The Ways That Land Rights Increase Economic Development

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SEATTLE — Indigenous peoples and local communities hold at least half of the world’s land but legally, they own just one-fifth. Insecure land rights for the millions of indigenous people and local communities present a global crisis affecting not just those who live on the land, but the 2.5 billion people who depend on it. Overall, fair land rights increase economic development in various communities across the globe.

This gap in ownership and dependence contributes to social dysfunction, entrenched poverty, provoking conflict, and exacerbated environmental destruction.

The land held by indigenous peoples and local communities also can provide natural resources and ecosystems including forests, rangeland and wetlands; however, the lack of formal legal ownership leaves these people and their land “vulnerable to illegal, forced or otherwise unjust expropriation, capture and displacement by more powerful interests.”

Land that is designated for indigenous peoples and local communities is governed under tenure regimes that recognize numerous rights on a conditional basis for indigenous peoples and local communities. Rights-holders exercise some level of control and management, but they lack the full legal means to secure their claims to those lands. These communities are then often undermined by or lack support and enforcement from the government.

However, these lands, when under the tenured control of Indigenous or local communities, have shown to possess low deforestation rates and reduced carbon emissions. Granting these communities full legal control of their land would likely result in even greater environmental benefits.

But securing legal ownership can contribute to more than just the environment: land rights increase economic development as well.

A report published by the World Resources Institute called “Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs: The Economic Case For Securing Indigenous Land Rights in the Amazon” states that local communities’ sustainable management of forests can generate economic growth when given tenure rights to their land.

The report finds that the modest investments needed to secure land rights for indigenous communities have the potential to generate billions in returns. Careful management of resources — which is customary for indigenous peoples and local communities — can bring about greater exports of forest products such as berries or wood from the Amazon.

In Vietnam, the “land to the tiller” law that secured land rights to farmers promised a stable path out of poverty and a reason to stay on their plots instead of abandoning their fields to join the Vietcong. In the areas of the country where the law was implemented, rice production rose by 30 percent and monthly Vietcong recruitment fell by 80 percent.

Those who lack secure legal rights to their land are often discouraged from long-term agricultural investments (such as better seeds, soil improvements or irrigation) because they know there is a chance that the money they spend on these outlays can be lost along with their land. In contrast, though, studies have also shown that land rights increase economic development through increasing agricultural investments and activity.

In fact, women within agricultural societies can benefit from secure land rights.

With women in more than half the world’s countries denied the right to own, inherit or manage land by law or custom, half of the agricultural work force remains idle. A title to a piece of land can transform a woman’s social position and economic prospects.

While a growing number of civil society organizations have incorporated land rights into their missions, governments have the most power to continue such progress. The myth that large, modern, mechanized farms are the only path to development has undermined motivation to secure land rights for smallholder farmers; however, more secure property rights and equitable distribution of those benefits can fuel economic growth.

While countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda have guaranteed equal land rights for women, and Chinese and Indian governments have strengthened the land rights of hundreds of millions of farmers, indigenous and local communities need secure land rights to bring prosperity and stability to the world’s poorest populations.

– Richa Bijlani
Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Richa Bijlani

Richa lives in Seattle, WA. She has a BA in Anthropology with Honors from Vanderbilt University. Richa is hoping to pursue a JD, focusing on international human rights. She has been to 15 countries and can speak 4 languages.

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