International Development Law Organization

Scaling up Responsible Land Governance

As the World Bank’s annual meeting on Land and Poverty got underway in Washington DC, representatives of governments, civil society, academia, the development community and private sector discussed land policy, challenges, and the latest research on land governance. 

The purpose of the meeting was to explore ‘what could be done to guarantee inclusiveness, sustainability, and reliability, build capacity, and ensure that better land information and more tenure security contribute to wider societal objectives and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’.

IDLO’s research has shown that in many countries, but especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of land is under customary tenure: the rights, rules and responsibilities to possess, occupy and use it are based on community customs.

Land held under custom rarely enjoys adequate protection under national laws. With land-based investments expanding rapidly in Africa and elsewhere in recent years, customary held land is increasingly under threat. At the same time, such investments are rarely compliant with principles of sustainable natural resource management.

Yet even when legal frameworks recognize customary land rights, vulnerable landowners often lack the time, education, and social access to important sources of information for claiming their land rights, especially when facing well-resourced investors.   

In addition, women often miss out in both the formal and informal land governance systems. IDLO research shows that women’s land rights are often subordinate to men in informal justice systems. Yet our experience with land tenure registration, especially in poorer rural contexts, also suggests that land registration can have the unintended effect of eroding even further women’s already weak customary land rights, because men’s rights often have superior status under customary law. It therefore comes as little surprise that where data is available, women hold only 15% of the total land titles.

IDLO believes that legal frameworks that promote sustainable development and equality are at the heart of the solution to many issues relating to land tenure. IDLO advocates that land programs should be underpinned by efforts to develop a robust legal and regulatory framework that promotes equality and non-discrimination. Such efforts should be combined with grassroots approaches, aimed at equipping vulnerable land owners with the means to defend and protect their lands. This includes measures to support more effective justice mechanisms to resolve disputes over land.

Investment, law and sustainable development

IDLO and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) produced a series of reports, assessing the legal frameworks that govern land-use activities and investments in Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania.

These studies found that despite rich resource wealth and increased investments, poverty and resource degradation persist. Rural populations remain disproportionately affected, with limited access to basic services and increased vulnerability to the impacts of deforestation and climate change.

In a comparative report of the three countries studied, four issues key to sustainable land use investments were identified:

  • Re-framing investment incentives and focusing on smallholder interests;

  • Protecting customary land rights and ensuring consultation and consent;

  • Establishing clear and effective regulations, strengthening enforcement capacity and supporting decentralization;

  • Raising awareness, guaranteeing participation and promoting freedom of information.

The report demonstrates that land governance embodying adherence to social and environmental safeguards can create enabling conditions for sustainable investment.

Gender and land rights

In IDLO’s ‘Realizing the Right to Food’ report published last year, women’s access to land was shown to be critical to the realization of the right to food. Access to land creates collateral for credit and so lack of land rights can affect the ability of women farmers to borrow and invest. Access to financial services is largely dependent on the security of land tenure.

Even when laws guarantee equal land rights, implementation challenges can undermine the benefits of the law. The study showed that while legal systems can protect and open up opportunities for women’s land rights, in many countries the law continues to restrict women’s rights to acquire, inherit, control, use or dispose of land.

Land Tenure Registration

In Burundi, Land Tenure Registration (LTR) is one of the government’s key strategies for dealing with the large number of land disputes across the country. To this end, a series of pilot programs aimed at resolving land rights issues has been initiated in recent years. To date, however, it is unclear whether these have had their intended effect of reducing the number of land disputes.

There have also been concerns that they are resulting in women failing to gain recognition of their existing customary rights on the title, due to the secondary nature of women's claims to land under Burundian customary law.

Working with a Dutch NGO, IDLO is supporting a pilot land tenure registration (LTR) program in the south of Burundi, an area where land conflict is exacerbated by the ongoing mass return of refugees. The program will assess the impact of the LTR processes on land dispute levels and women’s customary rights, as well as examine ways to safeguard and strengthen women's customary rights to land under the LTR process. 

Image Description: