A young man stands in a maize field in Ethiopia. The right and ability of smallholder farmers to own the land they cultivate is seen as crucial to ensuring food security in the developing world. C. Robinson/CIMMYT / CC BY-NC-SA

For centuries, Ethiopia’s peasant farmers have subsisted from harvest to harvest, rarely storing surplus crops and often suffering from hunger. In the last decade, stronger seeds and better fertilizers have helped to improve access to food.

But the use of modern agricultural techniques tells only part of the story of why much of Ethiopia is better fed than before. Another part lies in a solution to food security that is gaining ground with governments and the international development community: securing land tenure.

In many developing countries, farmers till plots without the government or traditional leaders formally recognizing their right to the land. But without formal land rights, those tilling the soil can be vulnerable to large-scale land acquisitions — sometimes dismissively called land grabs — without their knowledge or consent. Investors often lease or buy large swaths of land for agricultural production, oil exploration or other uses.

“Ethiopia realized it had a food security problem and started to change its policies and laws around land,” said Gregory Myers, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s land tenure and property rights division. “The government allowed people to certify their land rights and make land transactions for themselves. The real story, in the highlands, is in policy and law. It’s an exciting story.”

The bad news is that since the global economic downturn began in 2008, large land acquisitions appear to be on the rise in Africa, as international companies that were profiting in other industries now seek to make money in agriculture and extractives, according to Poul Wisborg, head of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences’ department of international environment and development studies, who has studied land acquisitions in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

“It’s a very significant development trend, particularly since 2007 and 2008 when the food crisis and financial crisis made various types of commercial investors increasingly interested in land,” Wisborg said.

The good news is that many countries in Africa and around the world have begun to recognize that a big step toward increasing food security for the world’s poorest lies in an individual farmer’s ability to till his or her land without fear of losing it — to government, communal leaders or a multinational corporation.

“Food security often depends on land security for very large numbers of people,” said Roy Prosterman, founder of Landesa, an organization that partners with governments in developing countries to ensure land rights for the rural poor.

Securing enough food is a challenge for much of the population in developing countries. Some 870 million people around the globe are chronically undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Feeding them remains a challenge in the face of population growth, rising food prices, continuing economic woes and a lack of crop diversity, as well as less-easily quantifiable indicators, such as human conflict and weak social protections.

Experts estimate that the world’s farmers will need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 — up from today’s global population of roughly 7 billion. The challenge will be to increase farming output while simultaneously advancing economic development and remaining mindful of the environment.

For those working in international development, the first step, in many parts of the world, often lies in determining how land is used and by whom, and then helping governments to improve land administration policies, particularly for smallholder farmers and women.

From there, farmers empowered with secure rights to land can invest in equipment and training, seek sources of capital, access markets, create cooperatives, and negotiate more effectively for the best price for their product.

“It comes down to who has which rights or which powers to make decisions about which resources,” Myers said. “If the people sitting on the resources are the ones making the decisions, then the benefits will flow to them.”

He continued: “If that happens, you’ll get a huge development spurt.”

Determine land use patterns, ownership and registration

In rural areas of the developing world, in particular, large swaths of territory are often owned by the government or by ethnic communities who consider the land communal; people tend to not rely on official maps to determine who owns which parcel of land.

Thus, the first step in protecting smallholder farmers’ right to access farmland often starts with determining how the land is being used. On the ground, local officials are trained in modern survey techniques, government land documents are digitized, and surveyors walk through villages, forests and farmland with community members to hear from them who owns or has access to which resources.

Once it’s been determined who has rights to which parcels of land, the next step often involves helping local authorities make customary land use patterns official by registering property rights. International NGOs and other aid groups often help.

In South Sudan, for instance, Tetra Tech trained county land authorities to map and document land use patterns and resolve land disputes.

In Ethiopia, USAID has helped more than 40,000 families demarcate their land boundaries with the Ethiopian government using GPS technology. Production on those plots has increased between 11 percent and 40 percent, according to reports by the World Bank and the government of Ethiopia. USAID also works with governments and traditional leaders to secure land tenure rights in Colombia, Kenya, Burma and more than a dozen other countries.

