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Sep 03 2015

Changemaker: Chris Jochnick, President & CEO, Landesa

By Kaitlin Marshall, Global Washington

Many of the world’s poorest people, despite relying on agricultural labor to survive, don’t own their own land. A lack of formal government regulation of land ownership in developing countries can leave people vulnerable to losing their land to conflict, foreign corporations or any one of various other entities. And their vulnerability means they have less incentive and opportunity to invest in their land to improve their harvests and their lives.

For more than four decades, Global Washington member Landesa has worked with governments and other organizations to create pro-poor laws, policies and programs that strengthen land rights of women and men, families and communities across the globe. To date, Landesa has helped more than 100 million families obtain ownership of land or secure rights to their property.

Chris Jochnick recently joined Landesa as the organization’s CEO, bringing with him a wealth of experience working on social and economic rights – including land rights. A Harvard Law School graduate, Jochnick practiced human rights law for ten years and then worked as a corporate attorney on Wall Street before transitioning into global development. Prior to joining Landesa, Jochnick was with Oxfam America for ten years, as the director of Oxfam’s private sector department.

Landesa describes land as a foundation that allows other development efforts to gain traction. Jochnick firmly believes in this philosophy. “Today, the majority of people living in poverty depend on land,” said Jochnick. “[However], most of them don’t have formal claims to that land. Working in a way that moves the needle on securing land rights for those people who are often the most marginalized is a tangible way of making progress on a whole range of development outcomes.”

Throughout his career, both in law and the non-profit sector, Jochnick has worked with the development, human rights and environmental communities. Until recently, according to Jochnick, none of these communities gave the issue of land rights sufficient attention. “Land is one of those overlooked issues. Land rights can act as a gateway right that give women and men access to other rights.” said Jochnick. “This is something Landesa has long recognized, and others are now coming to appreciate.”

Jochnick is thrilled to be taking over as CEO of Landesa at a time when more people are recognizing the significance of land rights within the global development sector. “There are so many opportunities now for groups working on land to expand their work,” said the new leader. Landesa is poised to leverage the rising attention to land rights to form new and deeper partnerships with governments, civil society organizations and companies. “[Land rights] is a field that is ripe for new attention, and Landesa offers a perfect platform for that,” said Jochnick. His extensive experience developing partnerships with the private sector will help Landesa move forward in finding new avenues to protect land rights.

At Oxfam, Jochnick initiated a variety of partnerships with Fortune 500 companies and organized collaborative advocacy initiatives. These included the “Behind the Brands” campaign which put pressure on the world’s largest food and beverage companies to ensure they were not displacing families and communities throughout their supply chains. Many countries have no or weak land-related legal infrastructure to regulate land ownership. For example, 90 percent of the land in sub-Saharan Africa is undocumented. Foreign companies who obtain a permit from the government have no way of knowing if the land they are using belongs to someone else, and may unwittingly destroy someone’s source of livelihood. Prior to the Behind the Brands campaign, many companies failed to recognize land as an issue. Corporations increasingly recognize that ensuring they are not displacing communities is a necessary good business practice.

While Landesa has traditionally focused on working to create impact at scale by partnering with foreign governments, it has since expanded to pursue partnerships in the private sector. Companies “are aware of the fact that [land] conflicts are likely to plague them as they move into these countries and want to get ahead of that,” explained Jochnick. “I’ve worked with them in the past to move companies to recognize that there is an issue there, that there is a problem that threatens their bottom line, and then move them to make commitments to land rights.” Landesa’s expertise is valuable to companies that need assistance figuring out how to interact with foreign governments and communities. “There’s a real opportunity to work with some of those companies both in terms of their own businesses and in trying to push for greater formalization of land rights and recognitions of the land rights of traditional holders,” said Jochnick.

When asked about his goals for Landesa, Jochnick explained he hopes to expand the organization’s global reach beyond the current focus on India, Africa and China. Jochnick and his team are ready to capitalize on the momentum in the development community and bring together those who have acknowledged the need for a commitment to protecting land rights. “Moving these commitments from principals and standards into actual practice requires a unified and global push, and Landesa wants to be part of that effort,” said Jochnick. By pursuing networks between NGOs, companies, governments and communities, Jochnick is readying Landesa to be a catalyst for global work on land rights and an international leader in the development community.

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