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Is ‘give them land rights’ enough? Taking the temperature of the global land debate

May 22, 2015
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A bunch of students and academics from Sheffield University had what sounds like a fun time at last week’s big land forum logoglobal meeting on land. George Barrett, Yoshabel Durand, Tom Goodfellow, Vremudia Irikefe, Mikael Omstedt, Edward Searight, Julie Shi, Deborah Sporton and Nguyen Vo report back.

Last week, dispersed among 700 participants at the International Land Coalition’s global forum in Senegal sat nine of us from the University of Sheffield – seven students and two academic staff. Surrounded by throngs of NGOs fighting for land rights around the world, our presence was part of a university programme providing opportunities for students to engage as international policy analysts. We were basically part of the comms team: blogging, interviewing ILC members and tweeting frenetically to extend the reach of the debates taking place. As observers of the whole event rather than participants with an agenda – or journalists dipping in for one session – we got a good feel for the general state of the debate on land.

Concern about ‘land grabbing’ has reached fever pitch, particularly with respect to Africa, but the discussion showed that this is far more complex than big multinationals seizing land from smallholders. In fact, in many cases the land grabbers are national elites who purport to protect their people from ‘foreign’ grabbers: ‘the one who is looking for the needle has their foot on it’, in the words of a Malian participant. Meanwhile, efforts towards the restitution of land for ‘indigenous peoples’ (a

Early champion of land grabbing

Early champion of land grabbing

contested term in itself) were perceived by some as just another form of land grab, veiled in appeals to traditional legitimacy but with insufficient attention to justice and transparency. This concern was raised in relation to the forced resale of ancestral lands in Scotland, as well as Ghana.

In many parts of the world, land is so central to the economy, politics and cultural life that it can be seen as the central problem of development itself. ‘He who controls the land will control power’, in the words of one participant – and it is indeed usually ‘he’. Despite the prominence of ‘women’s land rights’ at the event, when it came to debates on one of the dominant concerns of the conference – business and how it can produce more inclusive outcomes – women and their voice were often absent.

There was also relatively little attention to gender as opposed to ‘women’, despite years of effort to refocus on inter and intra-gender dynamics rather than just females. Meanwhile, several decades of legalising women’s access to land have starkly revealed that cultural norms and practices are much more important than laws. A study from India, for example, demonstrated that progressive land reforms to facilitate women’s inheritance had little effect because women feared the social stigma they would face if they actually claimed this right. In another case, it was found to be more effective to shift the norms of use associated with customary land rather than create new ownership rights for women.

This disillusionment with legal reforms percolated far beyond the gender discussion: the whole conference reflected the gradual collapse of any certainty that giving people titles to land will result in social justice. Echoing the recent recognition among development policy types of the need to go beyond the idea that ‘institutions matter’, this was vividly brought to life in discussions on both gender and indigenous rights. What good, for example, is providing indigenous groups with special rights to buy the land they inhabit if this is likely to send them spiralling into debt, sometimes resulting in rushed re-sales of land that leave them worse off than before? A representative from Ecuador also pointed out that increased access to land for indigenous groups can come with pressure to use that land for commercial purposes, undermining customary practices and in some cases negatively affecting familial and community relations.

The overall impression was therefore of the urgent need to move beyond the assertion of ‘rights to land’, which in its bald, land rights = human rightsunqualified form has become relatively meaningless. One approach to this problem at the conference was to distinguish between people’s historic rights to tend and inhabit land and what some speakers termed ‘real rights’ to land (which basically translates as rights for developers/foreign investors). While this was meant to facilitate the coexistence of smallholding and agribusiness, for some of us the language was worrying. It seems to suggest a two-tiered system, in which the rights of communities to use land they may have occupied for centuries will necessarily be trumped by superior rights for those with the resources to invest in growth-enhancing agriculture or real estate. More positively, however, one session showcased a ‘social tenure’ model for mapping the full diversity of relationships that exist between spatial units, supporting documents and people (individually or collectively) – the aim being to use this to help people articulate and claim more nuanced forms of tenure rights.

If the need to deepen our understanding of rights to land was an overriding theme, what were some of the omissions in the debate? One was a discussion of food sovereignty, which in recent years has animated debate in policy and academia, but was virtually absent from the agenda. As opposed to food security, which is largely about facilitating market solutions to hunger, food sovereignty involves bottom-up, farmer-first solutions to food production. Again, this absence reflects the tendency of land discourses to focus on endowments, without sufficient attention to people’s entitlements – their capacity to actually use and benefit from what they can legally claim.

