Land rights an antidote against ‘land grabbing,’ but maybe not for poverty

There is a direct link between land rights and land grabs, says the IMF. Countries with better governance and land rights laws are less likely to agee to large-scale land purchases by foreign investors. That makes sense, but the additional claim that smallholder land ownership directly increases family farm productivity and income is now coming under question.

tumblr_md587vKewg1r7mk8co1_500It is estimated that one billion people living in rural parts of the world do not have rights to their own land.

That means they have no way of either proving that they own the property on which their homes rest or purchasing a deed to the land. Without land rights, it becomes much easier for governments to forcibly evict residents or large companies to buy a family’s property from right under their feet.

There is a direct link between land rights and land grabs, says the IMF. Countries with better governance and land rights laws are less likely to agree to large-scale land purchases by foreign investors.

That makes sense, but the additional claim that smallholder land ownership directly increases family farm productivity and income is now coming under question.

The Seattle-based NGO Landesa has worked to help secure land rights for the world’s poor for more than four decades. Their efforts have shown how the security brought on by land ownership has a positive impact on agricultural production.

Programs range from working with the Rwandan government to create legal aid institutions that assist people with acquiring land titles. In Kenya, Landesa worked with tribal elders in the Maasai and Kalenjin tribes to strengthen traditional land rights so that they extend to women.

“Much of our work is developing institutions that protect legal rights and customary rights of families and women,” said Rena Singer, Rena Singer, Communications Director for Landesa.

Rise of the Land Grab

Foreign investors bought up land the size of London every six days between 2000 and 2010, estimates Oxfam GB. The NGO links the 2008 rise in food prices to the rapid growth of land investments from 2008 to 2009. It has recently rallied major players, like the World Bank, to change their practices in regards to land purchases though celebrity driven campaigns with the likes of Coldplay.

World Bank president Jim Kim responded by highlighting the importance of land rights.

“Securing access to land is critical for millions of poor people. Modern, efficient, and transparent policies on land rights are vital to reducing poverty and promoting growth, agriculture production, better nutrition, and sustainable development,” said Kim in early April.

Some economists argue that ensuring people have titles to their land can ensure a feeling of security and boost production. Such changes can be transformative in an individual’s progress out of poverty.  The greatest proponent of the argument is Hernando de Soto. A development economist who has managed to win praise from the likes of Bill Clinton and the libertarian Cato Institute.

More than a Piece of Paper

There is plenty of evidence that land rights are connected to productivity, but new research out of Madagascar shows that it is not always the case.

Duke University researcher Marc F. Bellemare tested whether the land titles had an impact on agriculture productivity. The use of titles was a featured component of a $100 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact with the government of Madagascar. He found that the provision of land titles had no measurable impact on productivity.

Rice farmers undergoing training in Manakara, Madagascar.
Rice farmers undergoing training in Manakara, Madagascar.
USAID

“It is not simply the case that giving out land rights will solve the problem,” said Bellemare to Humanosphere.

Holding a land title is not sufficient if structures are not in place to enforce land ownership and dole it out. Centralizing land ownership can mean that people have to travel long distances in order to prove ownership or make a land sale. That can be prohibitive to getting a deed, even if one is available.

“Land rights functioning well requires well defined legal framework to enforce and regulate property rights,” explained Bellemare. “People adopt inefficient measures to protect property because the legal system won’t come through.”

It turns out that the problems may be linked back to colonial rule. When France and Britain colonized regions of Africa, the two nations ruled over their land in very different ways. The British tried to assert control over all of the land that it occupied. The French, on the other hand, centralized their authority in a territory without exerting as much influence on far reaching parts. Bellemare posits that the differences may explain the fact that some studies show land rights increase productivity, while his did not.

While the NGO believes in the importance of land rights, it does not apply a single solution in all situations. It is a sentiment that Bellemare also stressed.

“In places that you find that you find land rights do matter, it makes sense to apply them when it does not contradict customary rights,” he said.

The research in Madagascar shows that reducing the issue of land rights to ensuring formal land titles is not always the best way forward. As a policy matter, Bellemare recommends using closer research when considering how to spend money on a given aid project. In the case of the $110 MCC program in Madagascar, the money appears to have been better spent on programs other than securing formal land titles.

“Here, it looks as though aid might be better allocated to a reform of the legal framework within which agriculture takes place. Policy should be based on empirical evidence, not theoretical beliefs,” concludes Bellemare in the paper.

Organizations like Landesa largely agree. That is why their programs are not solely about securing land titles. In some cases it may be working to develop the appropriate legal structures that will eventually help to support land ownership.

“Land rights is more than just a title,” said Singer.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.