Ten Signs of an impending Global Land Rights Revolution

Exfamer Chris Jochnick, who now runs Landesa, the land rights NGO, sets out his stall ahead of a big World Bank chris-jochnick (1)event next week.

The development community has experienced various “revolutions” over the years – from microfinance to women’s rights, from the green revolution to sustainable development.  Each of these awakenings has improved our understanding of the challenges we face; each has transformed the development landscape, mostly for the better.

We now see the beginnings of another, long-overdue, revolution: this one focused on the fundamental role of land in sustainable development.  Land has often been at the root of revolutions, but the coming land revolution is not about overthrowing old orders. It is based on the basic fact that much of the world has never gotten around to legally documenting land rights.  According to the World Bank, only 10% of land in rural Africa and 30% of land globally is documented.  This gap is the cause of widespread chaos and dysfunction around the world.

There are in fact ten factors pushing land to the top of the global agenda:

1. Livelihoods and food security

The majority of people living in poverty today depend on land for their survival, but lack secure rights to it.  That insecurity creates a powerful disincentive to invest, undermining efforts to boost farmer productivity and leaving hundreds of millions of small farmers permanently on the brink of survival.  By contrast, secure rights can boost productivity by 60 percent and more than double family income.  The UN 2030 Agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals) includes land rights in its first two goals covering poverty and hunger.

Landesa 12. Sustainable Economic Growth

The so called Asian Tigers offer a powerful reminder that securing land rights for small farmers is a fundamental pre-condition for strong sustainable economic growth. A study of 33 countries found that stronger property rights were associated with a five percent increase in GDP growth and a global study of 108 countries found that stronger property rights were associated with an increased average annual growth of per capita income of 6 to 14 percentage points.

3. Women’s Empowerment

Today, more than half the world’s countries deny women the ability to own, inherit or manage land by law or custom.  These barriers condemn women to second class status and poverty, generation after generation.  While sixty percent of working women in sub-Saharan Africa are in the agricultural sector, they often work without secure legal or customary rights, accessing land only through a male relative. If they are widowed or have an argument with their brother or father, they and their children are likely to be left homeless and landless.  There is arguably no single intervention as powerful as legally documenting, formalizing, and strengthening women’s land rights to transform a women’s status, voice and economic prospects  Accordingly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals include land rights in the 5th goal covering gender equality; and a global campaign on women’s and girls’ empowerment launched by Women Deliver and dozens of INGOs fully embraces land rights.

4. Conflict and Human rights

The human rights community has put land rights on the map as land grabbing and attendant violence have captured national and global headlines.   Growing conflict around ever-scarcer land is driven by population growth, climate change-induced desertification and flooding, and pressure in industrialized countries to find new sources of minerals, commodities and food in the Global South.  In emerging economies, an estimated 93% of concessions granted to investors for extractive activities are already occupied by communities, setting the stage for widespread expropriation and violence.  A study of civil conflicts since 1990 showed that land was at the root of the majority of them; and Global Witness declared 2015 the deadliest year for land defenders, with over three killed every week.

5. Governance and accountability

Land grabbing is one of the clearest symptom of governmental dysfunction.  As Transparency International
, it thrives where corruption is high and rule of law is low.  The vast tracts of land that remain undocumented and the billion plus people living under insecure regimes stands as one of the greatest challenges to strong institutions and rule of law.

6. Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Indigenous peoples have been fighting to protect their territory for thousands of years.  Today, an estimated 2.5 Landesa 3billion people depend on indigenous and community lands.  These lands cover over 50% of the planet, but only one fifth of that land has been formally recognized as legally belonging to the indigenous and local communities that occupy it. More than 500 organizations led by Oxfam, Rights Resources Initiative and the International Land Coalition are actively campaigning to secure the collective land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

7. Conservation and Climate Change

Stronger land rights are one of the most effective tools we have to ward off deforestation and climate change.  A growing body of evidence underscores that secure land rights for forest communities are the best defense to forest destruction.  Likewise, for individual farmers, the lack of long term horizons leads to slash and burn practices.  Climate smart approaches to agriculture, including water and soil conservation, better seeds and fertilizer, planting of trees will only thrive where farmers feel they have a secure stake in the land.

