Land tenure is the foundation of people’s security


For most of the world’s poor and vulnerable people, secure property rights, including land tenure, are a rare luxury. Unless this changes, the sustainable development goals will be impossible to achieve.

Land tenure determines who can use land, for how long and under what conditions. Tenure arrangements may be based on official laws and policies, and on informal customs. If those arrangements are secure, users of land have an incentive not just to implement best practices for their use of it (paying attention to, say, environmental effects), but also to invest more.

READ MORE: Land Bill is a good, if flawed, start

An international consensus has emerged regarding the importance of secure land tenure for development outcomes. In 2012, the Committee on World Food Security, based at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure as the global norm.

Yet the norm is not being applied widely enough. Only 30% of the world’s population has legally registered rights to their land and homes.

In Romania, for example, many Roma have less secure farmland tenure than their non-Roma neighbours. Likewise, in Southeast Asia, hill tribes rarely have legal rights to their indigenous holdings, which are often located in state forests. In Zimbabwe, a customary divorce settlement may result in allocating all family lands and property (and even children) to the husband, with the wife left to return to her father or another male relative. In Sarajevo, thousands of flats have been deemed illegal because of outdated urban plans and missing building permits, locking families’ most valuable assets outside the mainstream economy.

Inadequate land-tenure systems perpetuate poverty and marginalisation by stifling economic growth. But the opposite is also true: strong, properly enforced land rights can boost growth, reduce poverty, strengthen human capital, promote economic fairness (including gender equity) and support social progress more broadly.

Secure land rights are essential to reduce disaster risk and build climate resilience. When such disasters displace people and destroy their homes, land records provide the baseline for compensation and reconstruction of shelters.

The World Bank Group is working with developing countries to improve their land-tenure systems and expand the coverage of legally recognised and registered rights. For example, in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra provinces, we are helping to promote the standardisation of land rights, with particular attention to women and indigenous people, and defining state forests’ boundaries using participatory methods for mapping and registration.

The World Bank Group efforts have enabled one million hectares of land in Nicaragua — more than 30% of the country’s territory — to be demarcated, titled and registered to indigenous groups.

New projects are being prepared in Mozambique and Tanzania to provide customary settlements with communal titles that will ensure legal recognition of their common holdings, thereby strengthening the protection and management of these assets.

READ MORE: ‘Test land tenure in court’

But realising key sustainable development goal targets will require a much larger investment programme at the local, national and global levels, focused on strengthening land tenure in low- and middle-income countries.

Land is at the heart of development. Secure land tenure is thus vital to building the inclusive, resilient and sustainable communities that will propel economic and social progress well into the future. — © Project Syndicate

Mahmoud Mohieldin and Anna Wellenstein work for the World Bank Group

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