A further striking omission was the question of urban land. We were told by the ILC that they had approached member organisations for sessions on urban issues, but none came forward. This is worrying given that the urban poor are some of the most vulnerable to eviction as the value of prime urban land soars (often driven by land titling programmes!). The omission likely reflects the fact that people still tend to see ‘urban issues’ as being those associated with service delivery, housing and infrastructure, when land actually underpins all of these. Moreover, when a participant asked about potential for urban agriculture in one session, the Ugandan government panellist simply replied that ‘people cannot farm in Kampala’ – a blatant untruth that cut off debate on an important issue.

So, where does all this leave the debate on land? Despite the great range of successes and failures showcased from across the world, there was scant sense at the forum of a way ahead beyond the need to replace the teetering paradigm of secure legal title. Shoots of a new direction are apparent, however, in the form of moves to embrace the progressive potential of customary land by tackling injustices in current usage from all angles, rather than depending on legal reforms built on individualistic principles.

By the way, Sheffield University is advertising for a Director/Research Chair in International Development. Closing Date 3rd June. 



  1. Thank you Duncan, for an interesting and timely blog that raises uncomfortable issues that need to be confronted.

    It is a pity indeed that discussions on food sovereignty were omitted, where a key discussion is on how land has been transformed into a commodity, to be bought and sold in the open market. This I believe is what makes the land-grabbing or land-investing phenomenon a central problem of development.

    Food sovereignty activists point out that land loses its central role in food security the more it becomes a commodity. Land can be bought, or grabbed, not to produce food or be a base for shelter, but to park capital to be sold later when prices rise (the technical term I think is ‘financialisation’). Instead of being located at the beginning of the food chain, land is transformed into a platform where commodities from somewhere (e.g. animal feed) are transformed into another commodity (e.g. meat or wool) destined for somewhere else. ‘Food miles’ expand tremendously – I can only buy bananas from Central America at my local Tesco’s. Over time, land loses its value as an autonomous source of life, especially when migration to the cities, rather than owning a plot, become seen as the best way to survive.

    Such transformations may not necessarily be bad, especially if, as many economists argue, it leads to remarkable wealth creation. But it also can’t be denied that turning land into a commodity creates and reproduces inequality as well – it is arguably an origin of the have-lots and have-nots. But furthermore, turning land into a commodity, argue food sovereignty advocates, makes it difficult to slow down processes that create climate change. Thus, while there is an ‘invisible hand’ for creating wealth and maximising profit, there is no similar ‘hand’ invisible or not for resolving the paradox of poverty amidst plenty, or in pursuing the protection of the planet.

    Yes there is a need, certainly, “to replace the teetering paradigm of a secure legal title”. The shoots of new directions can be found too in the food sovereignty debates – ie. challenging commodification from below; experimentation on agro-ecology; or creating new exchange institutions different from the market model.

  2. Hi Eric

    Many thanks for this – ‘creating new exchange institutions different from the market model’ does indeed seem to be an important priority if we are to avoid the inequitable outcomes that so often accompany market-based land reforms. But what form might such exchange institutions take? This point you raise seems to me to be quite a different thing from the efforts to make customary land uses more sustainable and inclusive, which we heard quite a lot about at the conference. Innovative approaches to exchange was something we heard less about – would be very interested to hear of any examples!

    1. Hi Tom,
      I heard about this at the Yale Food Sovereignty Conference in 2013. If I remember correctly, Harriet Friedmann talked about how to change the perverse incentives or subsidies for farmers to produce food and use land in unecological ways — i.e. that more short-term and predictable profit can be made from using industrially-manufactured fertilizers, using GMO varieties, or supplying meat to McDonalds. In other words, rather than participate autonomously in the market, farmers get trapped in input markets where they get linked upstream and downstream to environmentally harmful practices. She didn’t discuss silver-bullet alternatives, but emphasized how there is room for piecemeal, incremental changes, like protecting the commons, sharing machines, pooling community labour, or reducing costs rather than just pursuing profit.
      Another presentor (Van der Ploeg) discussed reducing dependency on external resources (like loans from banks and loansharks), and increasing reliance on internal resources already held by the community. He also talked about the difference between a local ‘peasant marketplace’ as opposed to a global market controlled by ‘food empires’ — which I think is a crucial distinction often missed when so-called market models are discussed.

  3. Thanks Eric! Very interesting. The emphasis on reducing cost (including social/community costs) rather than pursuing profits is again something I didn’t hear much about at the ILC conference (though of course there were many panels I couldn’t attend). This also seems to speak to the tension between developing countries’ necessary commitments to economic growth and the imperatives of poverty reduction and improved quality of life for poor farmers, which growth can actually undermine.

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