A new World Bank report says giving land rights to the poor is the key to poverty reduction and economic growth.
The report says, “Strengthening poor people’s land rights and easing barriers to land transactions can set in motion a wide range of social and economic benefits.” These include improved governance, women’s empowerment and increased private investment.
Klaus Deininger is a World Bank senior economist and author of the report.
He says, "People who have tenure and secure rights to their land will put in investments like irrigation – or in urban areas, putting in a roof or a cement floor that can significantly improve the health status. There are a lot of examples, especially in Africa, where people actually plant trees, put terraces on land that they have secure tenure to."
Having tenure can mean either owning the landing or leasing it. But either way, the report says documented proof should be provided to prevent legal disputes.
However, owning land can put a person at risk during poor economic times or crop failures - or because of serious family illness. Owners may be forced to sell their land as a result.
He says, "What we recommend is that the governments take measures for social safety nets. That means if there’s a drought or some other systematic shock, they put in a food for work program. Or they put in basic health services so that the poor will not need to sell their land if they are hit by some unforeseen event."
Mr. Deininger also says, “Land rentals make a tremendous contribution to poor people’s well-being.” He says rentals make it easier for those with the “necessary skills to use the land productively.”
The report notes land policies have been at the “root of social conflicts” in Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Cambodia and Columbia.
He says, "Just to give you an example, in Zimbabwe, where I’ve actually worked myself, before the whole land reform process started to happen, we found a lot of large commercial farmers who collaborated with their tenants as well as their farm workers. And would have been very happy to rent out some land to their farm workers or to neighboring communities. However, that is prohibited by law. And that illustrates one of our main points in the report - that you should facilitate land transactions as much as possible. And therefore, you had a lot of social pressure building up that has led to the events we have seen."
He says governments that want to implement land reform must make sure that everyone benefits. He says that was not done in Zimbabwe, where studies show many farm workers are worse off now than before the land reform program began.
He says, "Unless you have secure land tenure and people’s land rights are secure, they will not be willing to invest. And therefore the whole motor of growth, which after all is investment and diversification of the economy, will not start and will be choked off. And I think that is the situation we find in many African countries."
He recommends making land tenure a top priority. This includes giving tenure to women, who, he says, are often neglected despite the major role they play in agriculture.
He says both India and China are much more densely populated than African countries, yet they have created land tenure programs.
The World Bank report says restrictions on land rentals as a means of preventing exploitation of landless people often backfire. It says, “Instead of protecting poor people’s access to land, it fosters petty corruption and red tape and discourages investment.”
The study says if reform efforts are to be successful, they must be “backed by political commitment, integrated into a broader approach to development, and implemented transparently and in partnership with civil society.”