After years of internal conflict in Timor-Leste, key to reconciliation has been the government's recognition of the land and property rights of various militia groups. "For most people, land is the fundamental and perhaps the only asset that people have a claim to," said Nigel Thomson, Tetra Tech's senior associate for land tenure and property rights and director of the program in the country. Photo by: Nigel Thomson / Tetra Tech

Unexpected changes are occurring in three diamond-rich provinces of the Central African Republic. Small-scale miners in these regions used to abandon mining pits once the diamonds stopped flowing, leaving behind a desolate moonscape and environmental destruction. Now, local entrepreneurs, many of them women, are buying and reusing the abandoned pits in a new and profitable way — fish farming. The region now boasts 650 fish ponds, full of commercially valuable fish.

Thousands of miles away, in the pacific island nation of East Timor, local officials and residents are struggling to overcome years of internal conflict. Key to reconciliation has been the government’s recognition of the land and property rights of — and resolution of disputes between — various militia groups, which are now rebuilding homes and communities.

In Afghanistan, where security concerns have pushed more and more people into crowded urban centers, efforts are underway to formalize property rights and upgrade informal settlements. Municipalities are developing plans to improve the quality and safety of city life, and many are taking bold steps allowing women to inherit property.

And in Jonglei, a war-torn province of South Sudan, a country not yet two years old and plagued by territorial conflict, communities and local officials have begun to systematically map land-use patterns to secure and coordinate the rights of fishers and farmers living and depending on the Sudd, Africa’s largest wetland.

These efforts, spanning continents, are tied together by a fundamental human need: The ability to access and sustainably use land and related resources. They illustrate a growing recognition of how central land tenure and property rights are to international development.

“For most people, land is the fundamental — and perhaps the only asset — that people have claim to,” said Nigel Thomson, senior associate for land tenure and property rights and director of the Timor-Leste program at Tetra Tech, the consulting firm. “It’s really one of the cross-cutting issues, because everyone has to live somewhere.”

That is the starting point for Tetra Tech’s LTPR sector, which has developed and implemented all of these projects and many more since it began working on LTPR issues about a decade ago. The U.S. Agency for International Development and Millennium Challenge Corp., in collaboration with host country governments, have financed and supported Tetra Tech efforts, but mushrooming demand for secure land tenure and property rights is being met as well by the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Habitat and many others.

Tetra Tech has established itself as one of the U.S. government’s most trusted LTPR partners, having implementing 26 long-term LTPR projects over the last six years.

Why land issues matter

The growing importance of land tenure and property rights to economic growth and sustainable natural resource management is the consequence of four trends, said Mike Roth, Tetra Tech’s director for LTPR.

First, when people feel secure that they own something, they will take better care of it. Confidence that the land where they work and live cannot be taken away from them arbitrarily leads people to invest time and resources in the long-term development and stewardship of that land and property.

In the case of Central African Republic’s small-scale diamond mining, securing land ownership through certifications that recognize customary rights in formal, legal documents provided the first step in a “virtuous cycle of formalization,” said Sebastien Pennes, who led the Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development Project.

Not only were many abandoned mines refashioned into fish ponds, but small-scale diamond mining in the project’s three provinces saw a whole-scale shift away from fly-by-night, illegally funded mining — the kind that tends to produce “conflict diamonds” — to a better regulated, less destructive artisanal mining industry.

With the assurance that comes from a documented land claim, miners were more willing to reduce their environmental impact and ensure their diamonds passed through appropriate legal channels. The Ministry of Mines sent geologists to remote villages to aid the land and mine claim certification process. The geologists in turn pointed out improvements miners could make in technique and equipment.

The number of diamonds mined and sold legally in the three provinces increased by 450 percent over five years, compared to a 21 percent rise in the rest of the country. That increase contributed tax dollars and helped to build trust in national institutions, Pennes said.

Secondly, higher incomes, growing populations and rapid urbanization are changing the way we look at land and at what it must provide. Feeding cities populated by more people whose food demands are higher increases the need for large spaces of arable land to be devoted to more intensive agriculture.

As a result, land held for small-scale farming and other resource-dependent livelihoods can become a valuable investment that attract domestic and foreign investment.

But for development to take place in a way that respects customary or traditional access rights instead of through land-grabs, people, governments and agribusinesses must align their interests to ensure that there is equity in the development process and that disadvantaged groups are not excluded, but rather empowered.

In Liberia, recent prolonged conflict and internal displacement makes securing and documenting ownership an even more daunting task. Even official land titles that do exist are often found in disordered stacks of old and unmanageable deeds.

Tetra Tech’s Land Conflict Resolution project helped the Land Commission to adopt software and turn outdated, untraceable documents into electronic, searchable files. Surveyors were trained and a professional surveyor certification was reinstituted.

