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Ten Signs of an impending Global Land Rights Revolution

March 16, 2017
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Exfamer Chris Jochnick, who now runs Landesa, the land rights NGO, sets out his stall ahead of a big World Bank chris-jochnick (1)event next week.

The development community has experienced various “revolutions” over the years – from microfinance to women’s rights, from the green revolution to sustainable development.  Each of these awakenings has improved our understanding of the challenges we face; each has transformed the development landscape, mostly for the better.

We now see the beginnings of another, long-overdue, revolution: this one focused on the fundamental role of land in sustainable development.  Land has often been at the root of revolutions, but the coming land revolution is not about overthrowing old orders. It is based on the basic fact that much of the world has never gotten around to legally documenting land rights.  According to the World Bank, only 10% of land in rural Africa and 30% of land globally is documented.  This gap is the cause of widespread chaos and dysfunction around the world.

There are in fact ten factors pushing land to the top of the global agenda:

1. Livelihoods and food security

The majority of people living in poverty today depend on land for their survival, but lack secure rights to it.  That insecurity creates a powerful disincentive to invest, undermining efforts to boost farmer productivity and leaving hundreds of millions of small farmers permanently on the brink of survival.  By contrast, secure rights can boost productivity by 60 percent and more than double family income.  The UN 2030 Agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals) includes land rights in its first two goals covering poverty and hunger.

Landesa 12. Sustainable Economic Growth

The so called Asian Tigers offer a powerful reminder that securing land rights for small farmers is a fundamental pre-condition for strong sustainable economic growth. A study of 33 countries found that stronger property rights were associated with a five percent increase in GDP growth and a global study of 108 countries found that stronger property rights were associated with an increased average annual growth of per capita income of 6 to 14 percentage points.

3. Women’s Empowerment

Today, more than half the world’s countries deny women the ability to own, inherit or manage land by law or custom.  These barriers condemn women to second class status and poverty, generation after generation.  While sixty percent of working women in sub-Saharan Africa are in the agricultural sector, they often work without secure legal or customary rights, accessing land only through a male relative. If they are widowed or have an argument with their brother or father, they and their children are likely to be left homeless and landless.  There is arguably no single intervention as powerful as legally documenting, formalizing, and strengthening women’s land rights to transform a women’s status, voice and economic prospects  Accordingly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals include land rights in the 5th goal covering gender equality; and a global campaign on women’s and girls’ empowerment launched by Women Deliver and dozens of INGOs fully embraces land rights.

4. Conflict and Human rights

The human rights community has put land rights on the map as land grabbing and attendant violence have captured national and global headlines.   Growing conflict around ever-scarcer land is driven by population growth, climate change-induced desertification and flooding, and pressure in industrialized countries to find new sources of minerals, commodities and food in the Global South.  In emerging economies, an estimated 93% of concessions granted to investors for extractive activities are already occupied by communities, setting the stage for widespread expropriation and violence.  A study of civil conflicts since 1990 showed that land was at the root of the majority of them; and Global Witness declared 2015 the deadliest year for land defenders, with over three killed every week.

5. Governance and accountability

Land grabbing is one of the clearest symptom of governmental dysfunction.  As Transparency International
, it thrives where corruption is high and rule of law is low.  The vast tracts of land that remain undocumented and the billion plus people living under insecure regimes stands as one of the greatest challenges to strong institutions and rule of law.

6. Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Indigenous peoples have been fighting to protect their territory for thousands of years.  Today, an estimated 2.5 Landesa 3billion people depend on indigenous and community lands.  These lands cover over 50% of the planet, but only one fifth of that land has been formally recognized as legally belonging to the indigenous and local communities that occupy it. More than 500 organizations led by Oxfam, Rights Resources Initiative and the International Land Coalition are actively campaigning to secure the collective land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

7. Conservation and Climate Change

Stronger land rights are one of the most effective tools we have to ward off deforestation and climate change.  A growing body of evidence underscores that secure land rights for forest communities are the best defense to forest destruction.  Likewise, for individual farmers, the lack of long term horizons leads to slash and burn practices.  Climate smart approaches to agriculture, including water and soil conservation, better seeds and fertilizer, planting of trees will only thrive where farmers feel they have a secure stake in the land.

