Global Farms Race: Implications of Food Security, Poverty, and Foreign Investment

On Tuesday, July 30th, GlobalWA hosted Gregory Myers, Division Chief for the Land Tenure and Property Rights Division at USAID and Tim Hanstad, President and CEO of Landesa at The Hub Seattle for a discussion on global property rights’ affect on food security, the environment and poverty levels. Hanstad moderated the discussion, asking questions about Myers’ experience working in the land tenure division at USAID, and why land tenure is an issue worth paying attention to.

The discussion began with a question about Myers’ hefty title as Chief of Land Tenure, and what it really means. Myers explained that he approaches the issue of property rights as an issue of power, and described it as a “very multilayered fabric.” According to Myers, often times, land is effectively owned by a variety of different people. On a cocoa farm for instance, there can be the person who actually owns the land, and the one who’s allowed to lease it out. All the while the actual cocoa trees are individually owned by different people. It can get tricky when it comes to who actually reaps the benefits from the cocoa.

“That’s why it’s so important when I fight for property rights,” Myers explained. “I want to protect everyone in that fabric.”

The problem is that it is not always clear who truly owns the land. Myers cited a World Bank report that says that in Africa (where Myers does most of his work) 90 percent of land lacks clear and documented rights. While people may live on the land, and create their entire livelihoods there, they don’t have a piece of paper to show for it.  In some instances, this is due to a government’s position that they own the land and thus are free to take it over for investment purposes. Even though the governments’ intentions are often good, like hoping to increase food production, Myers said that the way to really “put productivity on steroids” would be to let the true owners of the property decide what to do with it and prosper themselves from their investments.

Myers was anxious to use Ethiopia as an example, saying that when he spent time there in 1992, the country had big population increases and extreme famine. The government was also redistributing land every two or three years, which created no incentive for farmers. Part of Myers’ job, was to work with the government to discuss land tenure policy.

The discussion moved on to include land tenure’s effects on women’s rights and regional conflicts. Myers said that in places where men often make all of the decisions, he has to be very blunt in promoting women’s rights by making sure that both a man and woman’s names are printed on the documentation he issues, so that both are protected. In terms of conflict, Myers said that land and resources are often at the root of major conflicts such as in the Congo, Israel, and the Civil War in Mozambique.

Toward the end of the discussion, the audience was not shy to ask questions, and Myers said that he was impressed by their specificity. Questions were answered by both Myers and Hanstad, and topics ranged from the implications of climate change on land tenure issues, to communal land ownership, and China’s role as a “land grabber” in Africa. The event came to a close with a short reception where guests could ask further questions and network with each other over a glass of wine.

Visit USAID’s Land Tenure and Property Rights portal to learn more about how land tenure and property rights are connected to food security, natural resources management, climate change, women’s equality, economic growth, and conflict mitigation.