to those land rights is the risk of expropriation from the government. And what China is experiencing now is massive expropriation of farmers’ land because this economic growth engine in China is creating more demand for land…In order to convert agricultural land to non-agricultural land, it requires the government to expropriate it. Farmers cannot sell to a non-agricultural user of land. And that process increases the value of the land dramatically. So, local governments use it as a way to raise revenue. Sometimes, the local governments treat the farmers well, many times they don’t. Many times they don’t even involve the farmers in the process. The farmers come back to their land and find bulldozers there – and this is becoming a great source of social unrest.

How can the central government protect the rights of farmers when almost 50 percent of all local government revenue is coming from those sales? But what we see is that the Communist Party and the central government are paying increasing attention to this issue to give farmers better protection and to compensate them better. I’m bullish that China will do the right thing. It will do two steps, one step back but farmers’ rights in China will continue to get stronger, and need to or the central government and the party face massive discontent.

Q: Has the aid community embraced the importance of land rights?

A: Land rights are so fundamental to so many development efforts. Whether it’s agriculture, health, education or women’s empowerment, I truly believe that people in organisations working in these topical areas approached their work with a better land rights lens that there is so much they could do to move the needle on land rights.

In agriculture, for example, if one provides better seeds, better irrigation in a way that makes farmers more productive- if you haven’t looked at the specifics of the land rights, one actually has the potential to do harm. How? These interventions are making the land resource more valuable, and when land resources become more valuable, people can come in and grab, or solidify their rights, whether this is the male head of household, whether it is high-caste members in an Indian village, whether that’s sometimes outsiders…so, solidifying the rights of the vulnerable before the resource (land) becomes more valuable is absolutely crucial.

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