8. Humanitarian crises and response

Insecure land rights leave vulnerable people facing natural disasters with strong incentives to stay in place, fearing that by evacuating they will lose any claim to their land.  Lack of clear land tenure following crises also makes rebuilding nearly impossible, in large part because of unclear land rights.

Landesa 29. Smart urbanization

As urbanization rapidly increases across the global south, city planners are stymied by a lack of clear land tenure, leading to illegal and unplanned urban sprawl, massive slums (an estimated 60-80% of African city dwellers lack secure property rights), conflict and forced evictions.  The UN’s “New Urban Agenda” explicitly recognizes the importance of land rights, as does the seminal campaign to secure “land rights for all” launched by the world’s largest housing rights organization – Habitat for Humanity.

10. Peace, security and refugee flows

Struggles over land have spurred many of the most enduring and devastating wars and refugee flows of our times, including in places like Syria, Sudan, Rwanda, Colombia and Myanmar.  Liberians fear their country is on the brink of civil war, yet again, and conflict over land is a driving factor.  For national governments, insecure land rights may present an existential threat, whereas for the international community they are key to securing an enduring peace and stemming the flow of refugees.

It’s clear then why the development community is rallying around land rights – value for money it is tough to beat them. Stories of the importance of land rights and the many successful land interventions are daily fodder for mainstream and academic media (well-curated by Thomson Reuters here and Land Portal here). The business community has its reasons too – land rights are critical to sustainable supply chains and secure investments.  Governments are also coming around.  Next week, over a thousand land rights practitioners from civil society, business and governments will gather at the World Bank’s Annual Land and Poverty Conference.  Momentum is building behind a land rights revolution.

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10 Responses to “Ten Signs of an impending Global Land Rights Revolution”
  1. Ross Clarke

    Chris, great summary of the current state of play on global land rights and land governance reform. Much to be positive about there. One aspect I think is missing – especially for all the talk of revolution – is the inherently political nature of land reform and the land sector’s inability to fully grasp this reality. The majority of development assistance remains of a technical nature, investing heavily in titling schemes, land registries and policy related initiatives. Rarely does it invest in understanding and aiming to address the vested interests and power relations inherent in land governance. This is why despite a growing evidence base on the crucial role land rights can play and years of positive policy reforms, progress is patchy, especially for those whose land rights are least secure. Historically we know that meaningful pro-poor improvement in land relations is often more about political struggle and social movements than top-down reform. How can the ‘land rights revolution’ be one that is more politically grounded and engage with the enablers and blockers of national reform? If not, I suspect this revolution will look far better on paper than in reality.

  2. Mark Wentling

    About time and right on the mark. Land rights have been studied for decades in Africa but very little has been done to reform rural land governance. The rise in population densities require land registration for multiple reasons, not the least being the achievement higher agricultural productivity. Farmers now must practice intensification and that requires years of work in improving soils. There is reluctance to do this work and make investments in the land, if they do not own the farms. Moreover, as African women farmers are responsible for most of the farm work, giving them equal access to land and improved inputs if a proven way to increase drop yields. After over 40 years of doing development work on the African continent, I am persuaded that the legal registration of farm land and giving women equal access to land are needed if African agriculture is to move ahead. As thing stand now, we are doing much to improve the ‘house’ but we have not yet laid the foundation to build the ‘house/’

  3. Mary

    I have worked in the Pacific for many years, and issues over land ownership and land boundaries have affected almost every infrastructure project including improving water supply, sewerage and roads.


    There is now a universal concensus on the centrality of land to the achievement of numerous human rights provisions, being it right to food, housing, water etc. Thus, it is about time right to land is statutorily recognised as a stand-alone human rights provision.

    That said, for decades, stakeholders on African land reform projects have assiduously championed the idea of separate land right for women as the major panacea to women’s subjugation and poverty. Not much achievements have been recorded in this regard despite the stupendous investments committed to the project. The inability of the stakeholders to put into consideration the social dynamics and household relationships that exist within the African communities account for this monumental failure as separate land right is viewed within various rural African communities as divisive pills. It is about time the Approaches to Women Land Rights in Africa is reviewed to reflect the living realities on ground.

  5. Mar

    Maybe a more communal approach could also work as far as land usage is concerned? Ownership of land does not necessarily have to be individual and private, I guess. I think an industrial revolution may also be due in Africa, whereby it skips the terrible environmental consequences of European industrial revolution and just move forward with the latest technology to start creating what they need too.

