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Right of farmers to own land is key, says leader of Landesa rural development group

By JERRY HAGSTROM

NEW YORK CITY — Farmers’ legal rights to land ownership in developing countries should be higher on the agenda of the U.S. government, foundations and corporations doing business in those countries, according to Landesa, a Seattle-based development group that will a be sponsoring a session on rural women’s right to land today at the World Food Prize ceremonies in Des Moines.

American institutions involved in international development “seem to have a blind spot” on the importance of the legal right to land, Tim Hanstad, the president and CEO of Landesa said in an interview on the sidelines of former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative meeting on September 23.

(Read more about the relatively unknown origins of Landesa in following story.)

Tim Hanstad

Tim Hanstad
“What is needed to create a more developed economy is a more unified property system,” Hanstad said. Secure land rights create investment incentives, he added. “Without long-term tenure security, you can’t get credit, can’t reallocate the land. Study after study has shown this.”

While the issue of women’s rights to land in Africa and Asia will be the topic of today’s World Food Prize discussion, the issue is broader, with millions of male farmers also lacking secure land rights, Hanstad noted in the interview.

“We in the global north take land rights for granted,” Hanstad said. “We have built up land rights property systems and build institutions around them. But when you go into the developing world you start to realize they are not there — they are weak or nonexistent.”

Too many nongovernmental groups ignore or avoid the land ownership issue, he said, because it looks “extremely complex and controversial.”

Hanstad acknowledged that raising land rights issues, especially for women, sometimes requires confrontation with traditional patriarchal societies and elites. But he also noted that “success” in establishing land rights requires “a long planning horizon and doesn’t fit well with wanting to see results within two years,” the period that may funders demand to show an impact.

“Land rights are the domain of government, and most nonprofits just don’t work with governments, most don’t try to influence governments. Around land rights, you have to,” he said.

The issues vary from country to country, but the unifying theme is the conflict between informal land rights — traditional occupancy of land that has never been questioned — and formal legal structures or no legal structure at all.

(For details on the differences on these issues among China, India and Africa, see below.)

Generally, Landesa’s approach is that “informal rights need to be formalized in some way,” Hanstad said.

“The story of property rights in the West is that informal rights were formalized over time,” he said, but noted that the system has to be developed locally, not imported from the United States or Europe, to be “socially legitimate.”

Landesa’s ultimate clients are the governments of developing countries, because it is governments that establish property rights systems. But Hanstad traveled to the Clinton Global Initiative meeting to try to tell the government, foundation and corporate leaders there that whatever they are doing in agriculture, health or women’s empowerment, supporting land rights “can enhance the success of your results.”

He also noted that not paying attention to land rights can reduce their impact and sometimes get corporations in big trouble.

The U.S. government and foundations in the United States and Europe that pour billions of dollars into aid to farmers and agricultural development should be more interested in the issue because farmers with secure rights have more of an incentive to make long term improvements that will improve their productivity, Hanstad said.

“If the U.S. Agency for International Development would invest more on the front end [on land rights] they could save a lot more on the security end,” he said, adding that AID, the Millenium Challenge Corporation and the State Department “have made significant strides in the last 10 years but they are starting at such a low base that significant improvement is not enough.”

Foundations and corporations, trying to improve agricultural productivity, he said, “can be pouring hundreds of millions into technology, but if you are not paying attention to that legal framework that will govern the relationship between farmers and their most important asset, it makes a difference.”

American corporations should be interested in the issue because they can become embroiled in legal disputes and conflicts with local people if there is not a solid system of land ownership when they make investments, he said.

While leaders of other nongovernmental organizations have declared “land grabs” by foreign countries and companies to be a scandal, particularly in Africa, Hanstad noted that some of these investments have run into trouble. That problem is likely to get worse in the coming years, he said, because “most cultivable land tends to be in countries that have weak property rights systems.”

“For investors it might look good — you have easier access,” he said, “but many investments have gone south because you don’t have strong legal systems. A government may expropriate land, but if the community is pissed off, equipment gets destroyed.”

A South Korean company’s deal to secure 3.2 million acres of farmland in Madagascar to produce corn and palm oil brought down the Madagascan government, and the next government canceled the deal, Hanstad noted.

Hanstad acknowledged that raising money for land rights projects is harder than for most other international development initiatives. Only one major foundation, the Omidyar Network, sponsored by Pam and Pierre Omidyar, a founder of eBay, has a specific portfolio that addresses land rights, he said.

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been a “very generous partner” through its agricultural development division, but the grant it has given Landesa is for India, not Africa, where land rights are a hot issue, Hanstad said.

Other foundations, he said, “invest in this space through climate change or agriculture or health or peace and security or women’s issues.”

“It tends to be a cross-cutting issue,” Hanstad said. “If all those actors introduced a land rights [initiative] they could be so much more successful. Think about all the conflicts in Africa presently or out of post-conflict situations. Conflicts and disputes around land are at the root. Failure in a post conflict setting to address land right issue is a big reason for sliding back.”