8. Humanitarian crises and response

Insecure land rights leave vulnerable people facing natural disasters with strong incentives to stay in place, fearing that by evacuating they will lose any claim to their land.  Lack of clear land tenure following crises also makes rebuilding nearly impossible, in large part because of unclear land rights.

Landesa 29. Smart urbanization

As urbanization rapidly increases across the global south, city planners are stymied by a lack of clear land tenure, leading to illegal and unplanned urban sprawl, massive slums (an estimated 60-80% of African city dwellers lack secure property rights), conflict and forced evictions.  The UN’s “New Urban Agenda” explicitly recognizes the importance of land rights, as does the seminal campaign to secure “land rights for all” launched by the world’s largest housing rights organization – Habitat for Humanity.

10. Peace, security and refugee flows

Struggles over land have spurred many of the most enduring and devastating wars and refugee flows of our times, including in places like Syria, Sudan, Rwanda, Colombia and Myanmar.  Liberians fear their country is on the brink of civil war, yet again, and conflict over land is a driving factor.  For national governments, insecure land rights may present an existential threat, whereas for the international community they are key to securing an enduring peace and stemming the flow of refugees.

It’s clear then why the development community is rallying around land rights – value for money it is tough to beat them. Stories of the importance of land rights and the many successful land interventions are daily fodder for mainstream and academic media (well-curated by Thomson Reuters here and Land Portal here). The business community has its reasons too – land rights are critical to sustainable supply chains and secure investments.  Governments are also coming around.  Next week, over a thousand land rights practitioners from civil society, business and governments will gather at the World Bank’s Annual Land and Poverty Conference.  Momentum is building behind a land rights revolution.


  1. Chris, great summary of the current state of play on global land rights and land governance reform. Much to be positive about there. One aspect I think is missing – especially for all the talk of revolution – is the inherently political nature of land reform and the land sector’s inability to fully grasp this reality. The majority of development assistance remains of a technical nature, investing heavily in titling schemes, land registries and policy related initiatives. Rarely does it invest in understanding and aiming to address the vested interests and power relations inherent in land governance. This is why despite a growing evidence base on the crucial role land rights can play and years of positive policy reforms, progress is patchy, especially for those whose land rights are least secure. Historically we know that meaningful pro-poor improvement in land relations is often more about political struggle and social movements than top-down reform. How can the ‘land rights revolution’ be one that is more politically grounded and engage with the enablers and blockers of national reform? If not, I suspect this revolution will look far better on paper than in reality.

  2. About time and right on the mark. Land rights have been studied for decades in Africa but very little has been done to reform rural land governance. The rise in population densities require land registration for multiple reasons, not the least being the achievement higher agricultural productivity. Farmers now must practice intensification and that requires years of work in improving soils. There is reluctance to do this work and make investments in the land, if they do not own the farms. Moreover, as African women farmers are responsible for most of the farm work, giving them equal access to land and improved inputs if a proven way to increase drop yields. After over 40 years of doing development work on the African continent, I am persuaded that the legal registration of farm land and giving women equal access to land are needed if African agriculture is to move ahead. As thing stand now, we are doing much to improve the ‘house’ but we have not yet laid the foundation to build the ‘house/’

  3. I have worked in the Pacific for many years, and issues over land ownership and land boundaries have affected almost every infrastructure project including improving water supply, sewerage and roads.

  4. There is now a universal concensus on the centrality of land to the achievement of numerous human rights provisions, being it right to food, housing, water etc. Thus, it is about time right to land is statutorily recognised as a stand-alone human rights provision.

