3 Ways to Secure Property Rights for the Rural Poor

Thursday, 15 August 2013 17:16 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In July, the World Justice Forum IV (organized by the World Justice Project) brought together more than 550 business and nonprofit leaders, legal experts, development practitioners, journalists, military leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other global luminaries from more than 100 countries to address critical rule of law issues around the world. In partnership with the Skoll World Forum and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the World Justice Project asked a number of speakers to reflect on a wide range of issues including land rights, access to water, criminal justice, and much more. View the full series here.

Editor's Note: Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Landesa and Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Washington, Roy Prosterman is a pioneering world expert on land reform, rural development, and foreign aid.

The World Justice Forum has just completed its fourth convocation at Holland’s capital, The Hague, looking at practical ways to advance the rule of law around our planet.

One principle of the rule of law that received prominent attention was secure property rights.  These are especially important in light of the fact that roughly three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in the countryside, and generally lack secure rights to the land which, for most of them, is their chief source of livelihood. The growing number of large scale investments in agriculture in the developing world (aka “land grabs”) is also helping to highlight the fundamental importance of land rights.

From our own (Landesa’s) cumulative experience in the field over more than four decades, we know there are some very simple approaches that can offer much greater security for the property rights of the rural poor (often helping to move them out of poverty, as security of rights allows them to make sweat-equity and cash investments in their land).


For example:

  • Many long-time users of land under customary tenure or in indigenous groups lack any documentation, making them vulnerable to incursions by outsiders.  But individual titling may be expensive, or tend to disregard and destroy “secondary” interests, such as customary rights of widows to keep land for their lifetime.  A viable compromise may be to document and publicly record the outer boundaries of the lands used by a community or tribe, excluding outside claimants while letting the community (within limits) administer its own rules within the now documented boundaries.
  • Elsewhere, programs to give wives joint land rights with their husbands, to newly distributed lands, may be frustrated by something as simple as inattentive local officials printing title documents with only one line for inserting the name of the title holder.  Program funders who have their wits about them will insist that “two-line” documents be printed (and that “one-line” documents can only contain the wife’s name, in which case “two-line” documents will be rapidly printed).
  • Looking to the protection of property rights through the rule of law at a more “macro” level, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recently developed, and the UN’s Committee on World Food Security has adopted, a vital set of standards called the “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.”  This contains an important practical recommendation to forestall the “land rush”/”land grab” phenomenon which (especially in Africa) threatens to undermine the existing land rights of vast numbers of smallholders.  The Guidelines suggest that “States should consider promoting a range of production and investment models that do not result in the large-scale transfer of tenure rights to investors and should encourage partnerships with local tenure right holders.”  The idea is to offer an alternative to direct large-scale land acquisitions that often result in eviction, impoverishment, and social disruption and violence.  Instead, smallholders would continue on their present lands, with enhanced production, marketing and income opportunities, with investors contracting or partnering with the existing smallholder population so as to give them the resources and skills they need to produce the desired crops.  Such “outgrower” arrangements are already practiced by many large companies, yielding a voluntary, win-win result.  Indeed, let’s identify, further perfect, and promote such models.

A final example of a very simple rule-of-law improvement to increase food production and improve global food security would be to end government production subsidies or legal requirements that lead to the use of cropland for biofuel production.  Not, at least, until “Food Justice” (zero hungry people) has been achieved on our planet.