Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas that they farm to make a living. And yet millions of these people don’t own the land or, if they do own it, have no way to prove it. Up to 90% of rural areas in Africa are unregistered.
Over the last 45 years, a Seattle-based nonprofit, Landesa, has worked to change that by lobbying governments to pass land rights laws and collaborating with communities on the ground. Recently it received a big boost for its efforts: the $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the most lucrative humanitarian prize in the world. It hopes the money will help raise awareness of the land rights issue, which has sometimes been overlooked by the development community.
“Land rights serve as the building block for so many development outcomes,” says Landesa’s president and CEO Chris Jochnick. “Once people get some security of land title, they can start investing in their land in a way that’s difficult if you don’t own it. The land’s productivity goes up, and if a woman gets the title, it raises her status in the community, bringing benefits to health and food security.”
Establishing land rights also help avoid conflicts over ownership, such as when governments give away areas for mining, gas, and oil exploration. Many disputes that we think of as human rights-related or environmental actually spring from land rights ambiguities, Jochnick says.
Landesa does a lot of work in India, where it’s thought that one third of farmers don’t have formal rights to the land they cultivate. In West Bengal, it collaborated with the state government on a project to buy land, then give away tennis court-sized “micro-plots.” The program has helped families set up new businesses and win greater autonomy.
Meanwhile, in Odisha state, Landesa is helping farmers apply for land rights. It has a partnership with Google.org and SIMLab to use mobile phones to speed up the previously paper-based process. That in turn helps families apply for other government services, including subsidized seeds or money to dig wells.
“Ironically, what we find in India is that the poorest of the poor can’t access government services because they don’t have legal title to the land they farm,” says Landesa’s senior communications manager Rena Singer. “So, you have the poorest of the poor not able to access the services the government designed to help the poor get out of poverty.”
Landesa plans to use the $2 million to raise awareness within the development community, though it already seems to be succeeding somewhat. Land rights are mentioned three times in the UN’s new Global Goals. “Land rights are critical to poverty, hunger and women’s rights,” Jochnick says.