“You have to secure the rights of the smallholder first,” Myers said. “You have to recognize the people who claim the land.”

Help governments improve property laws and land use policies

Where land rights are outdated or laws not being enforced, food security may suffer. Without clear laws to protect their long-term property rights, for instance, farmers have little incentive to invest in land or equipment, or to conserve resources.

Foreign aid donors and their partners are increasingly working with governments to craft laws and implement policies that help to secure farmers’ rights, boost agricultural production and create incentives for farmers to invest in new equipment and better seeds, or to practice more sustainable farming methods.

These efforts also help to empower women, who do most of the agricultural work around the world even though, in many places, they have no or limited rights to the land they till — and little opportunity to learn about land laws, even in instances where they’re meant to protect them.

Improve access to capital

Without clear rights to the land, farmers in rural areas often lack the means or the incentive to invest in equipment or other farm inputs that can increase production and lead to greater food security. Land may be the only collateral they have to qualify for bank loans or other forms of capital, but without a recognized title, a bank or private equity firm may be less likely to extend credit or offer investment.

By securing land rights, smallholders are better positioned to invest in ways to help grow their farms and feed their families and communities. Training on how to improve agricultural yields, apply for financing and run a business can help farmers attract loans and other forms of finance.

Boost technology transfer and teach best practices

Increasing the world’s food supply means developing better agricultural techniques — more durable seeds and safer fertilizers, for instance. The goal, experts say, is not merely to grow more food, but to grow it in ways that protect the water and soil.

“If you try to increase yields, but it doesn’t lead to long-term environmental protection, agricultural systems will collapse,” said Mark Freudenberger, a senior associate at Tetra Tech.

Making sure that food is available to everyone remains a challenge. While a country might grow or import enough food, often the very poorest do not have reliable access to it. Sometimes food distribution is unreliable. Sometimes farmers lack the know-how to store food properly. Making new technologies available to smallholders and others in the developing world, and training them in the use of innovative, high-yield farming techniques, can help boost production and reduce waste.

Help farmers to access markets

Connecting smallholders to markets is a key goal of initiatives such as the New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition, announced last year by G-8 and African leaders at a Camp David Summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The ability to sell cereals, produce and other food products on local — and international — markets can help farmers boost their incomes, stimulate local economies and reduce food insecurity. International donors and investors can help in a variety of ways — by creating the basic infrastructure for farmers to transport goods to market, from roads and bridges to electrical power stations and market structures, for instance, or by connecting farmers to supply chains.

Trade barriers have, for years, made it difficult for farmers in Africa and elsewhere to explore markets abroad, and developing world leaders continue to push for change. At the same time, farmers in the developing world have complained about the import of lower-priced foods, which makes it hard for them to stay competitive.

Meanwhile, relief organizations are helping to boost demand by buying locally grown food, rather than importing it from abroad. Efforts are underway in the United States, as well, to reduce the shipment of U.S. surplus crops and provide more flexibility to buy locally, especially in food emergencies.

Strengthen smallholders’ negotiating power

By securing land tenure rights, farmers can better position themselves to reap the benefits of their labor, often collectively. It’s no surprise, then, that a number of aid initiatives aim to connect farmers with each other in order to strengthen their bargaining power.

Farming cooperatives have a great track record in negotiating better prices for cocoa and other products with international trading companies — often with the help of development organizations such as ACDI/VOCA, itself a coop.

Some innovative work is underway, also, to connect farmers to markets using mobile technology. Knowing real-time prices for commodities, for instance, helps farmers sell at the highest price. Knowledge is power, after all, and the global aid community and its partners are part of a growing movement to improve land administration, ownership and use to ensure food security.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Deborah Horan

    Deborah Horan is an award-winning journalist who has written about international development issues for the World Bank's Human Development Network and for the International Finance Corp.'s Sustainable Business Advisory about health, HIV/AIDS, early childhood development, education and the promotion of small business through business management training. Deb has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, among other international assignments.