Innovative ways to reduce risks in farming by advancing land ownership

Farmers harvesting rice in Bangladesh. Photo by: Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

Farming is an inherently risky business: bad weather, pests, credit constraints, and unexpected policy changes threaten farmers of all sizes.  

Helping farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, find better ways to manage risk is an important part of what food security programming is all about. But what if a very basic risk is being overlooked? What would happen to farmers’ productivity and the food security of families and communities?

Providing better-quality seeds, extension services, irrigation and other infrastructure will undoubtedly help small-scale farmers meet the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population. However, in some countries, farmers face a very basic risk that threatens their ability to feed themselves and others: Their rights to the land and the other natural resources they depend on to farm, herd livestock or collect forest products are not secure. For women, especially, the problem of insecure land rights contributes to a striking agricultural gender gap.

Over the past few years, a flood of news stories, policy reports and academic articles have drawn attention to the problem. Rising demand for land and water threatens local people with dispossession and loss of livelihoods.

A recent story in National Geographic exposed problems associated with commercial agricultural development in Mozambique, where people who live on and use land set aside for large-scale commercial agriculture ventures are being uprooted and moved to locations where they produce less and earn less. But the situation there is not unique. In countries where land governance systems are weak and demand for fertile land is rising, local people are increasingly at risk of losing access to, and rights over, critical natural resources. Women and other vulnerable groups, such as pastoralists, often face special risks because their rights and needs are easily overlooked or ignored.

Farmers manage some risks by planting in multiple fields or purchasing crop insurance. The problem is — how can they reduce the risks associated with insecure land rights? One way is to register and record rights, but the high costs associated with these processes have been a barrier for many people.

Fortunately, innovative approaches can help identify and record rights at a relatively low cost. Two approaches in particular show strong promise: deploying paraprofessionals to register and record rights, and using technology — high- and low-tech — to map and capture local knowledge about who holds rights and how and when resources are used.

Paraprofessionals, including paralegals and para-surveyors, are proving invaluable when it comes to building legal awareness and lowering the costs of registering land rights. Relying on these respected local providers has clear advantages: They understand local constraints and challenges, offer decentralized services, and charge minimal fees.

When people have access to affordable land services, it becomes feasible to navigate through the often cumbersome process of registering rights. With more secure rights, farmers may have stronger incentives to invest to improve productivity, as has happened in countries like China, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Securing land rights is a special help for women, who produce so much food. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, securing women’s land rights has helped to improve their voice in household decision-making and increased investments in soil conservation and other productivity-enhancing activities. Importantly, with legally recognized rights over their lands, local communities may be able to lease land directly to investors for a fee or for an equity share in an initiative — creating more and better economic opportunities.  

Technology also holds real promise to effectively capture local knowledge and reduce the costs of registering and recording rights. Mobile technology has been underutilized by the land sector, but that is changing. New fit-for-purpose applications are being developed that will allow people to map and record a wide variety of land and resource rights information using existing cell phone networks. This data can be locally accessible, transferable over the Internet to cloud-based databases (with appropriate security protection) and used to issue formal documentation such as titles or certificates of use rights. Participatory mapping methods are certainly not new but harnessing the power of mobile technology to record local knowledge is. Coupling low-tech participatory mapping with geospatial data and mobile technology solutions can help smallholders gain the assurance they need to invest more and grow more.

One major impediment to securing land rights has been the high cost of documenting those rights. Cost-effective innovations like paraprofessionals and mobile technologies can help improve land governance by capturing local knowledge and delivering accessible and responsive services.  

Agriculture may be an inherently risky business but securing land rights through the use of innovative, low-cost, fit-for-purpose technologies will help to reduce risk and improve the chances for millions of families to have a food-secure future.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

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About the author

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    Karol Boudreaux

    As a member of the Cloudburst Group’s expanding Natural Resources Management business unit, Karol Boudreaux develops and implements innovative approaches to international development and engagement with the private sector. Her work focuses on legal and policy analysis, private sector investment and tenure risk assessment, mitigation planning, as well as monitoring and evaluation.