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Landesa: A little-known 40-year-old land rights group

Seattle-based Landesa is not well known, but it has been around for 40 years, according to President and CEO Tim Hanstad and the organization’s website.

Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman
It was founded by Roy Prosterman, a lawyer at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell before he left in 1965 to become a professor of law at the University of Washington.

In 1966, Prosterman came upon a law review article that promoted land confiscation as an acceptable tool for land reform in Latin America.

“The idea seemed utterly dangerous to him,” according to Landesa’s website. Prosterman responded with his own law review article, “Land Reform in Latin America: How to Have a Revolution without a Revolution,” in which he urged democratic and market-friendly land reform which included full compensation for land acquisitions.

Prosterman’s article garnered the attention of U.S. government officials and others who saw the potential of his ideas, particularly for the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Prosterman was called to testify before Congress and was eventually recruited to create a land-to-the-tiller program in Vietnam that between 1970 and 1973 gave land rights to 1 million tenant farmers — and increased rice production by 30 percent while Viet Cong recruitment decreased by 80 percent.

Prosterman found himself called into the fields of Latin America, the Philippines, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries, to help craft pro-poor land law and programs, and in 1981 he founded the world’s first nongovernmental organization designed specifically for partnering with governments to extend land rights to the world’s poorest people. It was this organization, then known as the Rural Development Institute, that became Landesa.

Prosterman continues to lecture on land rights throughout the world and provides strategic insight to Landesa, but has turned over management to Hanstad, his one-time research assistant.

Hanstad, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants who grew up working in the fields of Washington state among Mexican migrant workers, became interested in international development when he was a teenager.

“They were from a different planet than I was,” Hanstad said, adding that realized that they were working “under terrible circumstances, and they came from worse.”

Under Hanstad’s leadership, Landesa has expanded its assistance to activist groups and governments trying to resolve land rights issues. Nongovernmental groups often raise the land rights issue first, but in order to achieve a secure land rights system, “We partner with governments,” Hanstad said.

When Landesa begins work in a country, its staff starts out doing research to understand “the ground realities that poor people are facing,” including the systemic problems in the legal system and how it compares with Landesa’s knowledge of other countries.

Second, Landesa tries to design an improved system and takes those policy recommendations to the governments. Then Landesa makes the case to the governments for the changes, “not in an activist fashion, in desk side briefings,” Hanstad said, and if the government agrees, tries to be a partner in implementation.