Q&A: Why land rights are worth a multimillion dollar investment

A farmer tends to her field in Yongding, Fujian, China. Photo by: Landesa Global

CANBERRA — Each year the LUI Che Woo Prize, established by the second richest man in Hong Kong, awards $20 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.7 million) in funding to individuals and organizations making a difference in the world in three categories: Sustainability, welfare betterment, and positive energy. The prize identifies an annual focus for each category and for the 2017 award, announced last August, the focus for the category of welfare betterment was the alleviation of poverty — and it was awarded to Landesa for five decades of alleviating poverty by securing land rights.

The award is a timely reminder of the importance of land rights in poverty reduction and security. As the population grows, the number of people displaced globally is reaching record high numbers according to the United Nations. At the same time, small Pacific island nations are preparing for climate migration and conflicts with large corporations are mounting, making land rights a development priority for both now and the future.

Tim Hanstad, a co-founder and senior adviser at Landesa, spoke with Devex about the award, and discussed why land rights is an increasingly important issue to address — not just by NGOs and governments but by the growing number of entrepreneurs providing financial support for development challenges.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

The LUI Che Woo Welfare Betterment Prize provides recognition from the private sector on the importance of land rights in development — how is this helping with wider communication and engagement on the issue, as well as funding for your work?

The LUI Che Woo Prize is a major endorsement of Landesa and of land rights as a means to improve the well-being of people around the world. Increasingly, people understand the role that land rights play in responding to our most persistent development challenges. This recognition brings new energy to our efforts to establish secure land rights as a global development priority.

The prize has increased our visibility among a broad set of funders, helping to initiate conversations with new potential allies and increasing our standing with existing supporters.

In the past, Landesa’s work has focused on governments and civil society organizations. In recent years we’ve started working in the business sector, particularly on responsible investments in land. We now work with a number of companies — including The Coca Cola Company and Illovo Sugar — to help them develop and implement best practices relating to responsible land-based investments, both in direct investments and within their supply chains. We see this work as important because the private sector plays such an impactful role in shaping the lives and prospects for some of the poorest people on the planet.

With the money, we now have the flexibility and the agility to go where the need is greatest. Already, funds from the prize have helped Landesa open a new office in Tanzania, explore an emerging opportunity for land reform in Zimbabwe, and continue the momentum we have in supporting land tenure reforms in China that have the potential to provide secure land rights to more than 100 million women.

What is the diversity in land rights issues you are currently responding to?

Everyone wants peace and prosperity for their family, for their community, for their country and the globe. Our experience has shown that secure land rights are fundamental to realizing peace and prosperity for all. From improvements at the household level for food security, income, and the social and economic empowerment of women and girls, to the threat to peace and security posed by land conflicts, to environmental degradation and deforestation caused by insecure tenure, land rights — and the lack thereof — impact nearly every development challenge we face.

There are still over a billion poor people in the world who rely on land for their livelihoods, but don’t have secure legal rights to their land. That’s 1 in 7 people without access to that critical building block for social and economic empowerment. Great progress has been made in recent years, particularly in China and India — each home to hundreds of millions of rural women and men. But enormous challenges still remain, and we need more global development actors thinking about and working on land rights to reach that last billion.

We know that land rights can be an add-on accelerator for progress on a host of interrelated issues, including food security, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, climate change, conflict, and inclusive economic growth. If we can convince the groups that are working on those issues to adopt a land rights lens, we could make significant progress toward resolving those challenges.

What are the barriers to land rights you are addressing in your work?

There are four major gaps in the way of our goal to secure land rights for all of the world’s people. First, law and policy gaps. Legal and policy frameworks are often lacking — for example in failing to provide equal land rights for women, or to provide an easy pathway for landless people to obtain legal land rights.

Second, implementation gaps. Good laws and policies are necessary, but not sufficient. They need to be effectively implemented, which requires political will, government capacity, legal awareness, and supporting social norms. This includes documenting land holdings, as only about 30 percent of land is legally documented worldwide. Shortcomings in these areas can result in rights on paper not being real on the ground, particularly for women.

Third, data gaps. Importantly, countries are typically lacking good data on who has land rights and who does not. Without that data, it is difficult to specifically identify and prioritize the problems or to track progress.

Fourth, funding gaps. Governments, aid donors, and global philanthropists are not providing sufficient resources to address the land rights problem.

The data gap may be the most immediate and urgent. The world is not collecting uniform and comprehensive gender-disaggregated data on land rights. Without that data it’s hard to know the extent of our progress or how best to direct resources. It is important to remember that until relatively recently, the world was not systematically collecting good data on poverty. It was only after we began collecting good data that the global development community could effectively zero in on the problem, and both marshal and allocate efforts appropriately on that most fundamental of development challenges.

The land rights sector is approaching its own data revolution — best exemplified in the land rights monitoring within the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. But closing the data gap will require first closing another — securing the necessary funding for governments, civil society, and INGOs to research, identify, and implement best practices for land rights interventions.

With issues of displacement especially, land rights is likely to become a growing issue. What are the future issues surrounding land rights Landesa is preparing for, and how are you promoting this moving forward?

In addition to deepening and expanding our work to improve land policy reform and implementation in various countries in Asia and Africa, we’re exploring how new technology can be applied to resolving land rights challenges. Tools such as blockchain, GPS, and drones offer innovative new approaches for governments, communities, and the private sector to better understand and protect land rights.

We are also doing new work at the intersection of land rights and climate change — both on the mitigation and adaptation sides, and particularly the roles of and impacts on women.

We are entering new geographies in Africa and Latin America.

And, in addition to the work at the country level, we are building an advocacy team to elevate land rights on the global development agenda, and to help integrate land rights into the work of other constituencies, such as the women’s rights and environmental movements. In more than half the countries in the world, women face barriers to their land and inheritance rights by law or custom. Progress on this issue is long overdue. We’re working with a broad and diverse range of global actors on a women’s land rights campaign that we expect to launch in 2018.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.