A community in rural Honduras.

From: Land rights – Footsteps 105

Why land rights are important and what we can do to protect them

by Barbara Codispoti  

When we start working on land rights, the first thing we learn is what a difficult and complex area it is. It soon becomes clear that land rights involve much more than finding technical solutions for dividing up the land. Working on land rights is about improving the rules and norms relating to who can access, use and control the land and its resources. It means working for and with women, men and communities who normally have little or no voice in these decisions.

Access to the land and its resources is vital for people’s livelihoods. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Access to the land and its resources is vital for people’s livelihoods. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Securing and protecting vulnerable people’s land rights is essential for bringing about a fair and prosperous society. It is key for combating poverty and hunger in rural communities, which rely on the land for food. Land rights are central to addressing inequalities, protecting the environment and sustaining peace. 

When women and men can prove that they have secure land rights, it makes it easier for them to access credit, loans and extension services, as well as schemes such as insurance or welfare plans. People with secure land tenure are better able to invest in their land and make improvements. In urban areas, land rights are often vital for access to public services such as water and sanitation.  

Marginalised groups’ rights

Around the world, women own less land than men. The land they do have is of worse quality and comes with less legal certainty. Supporting women to get access to more land, and to gain recognised property rights, can bring transformative social change. When women own land, either individually or jointly with their husbands, they have a different position in their families and societies. Research has shown that women are more likely than men to spend income from land and other resources on their children’s food and education. 

Working towards indigenous and community land rights is also vital. Large amounts of forests and pastures are held and managed communally by indigenous peoples and local communities. These groups have valuable skills and knowledge for preserving and caring for their lands and natural resources. Protecting their rights is not only important for safeguarding their livelihoods and cultural identities – it also helps to conserve the environment and combat the effects of climate change. 

Competition, conflict and corruption

The world is experiencing a land tenure crisis. This is because there is increasing competition for land and natural resources. Competition happens at all levels: within families, within the same community, among communities, and between communities and the government or private investors. In the last decade we have witnessed the growth of ‘land grabbing’. This is when powerful elites or investors obtain land, often at low cost and without proper consultation or consent.People who have no means to protect and claim their land rights are evicted and displaced on a daily basis for the benefit of the few. This is worsened by the high level of corruption in many governments. Corruption can also be found within communities, where traditional leaders might act selfishly for personal gain. 

The broken relationships between people because of land issues easily turn into conflicts. Good, just systems that govern land and its resources are vital to prevent this competition ripping our societies apart.

The land for this bauxite quarry in Sierra Leone belonged to the people of Mbonge village, but was sold to a mining company for a one-off payment. Photo: Jay Butcher/Tearfund

The land for this bauxite quarry in Sierra Leone belonged to the people of Mbonge village, but was sold to a mining company for a one-off payment. Photo: Jay Butcher/Tearfund

Working together for change

Encouragingly, in the last decade international commitments have been made to regulate the governance of land and natural resources. Protecting the land rights of small farmers, vulnerable communities and particularly women is explicitly mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals. International, national and local civil society organisations are speaking out loudly, building solidarity and mobilising communities. They aim to hold governments and private actors accountable to what they promised on paper. Many are taking action, but more remains to be done. 

What can individuals do?

Land is an issue that involves relationships between people and within society. The actions of individuals can have a positive impact in the long term only if they are part of larger joint efforts. In their own capacity, individuals can: 

What can grassroots organisations do?

Grassroots organisations have a key role to play in helping communities and specific groups (eg women) to come together and work on land-related problems. Grassroots organisations can: 

What can we ask our governments to do?

Governments have a duty to protect their citizens’ rights. We can ask the government to: 



Barbara Codispoti is the Global Land Programme Lead at Oxfam. 

Web: www.oxfamnovib.nl/donors-partners
Email: barbara.codispoti@oxfamnovib.nl


Knotty problem

Question: I know that advocating about land rights can be dangerous. How can my community keep safe while trying to protect our rights? 

Answer: When an organisation speaks out in a difficult environment or on controversial issues, it can be risky for the people involved. Violence, threats of violence, imprisonment and even death threats may be made against those doing the advocacy, their friends and family, and people in the communities involved. 

Below are some examples of ways of reducing risks associated with doing advocacy. 

It is a good idea to do an advocacy risk analysis to identify and manage risks. Tearfund’s Advocacy toolkit can help with this. If any risk is too high, it is wise to consider alternative options for advocacy, such as asking an external spokesperson or overseas organisation to advocate on your behalf. 

It is good practice to ensure that everyone involved is aware of the risk, is still happy to proceed and is aware of what to do to minimise the risk. This will probably involve ensuring that they know who to go to for help. There may be some situations where the risk is so high that we cannot do any advocacy at all. However, it is worth remembering that, sometimes, there may be a bigger risk in not doing advocacy than in going ahead with it. 

Answer adapted from Tearfund’s Advocacy toolkit by Joanna Watson. Visit www.tearfund.org/advocacytoolkit to download a free copy, or contact us to order a printed copy for £12.


Glossary

Land tenure means the right to hold, use, manage and transfer a piece of land. 

Customary means according to the customs or usual practices in a particular setting. 

Statutory means according to the law. 

Gender justice means valuing women and men equally and ensuring they have a fair share of power, knowledge and resources.*

*This is a simplified definition for the purposes of this edition. For a fuller definition of gender justice, see Tearfund’s Transforming Masculinities, available at www.tearfund.org/transformingmasculinities

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