Land-rights advocates win world’s biggest humanitarian prize

A woman farmer and her child in Malawi. Women are especially in need of improved land rights, the mission of Landesa. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Seattle-based Landesa, a land-rights advocacy organization launched during the Vietnam War by an activist attorney whose efforts won him opprobrium by both left-wing peaceniks and right-wing hawks, has won this year’s $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman

“The idea was a simple one,” said Landesa founder Roy Prosterman and retired University of Washington law professor.

“When poor families obtain secure rights to the land, they gain motivation for long term investment in that land,” Prosterman said, and this improves their livelihoods while increasing community stability overall.

“Land rights are one of the most powerful tools for lifting individuals and families out of poverty,” said Steven Hilton, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which for 20 years has annually recognized organizations that embody the philanthropy’s mission of alleviating suffering and improving the lot of the poor worldwide. (The Hilton Foundation is also a financial supporter and sponsor of Humanosphere.)

The strategy is powerful and simple, but Prosterman and his colleagues learned early on that trying to get land for the poor can be dangerous and quite controversial.

“Roy has worked tirelessly for the last nearly 50 years championing land rights for the world’s poorest people, often risking his own life to do so,” said Tim Hanstad, immediate past president at Landesa who joined Prosterman as a law student many years ago and accepted the Hilton Prize at an event held Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

The Hilton Humanitarian Prize event 2015 at NYC's Waldorf Astoria

The Hilton Humanitarian Prize event 2015 at NYC’s Waldorf Astoria

In addition to members of the Hilton family and representatives of organizations previously recognized for their humanitarian achievements – such as Partners in Health, Doctors Without Borders and another Seattle-based group, PATH – the event featured former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Brundtland, British Labour Party politician David Miliband (now president of the International Rescue Committee), actress Liv Ullmann and the physician widely credited with the strategy that led to the eradication of smallpox, William Foege.

The high-profile and plush event at the Waldorf Astoria stands in contrast to the deliberately low-profile, risky and difficult work Prosterman, Hanstad and others at Landesa have done for decades to try to empower the poor through property ownership.

Hanstad can recall wearing bullet-proof vests when they worked in El Salvador, where right-wing militias targeted and killed three of their colleagues in the 1980s. During the Vietnam War, when Prosterman first started working to help poor farmers gain ownership of land, he was reviled by the left as a likely agent of the CIA and, conversely, considered a suspected commie sympathizer by right-wingers in the Nixon Administration – because he wanted to empower the poor.

So, yes, it’s powerful, simple in concept and perhaps obvious. Easy to get done, no.

Outgoing Landesa CEO Tim Hanstad accepts Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

Outgoing Landesa CEO Tim Hanstad accepts Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

“Landesa’s work is based on the knowledge that most of the world’s poor share three traits – they live in rural areas, they rely on land to survive but they lack legal rights to that land,” Hanstad said at the event Wednesday. “In Africa, 90 percent of rural land is undocumented. In India, one in every three farmers lacks secure legal rights to land.”

Landesa, over the decades, has helped more than 115 million people in some 50 countries gain property rights. In Vietnam, after Prosterman succeeded in extending land ownership to farming families, poverty rates declined and rice production went up by 30 percent.

Yet many hundreds of millions of people still lack land rights today.

“We estimate there are at least 300 million poor rural men, and at least twice as many women, who lack secure legal access to land,” Hanstad said. “Every country in the world that has achieved peace and prosperity on a sustained basis has addressed the land rights issue.”

In short, he said, expanding people’s ownership of land – especially so for women – is fundamental to the fight against poverty and in the ongoing effort to make the world a more stable, prosperous and peaceful place.

“It’s all too easy to watch the news and become disheartened by the suffering … or to feel there is nothing that can be done,” said Steve Hilton. The purpose of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, he said, is to shine a spotlight on the remarkable people and organizations out there who are making a difference, taking action to alleviate suffering and inequity.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.