“Exchanging ideas that matter” – Big Ideas.
That phrase sums up the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011, which I had the privilege of attending as a Scholar thanks to a Landesa supporter. During the last week of June, Supreme Court Justices, economists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, educators, and journalists – to name just a few – gathered at the Aspen Institute to grapple with some of the most difficult challenges of our time and share the newest thinking to address those issues. On the table for discussion were topics related to global poverty, the US economy, education reform, urban violence, obesity, happiness, and our post-9/11 world, among others.
Naturally, the Global Economics track was of particular interest to me. But despite important dialogue around scaling solutions and boosting economic development, I was struck by how little attention was given to what the vast majority of the world’s poor need most: secure rights to the land they till.
At the session on global poverty, MIT professor and MacArthur Fellow Esther Duflo, who recently co-authored Poor Economics, spoke on the importance of health and education interventions to alleviating poverty. No doubt health and education are fundamental for the poor to work their way out of poverty. And yet how do we help ensure that poor rural families do not have to forgo the $2 earned as day laborers to take their sick children to the health clinic? How do we help ensure that poor families do not have to marry off 15-year old daughters to avoid paying school fees?
Most of the world’s poor – 75 percent – subsist in rural settings and rely on basic farming for their survival and for savings. Yet at least a billion have little to no legal claim on their land, their most important asset. We know from decades of research and practical field work that the way to help ensure the rural poor can access health and education services without sacrificing their income or children’s future is to help them obtain secure rights to land – a permanent asset. A family can begin the journey out of poverty when they have the assurance that the asset they use every day for income actually belongs to them. They’ll harvest for the long-term instead of short (and often meager) gains. They can more easily access government services, enroll their children in school, and steward their land with an eye toward sustainability.
A panel on, “What Is Seeing the Forest for the Trees Worth? A Discussion on Food, Forests, and Fuel” highlighted the very real competing uses for the same acre of land. As investors increasingly vie for the finite amount of land on our planet to grow food, forests, and bio-fuels, land access and rights of the poor are in jeopardy. How do we help ensure that the global competition for land is not to the utter detriment of those who rely on that land for their livelihoods? One way to ensure that the rural poor benefit from the “global land rush” is ensure they have secure rights to land. All parties – governments, investors and local farmers – will benefit from laws that fairly ensure rights to land as large-scale land acquisitions increase in the decades to come.
Whether the issue is poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability, rural-urban migration, land conflict or food security, progress begins when governments ensure that more of their population has secure rights to land.
The pathway to this progress isn’t nearly as daunting as some might think: Landesa has partnered with governments in more than 40 countries for 45 years to tailor solutions to extend more than 100 million rural families rights to land. It’s a solution that we sometimes say is “right at our feet.”
Land rights is a large piece of the economic development puzzle that deserves greater dialogue and additional support, a Big Idea we hope Aspen considers at next year’s Festival.
For more information about the global land rush, visit our Global Land Rush page.