As Landesa Co-Founder & Senior Advisor Tim Hanstad prepares for a new chapter in his career, we asked him for his thoughts and perspectives on his three decades with Landesa and the future of the land rights movement.
Q: We at Landesa have previously written about how land rights are on the rise in global development. What is the most encouraging sign of progress you’ve seen toward the goal of securing land rights for millions of rural women and men?
A: There are many encouraging signs that land rights are on the rise on the global development agenda, including: (1) the inclusion of land rights in Agenda 2030 (SDGs), (2) the much more frequent inclusion of land rights in national and regional policy dialogues, (3) the increasing number of NGOs, donors, and companies that have taken up the cause of land rights, and (4) increasing media mentions of land rights issues. These signs are encouraging, but we must do a better job as a planet in converting this increased attention and support into actual gains in the numbers of poor women, men and communities who have secure, legal rights to land. Landesa is well-positioned to play a leading role in a collaborative effort towards this end.
Q: You’ve obviously witnessed a lot of change as Landesa has grown from a two-person team operating out of a Seattle apartment to an internationally recognized land rights organization with offices on three continents. Is there one story from your 32 years at Landesa that captures why you found yourself so drawn to our work and mission?
A: I recall a conversation I had, in my very early years, with a small farmer living in Egypt’s Nile River Delta. While talking with him, I was reminded of my grandparents who had been small farmers, with some of the same challenges as well as aspirations. This energetic, entrepreneurial Egyptian farmer strongly articulated the importance of having secure rights to land, protected and legally enforced by the government. He and his family had previously been insecure tenant farmers on the land of a large landlord, eking out a subsistence without meaningful assets, security, or a foreseeable pathway to middle class prosperity. A land reform ushered in by the Egyptian government had provided much stronger land rights for his family and hundreds of thousands of others. He spoke in detail about what a transformative difference that these more secure rights meant for his most important asset: Greater security and peace of mind about the future. Increased investment. Higher yields. More food and income. The opportunity for him and his wife to send their children to more and better schooling. I was struck both with the practical difference this change had made in his family’s life, and also with the realization that the government accomplished this at scale with hundreds of thousands of additional families by adopting and implementing a single law. It reinforced for me the idea that secure land rights can provide transformative opportunity and a pathway to prosperity for real people. And that it can be accomplished at scale.
Q: What is your proudest achievement during your time at Landesa?
A: I am proud of so many achievements by our Landesa teams and government partners. The one that stands out the most is the way Landesa has worked collaboratively and catalytically on China’s success in providing secure, legal rights to scores of millions of farmers. I recall one conversation with an extremely happy Chinese farmer who spoke of how much better his family’s life was since they received their own land. In stark contrast to their previous life on a communal farm, his family now enjoyed more income, more food, more agency, less time spent on agriculture, more time for non-farm labor, and much greater hope for the future.
Recent reforms in China are extending land rights to female farmers, sowing new opportunity for social and economic empowerment for at least 100 million women.
Q: What do you see as the greatest obstacle to success for the land rights movement?
A: One of the greatest challenges we face is the lack of meaningful efforts by governments to track progress on how many women and men have secure, legal rights to land. This information gap has significant ramifications for researchers in developing our understanding of the efficacy of land rights interventions, and for monitoring progress on global initiatives, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Fortunately, Landesa and other land rights champions are working to close this gap by investing in programs and resources for monitoring and evaluation, from the ground up. Governments, like all institutions, tend to manage what they measure. If you can’t measure something, it is difficult to improve it. If we can catalytically help governments to measure progress in land rights, they are more likely to invest the needed government attention and resources to making progress.
Q: As you transition to a new role that allows you to pursue large-scale social impact from a different perspective, what message would you like to give to colleagues, partners, and friends of Landesa?
A: Opportunity for most of the world’s poorest people is closely tied to their relationship with land. And a small group of people, committed to a specific cause, and working smartly with a systems-change lens can help make enormous social and economic impact. I am reminded of the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”