Women plant rice row by row in Madagascar. Devex's month-long #landmatters campaign featured in-depth stories and thought-provoking opinion pieces about the importance of land. Photo by: Etai Adam / CC BY-NC-SA

Clarifying land ownership, strengthening property rights, and improving land use policies are critical to solving some of the world’s toughest development challenges.

This was the message of Devex’s #landmatters campaign, which featured in-depth stories, thought-provoking opinion pieces and engaging social media discussions that spanned the globe and pointed the spotlight to the ground.

The month-long campaign went deep into how land issues are relevant to food security, women, the environment, economic development, conflict resolution, and transparency. It featured underreported stories that focused on smallholder farmers boosting food production in Ethiopia, efforts to recognize indigenous land claims in Kenya, or the tangled legacy of property rights and ethnic conflict in Kosovo.

Opinions by and interviews with leaders and experts from various sectors aimed to advance new ideas, broaden the discussion and explore possible solutions to move forward on each issue.

The lessons were clear for governments trying to ensure adequate food supplies and reduce conflict, civil society organizations fighting for more transparency, or women struggling to build a better future for themselves and their families — land matters.

Details matter

However, as with all issues of such magnitude, the details matter, and experts from different organizations and sectors weighed in on the various land-related policies and programs that have the potential to alleviate poverty and benefit the largest number of people, if they are implemented in a way that allows for sustainable, long-term and inclusive development.

On food security, for example, experts argued that the empowerment of smallholder farmers through land ownership and secure property rights can boost production. But Eric Postel, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s assistant administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment, warned that aid practitioners should be wary of the unintended consequences of projects to strengthen ownership. “Land titling, for example, may strengthen land rights only for men if women’s rights to use, own and inherit land are not formally or culturally recognized as independent of their husbands or families,” he wrote.

Land rights are especially important to women, who make up the majority of smallholder farmers in the developing world but are often barred from land ownership, creating disincentives for them to invest their knowledge and resources and disenfranchising them in property transfers or inheritance. As one of our articles on the issue pointed out, research suggests that “when women own the land they till, families tend to be better fed, better educated and healthier.”

A number of experts likewise highlighted how protecting property rights and ensuring land ownership creates clearer incentives for individuals to protect the environment. Coherent land use policies are also an important way to mitigate natural disasters and reduce carbon emissions that often stem precisely from poor land management.

Nick Collier, director of government and regulatory affairs at Thomson Reuters, pointed out that transparency of information on land can significantly improve governance and stability. “Having equal access to land information and a known process to register lands which is neither too cost-prohibitive nor too time-consuming provides for a very basic degree of social and economic security for people,” he wrote. Non-transparent land deals that exploit weak or unclear land policies can disenfranchise communities, lead to conflict, and promote corruption.

Engaging community with partners

As the conversation on #landmatters crossed over into social media, many readers pointed out other examples of land-related problems and tied the discussion to areas based on their own personal experiences.

“My experience in post-earthquake Haiti is that land and property rights issues were in the way of reconstruction efforts,” wrote one Devex reader. Another said he completed his education thanks to his mother’s empowerment through land ownership.

Land Matters was supported by leading organizations tackling land issues today, like USAID, Chemonics, TetraTech, Thomson Reuters, the International Food Policy Research Institute, DAI and Trimble.

On our microsite, we initiated a debate with the ultimate goal of educating the broader development community and raising awareness of how integral land and property rights are to global development. And the Twitter hashtag #landmatters allowed wide-ranging contributions to the discussion and links to additional resources.

As a part of Devex’s coverage of land issues in September we also dedicated space on our landing page to opportunities related to land issues, including jobs, grants and contract opportunities for members of the development community.

“Our goal was to elevate the discourse and make sure land issues are being integrated from the ground up, since it is so often in put in its own silo,” said Devex partnerships and communications manager Jenni Cardamone, who helped put together the project.

Devex plans to continue coverage of important land-related issues as a part of its regular coverage of the international development news.

About the author

  • Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a former Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost, and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia: one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.