    That said, for decades, stakeholders on African land reform projects have assiduously championed the idea of separate land right for women as the major panacea to women’s subjugation and poverty. Not much achievements have been recorded in this regard despite the stupendous investments committed to the project. The inability of the stakeholders to put into consideration the social dynamics and household relationships that exist within the African communities account for this monumental failure as separate land right is viewed within various rural African communities as divisive pills. It is about time the Approaches to Women Land Rights in Africa is reviewed to reflect the living realities on ground.

  5. Maybe a more communal approach could also work as far as land usage is concerned? Ownership of land does not necessarily have to be individual and private, I guess. I think an industrial revolution may also be due in Africa, whereby it skips the terrible environmental consequences of European industrial revolution and just move forward with the latest technology to start creating what they need too.

  6. Re Ross’ point about land politics – just a couple of points about the UK: in the UK there is no comprehensive and open database of land ownership and rights. It is left up to individual initiatives such as Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland, and Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England to try to piece the picture together for the public. It is hard to believe that this lack of transparency is unrelated to the power that control of physical space conveys, or the UK history of aristocratic landownership.

    But as well as pressure from grassroots individual campaigns and community land movements (e.g., there may be some potential enablers within government for better land data and restructuring of land rights, as housing and infrastructure programmes hit the kind of issues that Mary alludes to: time-consuming searches to work out who owns what, and whose permission do you need to get, before projects can proceed. Where social movements can persuade government actors that land data and rights can serve economic and social development goals, there might be potential for large-scale reform – as is happening in Scotland with debate about “land rights and responsibilities” legislation (e.g. But of course the details will vary enormously from one context to another (they do even within the UK!) – those interested in more democratic land rights may be very marginal in many governments, if they are there at all.

  7. I appreciate the brief on the land tenure revolution as raised here! Am a researcher and policy analyst in land and environment based in Tanzania. The challenge that I see is about concerns raised by global development partners on insecurities zeroed around rural land owners in Sub Saharan Africa and the proposed solution which has laways been titling to protect women etc. In essence and based on a study I conducted from 2009-2015 examining formalization in Tanzania, generally, a mere recognization of longstanding land rights ownerships through titling can not strengthen security unless there is insecurity coming from the Government itself. If there is no proof that women who are using their land fear of anything then titling can not help because of power relations that exist in many rural areas. Women differ (married, single, widow, girls,educated, uneducated, those who bought land with their husband, those who found their husbands with land inherited, etc). Therefore, generalization of problems is not a solution to problems…we need to clearly define women whom we want to assist. All in all, it is a new allocation of land to those who are landless that can help to improve food security and nutrition (extra support is needed through extensions on what to grow and eat,). In Tanzania, stories about land rights improvements and impacts are presented by development partners and their agencies instead of the beneficiaries and independent researchers. A good example was a USAID funded pilot for use of mobile phones uploaded with GPS and a software for capturing non-spatial data in cloud based systems..MAST….impacts assessor was from US while the implementing agency,,Cloudburst was as well coming from US….in such a situation will never know the truth…..Land Rights issues have been invaded by half-baked professionals whose background and expertise is not in either land management or land policy but rather a…!!!

  8. Wow Tim thanks for a reality from UK!! I thought things are excellent in Uk on transparency but now it is interesting to learn this! One Professor told me that participation and transparency amount to power sharing therefore, it means many countries be they developed or developing as our colleagues tell us, no house is clean!!

  9. Hi Alphonse – glad it was of interest! agree that open information is important for a more equitable distribution of power (though it’s only one step). And yes I think you could definitely class the UK as ‘developing’ in terms of land rights transparency, i.e. there is work being done, but our house is indeed still in need of lots of cleaning!

    your work on Tanzania sounds really detailed and interesting, esp on complexity of women’s social positions, and that formal titles might protect people’s land rights from the state – but not from other sources of insecurity. And lots of issues around project evaluation that maybe others in the international development ‘community’ might want to comment on…

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