GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact

Connecting the communities of Land tenure and AR4D

Neil Palmer (CIAT)_4

Land tenure is one of the most important institutional issues that affect the ability of people to become farmers, make informed decisions and adopt good practices. Land is a factor of production, but at the personal level it is the source of food, shelter and livelihoods; it is a safety net in times of hardship. For smallholder family farmers, their land is a link between the past, present and future generations.

Tackling key issues of agricultural research for development (AR4D) means that there is a need to tackle land tenure. Many people around the world are knowledgeable about agricultural research for development and many people are specialists in land tenure. Not many people, however, have detailed knowledge of both of these complex areas; opportunities are certainly being lost because of the distance that separates the two communities of practice. Bringing AR4D and land tenure closer together can allow people working in AR4D to build on processes in countries to improve land tenure, and enable land tenure specialists to understand how their work can inform research and innovation for development.

Help or Hindrance?

Tenure has long been recognised by AR4D specialists as either a constraint or as part of the enabling environment, along with factors such as financial services, markets, sustainable management of natural resources and climate change. But what should be done about tenure if it is a problem? If it is an enabling factor, how can it be used to influence the uptake of innovations?

Land tenure is often considered too political: it reflects the power structure in society and is regarded as too difficult to work on. A response is to treat it as an externality: something that is out of one’s control and so can just be ignored. But if land tenure is critical, ignoring it will likely mean that any solution that does not take it into account won’t be sustainable..

If women or minority groups in a society have weak tenure rights, it is usually because they have little political power. They were not invited to sit at the table when decisions were made as to who should have what rights to which land and under what conditions. Addressing gender equity and the empowerment of women in the agenda for research and innovation therefore means addressing women’s access to land. As the State of Food and Agriculture for 2010-11 points out, women in agriculture and rural areas have less access than men to productive resources – including land. Similarly, working to stimulate income opportunities from innovations for smallholder family farmers will particularly bring benefits where they don’t face constraints from insecure tenure.

A Framework for Understanding

Despite these difficulties, people around the world are working successfully to address the constraints imposed by land tenure. Solving difficult social problems often means developing a common understanding, and for the first time there is now a globally accepted framework on principles and practices of tenure: the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.

The Voluntary Guidelines were based on a participatory consultative process led by FAO and finalized through inter-governmental negotiations under the Committee on World Food Security and which included the active participation of civil society and the private sector. This has given the Voluntary Guidelines wide ownership, which allows them to be used as an unbiased framework by all.

Diverse stakeholders are finding that they are able to enter into discussions with others on how to deal with pressing problems of tenure. People are gaining deeper understanding of particular aspects of tenure through technical guides and e-learning courses developed by FAO. Gender equality is a principle of the guidelines, and this topic is addressed in more detail in a supplementary technical guide “Governing land for women and men” and in an e-learning course of the same title. Ensuring that investments that do not jeopardize land rights is another topic that is addressed in the Voluntary Guidelines and in a technical guide on “Safeguarding land tenure rights in the context of agricultural investments”.

An improved understanding is leading to policies that link land tenure directly to agricultural and rural development. Guatemala, with the support of FAO, introduced the concepts and principles of the Voluntary Guidelines into a new land policy that addresses food security and nutrition in rural areas, particularly among indigenous communities, and promotes stability, investments and growth in agriculture. The policy recognizes and strengthens indigenous communal systems of land tenure and management, including land law and jurisdiction. Women’s rights to land are also explicitly recognized and promoted. The policy facilitates access to productive assets, including rural extension, by small farmers and indigenous communities. More broadly, it promotes the rural economy and contributes to the competitiveness of rural areas and their full integration into the national economy.

Connecting communities, linking knowledge

Land tenure affects all citizens of a country in one way or another as it is embedded in social, economic and political systems. As countries introduce more consultative and participatory policy processes in line with the principles and practices of the Voluntary Guidelines, people who work on AR4D have a clear entry point (and as much right as other citizens) to be involved in the development and implementation of land policies. In doing so, they can work towards making new land policies part of the enabling environment for AR4D (including rural extension through which AR4D may be applied at field level). In turn, land tenure specialists will develop better understanding of how improvements in land tenure can lead to improved research and innovation in agriculture. This will help the two communities of knowledge and practice to move closer together.


This is a guest blog post by David Palmer and Javier Molina Cruz, Senior Land Tenure Officers of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

 Photo credits: first: Niel Palmer-CIAT; second: FAO Guatemala

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