2013-07-01 - People in developing countries across the globe are breaking the cycle of poverty by gaining legal control of their land.

It’s all to do with land tenure, a political, economic, social, and legal structure that determines how individuals and groups access and use land and related resources - including trees, minerals, pasture, and water. Land tenure rules define how rights to use, control, and transfer land and resources are allocated within societies.

It follows that land tenure makes an enormous difference to individuals, families, communities and ultimately to the economy of the entire nation.

Land tenure specialists point out that it helps to address climate change issues, improve natural resource management, expand economic growth, improve food security and agricultural productivity, empower women and limit conflict.

Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to Attorney and Land Tenure Specialist – Amanda Richardson who was in Rome to participate in a speaker programme organised by the US Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome

Amanda, who specializes in land law, policy, and women’s rights, works for Landesa, a Seattle-based Rural Development Institute that partners with governments to create laws, policies, and programmes that provide secure land rights for the poorest

Founded over 40 years ago, Amanda explains that Landesa champions the power of land ownership and rights as the key to a better, safer future for the world’s poorest people.

Amanda explains that Landesa works to give hope of a better life to the poorest people in the world, those living on less than 2 US dollars per day. Personally she helps to do research on different legal frameworks and she does field work, talking to people, finding out what their situations are like and then designing pilot projects and following up on their implementation.

At Landesa, Amanda says, “we focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, on developing countries and chiefly on rural populations”.

Land rights – she explains – “are important because landless people tend to be the most vulnerable people. They are people who don’t have power over where they live, where they can work, power over where their next paycheck is coming from. And if they do live and work on land upon which they don’t have secure land rights, they tend to lack the power to make decisions about that land or to make investments in the land, both short term – like using fertilisers – and long term – like digging a well. So they can’t use the land productively”. Also – Amanda says – “they don’t have the security that they will stay on the land so when there’s pressure from a variety of issues like rising prices or conflict they tend to be people who lose their rights to access the land. So they are vulnerable to all sorts of pressures”.

Amanda explains that Landesa tends to be invited in by governments. “Our goal is always to do things that are scalable at the national level, so to work to reform the laws and different policies that affect peoples’ land rights” She speaks of a programme in India for instance that involves different State governments which aims to distribute land to landless people. “So Landesa worked with them to decide the optimal size for the land they were distributing, and then helped with a pilot project to see how they could give out the land, how they could title the land in the name of the women, and how to do that in a way that made the rights real for people. And then the government takes the research that we have done and scales it up to a broader level”.

Although historically Amanda says that Landesa works upon the invitation of governemtns, it also does some work with USAID, and other projects “so we might be invited in by another NGO or institution”.

She highlights the fact that Landesa focuses on a community level, but also on a household level, an individual level.

Asked for an exemplary success story, Amanda speaks of the “Micro-plot Programme” which deals with small plots of land, less than a quarter of an acre. “It’s what the governments in the Indian states where we have been working have been giving out to landless people. In many Indian states there is a cap on the amount of land an individual can own so there is a lot of land the government has so they are looking to give the land to people. They can do so through the programme so the people can start becoming more independent”. One of the effects – Amanda points out – is dietary improvement as people start growing vegetables on their land and diversifying their diets. So 11 states across India have allocated 210,000 micro-plots to families through the programme”. Amanda says this programme bears witness to the fact that having this kind of security means that people are able to make investments in their land that bear long term fruits.

In Africa Landesa has been involved in a number of programmes. She highlights the “Justice Project” in Kenya that was designed to increase women’s access to their rights under the new Kenyan 2010 Constitution which increases women’s rights and specifically their rights to land. Amanda says that in this situation Landesa first trained the elders, “because they are the traditional justice actors, then trained them on what it said about land in the Constitution, what it said about rights, how they could go about improving both of those things. Then Landesa trained teachers and youth in the schools to have them disseminate information about the Constitution to the community as a whole, and then finally we gave training to women, both to improve their understanding of what the Constitution said, and their public speaking”. Doing it this way – she says – has empowered the whole community: “the elders have become champions of land rights and particularly of women’s land rights, and the community as a whole has bought into the whole idea, and women are seeing an increased access to land, an increased decision making over what crops are to be grown and what to do with the income. And what we have found is that when women have that increased decision-making power they tend to use the food and the money on the family and invest in the family, because they are the ones who tend to have primary responsibility for the children and for household needs”.

Amanda speaks of how she and her colleagues tread gently when first approaching a community, trying to understand what the context is. They try to engage in a sensitive way to the community and tells of some instances in which strong cultural traditions have meant having to change their approach and even adjust their project.

Amanda, who started working at Landesa in 2010, says she is gratified and rewarded by her work as her prime interest is trying to get people out of poverty. Land rights, she says, “are a particularly interesting way to do this because they provide a kind of a base for other work you can do in rural areas, like microcredit”.

“Land is this basic thing that allows us to build up and help people get out of poverty”.