  6. Tim

    Re Ross’ point about land politics – just a couple of points about the UK: in the UK there is no comprehensive and open database of land ownership and rights. It is left up to individual initiatives such as Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland http://www.andywightman.com, and Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England https://whoownsengland.org/ to try to piece the picture together for the public. It is hard to believe that this lack of transparency is unrelated to the power that control of physical space conveys, or the UK history of aristocratic landownership.

    But as well as pressure from grassroots individual campaigns and community land movements (e.g. http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk), there may be some potential enablers within government for better land data and restructuring of land rights, as housing and infrastructure programmes hit the kind of issues that Mary alludes to: time-consuming searches to work out who owns what, and whose permission do you need to get, before projects can proceed. Where social movements can persuade government actors that land data and rights can serve economic and social development goals, there might be potential for large-scale reform – as is happening in Scotland with debate about “land rights and responsibilities” legislation (e.g. https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/land-reform-and-tenancy-unit/land-reform-scotland/). But of course the details will vary enormously from one context to another (they do even within the UK!) – those interested in more democratic land rights may be very marginal in many governments, if they are there at all.

  7. Dr Alphonce Tiba

    I appreciate the brief on the land tenure revolution as raised here! Am a researcher and policy analyst in land and environment based in Tanzania. The challenge that I see is about concerns raised by global development partners on insecurities zeroed around rural land owners in Sub Saharan Africa and the proposed solution which has laways been titling to protect women etc. In essence and based on a study I conducted from 2009-2015 examining formalization in Tanzania, generally, a mere recognization of longstanding land rights ownerships through titling can not strengthen security unless there is insecurity coming from the Government itself. If there is no proof that women who are using their land fear of anything then titling can not help because of power relations that exist in many rural areas. Women differ (married, single, widow, girls,educated, uneducated, those who bought land with their husband, those who found their husbands with land inherited, etc). Therefore, generalization of problems is not a solution to problems…we need to clearly define women whom we want to assist. All in all, it is a new allocation of land to those who are landless that can help to improve food security and nutrition (extra support is needed through extensions on what to grow and eat,). In Tanzania, stories about land rights improvements and impacts are presented by development partners and their agencies instead of the beneficiaries and independent researchers. A good example was a USAID funded pilot for use of mobile phones uploaded with GPS and a software for capturing non-spatial data in cloud based systems..MAST….impacts assessor was from US while the implementing agency,,Cloudburst was as well coming from US….in such a situation will never know the truth…..Land Rights issues have been invaded by half-baked professionals whose background and expertise is not in either land management or land policy but rather a…..business!!!

  8. Dr Alphonce Tiba

    Wow Tim thanks for a reality from UK!! I thought things are excellent in Uk on transparency but now it is interesting to learn this! One Professor told me that participation and transparency amount to power sharing therefore, it means many countries be they developed or developing as our colleagues tell us, no house is clean!!

  9. Tim

    Hi Alphonse – glad it was of interest! agree that open information is important for a more equitable distribution of power (though it’s only one step). And yes I think you could definitely class the UK as ‘developing’ in terms of land rights transparency, i.e. there is work being done, but our house is indeed still in need of lots of cleaning!

    your work on Tanzania sounds really detailed and interesting, esp on complexity of women’s social positions, and that formal titles might protect people’s land rights from the state – but not from other sources of insecurity. And lots of issues around project evaluation that maybe others in the international development ‘community’ might want to comment on…

  10. David Harold Chester

    When the people living in a village are poor, the land is unlikely to be very productive. The central most useful sites will be owned and its rights for use distributed to only some small proportion of the population. Nobody would be likely to oppose this situation because the benefits from it are small and the land being mostly marginal in what it can grow. However as the population increases and the need for productive land becomes more significant, these landowners will greatly benefit from their monopolistic control of the sites they posses and the distribution of wealth in the village will become more variegated, with the land owners taking a socially unjust amount of wealth, considering the fact that the don’t need to work in order to obtain rent.

    Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Four Aspects for Government:
    1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.
    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.
    3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national affairs.
    4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:
    5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.
    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not used).
    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.
    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites become available, the competition for them is less fierce.
    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
    10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:
    11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:
    14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks– LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
    15. Bribery and corruption on information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
    16. The improved use of the more central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.
    17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics.