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At Clinton Global Initiative: Landless women at root of many problems

I’ve been reporting this week on the United Nations’ declared support (however vague) for expanding the global health agenda to go beyond the traditional focus on infectious diseases like AIDS, TB, measles or malaria and include non-contagious, chronic disease like cancer or heart disease.

Across town, the Clinton Global Initiative was also in New York City this week and has been exploring how to fight hunger, poverty, unemployment, gender discrimination as well as disease.

One organization from Seattle in attendance here at this high-caliber, invitation-only event, Landesa, is dealing with all these at the same time.

“Land rights are at the root of many of these problems,” said Tim Hanstad, president and CEO of the non-profit organization (formerly known as RDI, Rural Development Institute) which works to help poor people around the world obtain legal ownership of their land.

Seattle film-maker Stan Emert talks with Landesa CEO Tim Hanstad at Clinton Global Initiative
Tom Paulson

Did I mention that the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) is pretty high-faluting? Only select folks are invited. People like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Obama, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi — and actually quite a few people representing organizations from Seattle such as PATH, Microsoft and a creative nerd working on a literacy device.

Media are allowed in, within limits. I got kicked out of a room (where I was interviewing physician-activist Paul Farmer) because I had inadvertently left the media quarantine area. For more on what it’s like to be a journalist at CGI, read this hilarious piece by the Wall Street Journal’s Ralph Gardner Jr.

But I digress. The point is it’s a high honor to be invited to attend the CGI event. It is also often a sign that your issue — aimed at creating a social good — is rising up on the political and philanthropic radar screen.

Hanstad’s been to this luminous event before, but he said there’s no question the issue of land rights for the poor is gaining more recognition. Part of this, he said, is due to the so-called “land grab” going on in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. See this Oxfam spoof video for one view.

“It’s hard to get precise numbers on what’s happening out there, but it’s clearly huge,” Hanstad said. These large-scale land acquisitions are not necessarily bad, he noted, so long as the rights of the poor are protected.

That’s what Landesa does, and has done for many decades. Most of their focus today is on expanding women’s ownership of land.

Many social, economic, equity and health problems can be traced back to the failure of poor people to have secure ownership of land, Hanstad said, and women are especially at risk. The pervasive nature of “landlessness” tends to disguise just how much it contributes to these many other issues of health, justice and development, he said. It’s so intrinsic it’s almost invisible.

“Three-quarters of the poorest people in the world live in rural areas where land is their primary asset,” he said. “In India, for example, landlessness is the best predictor of poverty…. And land issues are very much related to the empowerment of women.”

Here’s a report from Nepal on how discrimination against women creates child malnutrition.

In most poor communities, women farmers outnumber the men. Yet the men usually own the land.

Many studies have shown that educating and empowering women has a significant positive impact on reducing disease and improving health indicators, for children as well. Conversely, lack of legal rights and discrimination against women, mothers, tends to go along with poor health, social and economic indicators. (Seems obvious to me, but I guess people like reports.)

Speaking of reports and land and women and health, Rachel Nugent at the University of Washington this week published this report explaining “How agriculture and food can play a role in preventing chronic disease.”

Nugent’s report was issued to help inform the UN global health confab by documenting how sustainable agricultural practices contribute to health, especially in the prevention of many diseases.

Which brings us back to Landesa: Most poor people are farmers and farmers need land. And to make farming sustainable, farmers need to own their land. Without ownership, there’s little incentive for stewardship and sustainable practices.

“The problem is that in most of these places where the poorest live, the rights to the land aren’t clear,” Hanstad said. Poor farmers are easily displaced or at least disrupted, contributing to the downward spiral.

“Land rights are critical to global development on so many fronts,” Hanstad said. The Seattle organization has the Landesa Center for Women’s Lands Rights and has also launched programs aimed at educating young girls about the importance of land ownership.

“We have to change attitudes and behaviors, not just laws,” said Hanstad. And they’ve found it’s a lot easier to change men’s views about women owning property if the message comes from their daughters rather than their wives.

The Clinton Global Initiative’s three themes this year were Jobs, Sustainable Development and Girls & Women.

Looks like Landesa hit a triple.



About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.