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Global Farms Race: Opportunity to Improve Land Governance

On July 30, I had the pleasure of joining Landesa President Tim Hanstad at Global Washington in Seattle for a rich discussion of the Global Farms Race: Implications of Food Security, Poverty, and Foreign Investment.

At the heart of this conversation are the rights of communities and individuals to decide for themselves how to use and profit from land. Do they possess clear and documented land and resource rights? Who has the power to make decisions? According to a recent World Bank report, up to 90% of the land in Sub-Saharan Africa is undocumented, which makes it extremely difficult to determine who has a right to what land and resources. Consequently, decisions are being made for individuals and communities, rather than by them. This is unsustainable and will undermine the objectives we seek to achieve, particularly improved food security and nutrition.


Two of the biggest policy challenges are the lack of good data and out-of-date laws. In many countries in which USAID works, decades of civil war, fairly recent independence, and repeated changes in government have resulted in land records that are non-existent, incomplete, or overlapping – making it very difficult to figure out who owns what and how much land has been sold or leased to whom. Combine this with laws and policies that do not recognize the property rights of many citizens, and it spells potential disaster for smallholders around the world.

In the global farms race, the rush to purchase or lease agricultural land to feed the world’s growing population tends to overshadow the slower process of determining ownership and boundaries. Governments sell or lease what is legally public land to investors for agricultural export. However, the purchaser/lessor may find smallholders on the land. Frequently, commercial investors do not know that the land has been grazed or farmed by local people for centuries. So, who is the “bad guy” in this deal? Who is responsible for ensuring that local, indigenous and customary rights are recognized, or that they have land on which to make a livelihood? There are few “bad guys” in this scenario, but many bad decisions. It should be those who occupy the land, who in fact have property rights, who are responsible for making decisions about what happens with the land and who benefits.

Because these issues are so fundamental to global development goals, USAID is partnering with country governments around the globe to invest in programs that improve land governance systems. Together with our partners across Europe and in many bilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IFAD and FAO, we are encouraging governments to recognize that occupants indeed have property rights and that is a fundamental requirement for economic development and sustainable resource management. One of the most important tools to address the lack of clear land tenure is the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, which were adopted by the UN Committee on Food Security in May 2012. The Voluntary Guidelines provide a framework that policy makers can refer to when creating laws and policies to strengthen land tenure and resource rights. Improved access and rights to land create incentives for better agricultural productivity, which leads to better food security and nutrition.

In Ethiopia for example, a USAID-supported land certification program has helped to transform property rights, enhance agricultural productivity, and limit resource degradation. In the area where the land certification program was implemented, crop yields have increased between 11 percent and 40 percent per acre over three years with no other inputs. When people have land certificates, they are more inclined to conserve land, water, and wildlife and invest in productivity.

Secure property rights are also extremely important for women. We know when women do not have property rights, their home and land may be taken by relatives. There is a greater likelihood that their health and security are jeopardized and their children may be forced to work or marry at an early age instead of attending school. When women have more secure rights to land and resources, they are more likely to invest in agricultural inputs, produce food to feed their family, participate in household decision making, earn income, and access credit.

USAID is seeking to expand the knowledge and data on the impact of land rights programs and large-scale land acquisitions through a new Evaluation, Research and Communication (ERC) project, launched in May. Follow me on Twitter @Gregorywmyers where I share results and engage in the growing global dialogue on land and resource governance.