Liberia is moving forward on a new land law that designates administrative responsibilities and formalizes land ownership rights. It is a major signal that national institutions are working to secure the rights of citizens to land and property that could pave the way for increased foreign investment that respects existing land-use rights.

On the east coast of Africa, the government of Ethiopia has, since 2004, embarked on a program of certifying land rights of rural households throughout the country. In the past, land redistribution programs that constantly balance land holdings with rural population growth created insecure land ownership and disincentives for investment. Today, the Ethiopian government is investing in legal reforms, improved land administration and “know your rights” campaigns that are empowering rural communities with more secure land access that, along with improved markets and agriculture inputs, are increasing food security.

The third trend, according to Roth, is that we live in a highly conflicted world where intra-household, community and regional conflict is all too often linked to insecure property rights, landlessness and internal displacement as people — often those with power — vie for control of scarce natural resources. The combination of secure property rights and good democratic governance enables people to resolve land and resource disputes and participate in land-use planning decisions.

Clarifying and securing rights in land and related resources provides people with a structured forum to discuss grievances and resolve them peacefully while leading to improved land-use management. Such reforms often benefit women, youth and marginalized populations that are disempowered by the conflict and sidelined in the land discourse.

In South Sudan’s Jonglei province, where Tetra Tech implements the Rural Land Governance Project, people have begun to practice more settled farming where in the past, nomadic pastoralism dominated. At the same time, urban boundaries are expanding.

South Sudan is two years old, deeply fragmented, and lacks strong formal institutions. Current land-use patterns are largely undocumented, and conflicts over land for farming and water for fishing are common.

The project works to reduce conflict over land and resources, and it established county land authorities so that residents can reach out to officials beyond their village leaders. These CLAs participate in pilot projects, mapping and documenting land-use patterns and recording peoples’ rights and access claims to the Sudd wetland. The CLAs convene residents to discuss these rights, and these reforms, in turn, help to inform legislation, including South Sudan’s new land policy, which is expected to be adopted in the coming months.

The fourth trend, according to Roth, is that urbanization and a growing demand for commodities is increasing the demand for infrastructure, including roads, waterways, power lines, pipelines and industrial zones. These investments once may have displaced communities from their ancestral lands without due recourse or compensation. Today, programs by MCC and the World Bank are requiring valuation of livelihoods and resources and the payment of compensation or resettlement onto comparable lands, helping both to regularize public takings and protect rightful claims in land and property.

Land tenure and property rights have featured on the international development agenda for decades; the U.S. government began focusing on tenancy reform in Asia in the 1960s. Later, USAID shifted its focus to Latin America, where the acquisition of large land tracts by private interests created high inequality, resulting in reforms that returned “land to the tiller.” The early to mid-1980s witnessed growing concerns about poverty, drought and the destruction of natural resources in Africa, particularly in the wake of Ethiopia’s drought-induced famine. However, while famine may have been induced by climatic events, state-controlled markets and insecure land and property rights compounded people’s ability to cope. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, the U.S. government again assisted member countries of the former Soviet Union with the privatization of state-owned farms and cooperatives and the return of assets to individuals and communities, securing their rights and access in order to improve economic growth and farm efficiency.

Today, climate change is fast becoming a focal point of international development — including for Tetra Tech, which is exploring incentives for people to engage in land-use practices that reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses, sequester more carbon and adapt to an altered climate.

“Whether you’re talking about a forestry estate or a community forest lot, or a community or district or national land-use plan, it is important to promote incentives that encourage people to adopt and practice beneficial land-use interventions,” said Peter Hetz, originator of the land tenure and property rights discipline at Tetra Tech. Many of these incentives have foundations in the clarity of land and property rights.

Tetra Tech is working on a series of efforts to show how improvements in land and resource tenure security and governance might increase peoples’ investments in better land use, climate smart agriculture and more sustainable natural resource management. These studies examine how devolved resource and land rights support the objectives of programs like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, Feed the Future, the USAID Global Climate Change and Development Strategy and the United Nations Voluntary Guideline on the Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests. They also examine who benefits from the incentives associated with these programs, and how.

In its work with clients, Tetra Tech’s LTPR team stresses the vital connection between land rights, food security, governance, environmental conservation and natural resource management via securing rights and broadening the rights of all citizens to increasingly scarce land and natural resources.

“So much of the work that we do has a foundation in communication,” said Thomson, Tetra Tech’s East Timor program director. “That’s really the starting point for all these programs, to be able to openly communicate with governments, communities and citizens. The best practice, of course, is to have all of those parties participating in the process themselves; it empowers them and can provide the basis for sustainable solutions to complex land rights problems.”

This article was sponsored by Tetra Tech. Find out more about Tetra Tech.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.