BlogField Focus Blog

Oct 18 2016

Securing Rural Land Rights to Achieve Sustainable Cities

This blog was originally published by Place.

By Beth Roberts

The final draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) will be adopted in Quito next week. While land rights, including a special focus on women’s land rights, are given significant mention in the NUA, the centrality of land rights to the success of many of the NUA’s other commitments is not made clear.

Landlessness and weak land rights are root causes of poverty, conflict, inequality, and environmental degradation. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas where land is the single most important resource and asset.

Land use is a key driver of urban and rural development. If equitable access to and use of land is well managed in a country, a key condition for sustainable development has been met.

Land rights are central to successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda

The NUA makes commitments to technical endeavors that are supported by and support strong rural land tenure, including transportation, infrastructure, and planning to span the urban-rural continuum (Paragraphs 50, 96). These commitments in turn are integrally related to other commitments that are bolstered by secure tenure, including increased food security (Paragraphs 13(a), 14(a), 67, 68, 88, 123), connecting local value chains to global markets (Paragraph 95), and facilitating conservation (Paragraph 71). Securing land tenure across the urban-rural continuum will be crucial to the coordinated achievement of these commitments.

The NUA also commits to eradicating poverty (Paragraphs 14(a), 25) and to aiding climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts (Paragraphs 14(c), 26). Without strong commitments to ensuring secure land rights for both women and men, these central NUA commitments risk disjointed and ineffectual implementation.

Finally, while the NUA does explicitly reference international frameworks, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (and the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the NUA draft does not include a reference to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure, the most widely-recognized international guidance for states on creating and maintaining a comprehensive and equitable land governance system.

Urban sustainability depends on addressing rural poverty

There is a recursive loop between rural and urban well-being which can be seen in the relationship between poverty alleviation and comprehensive land tenure security. Food security in urban centers depends on the productivity of rural agriculture, and on rural female and male farmers’ access to markets. Secure land rights brings improvements in rural agriculture, food security, gender equity, and rural-urban linkages.

Smallholder farmers provide up to 80% of the food consumed in developing countries. Protecting smallholders’ land rights significantly contributes to boosting food security in rural and urban regions and reducing poverty.

When provided with secure rights to land, women and men have the security and opportunity to invest more in their land, grow more, and earn more. Secure land rights can help:

Strengthening rural land tenure and infrastructure will also increase incomes in rural areas, mitigating rural-to-urban migration.

Landesa and other organizations successfully advocated for a land indicator to be included in the SDGs. Land appears in the targets for Goal 1 (Ending Poverty), and  Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), and Goal 5 (Gender Equality). In addition, Indicator 1.4.2 will measure the proportion of the population with secure tenure rights, which implicates the commitments in the NUA to secure tenure across the urban-rural continuum. The NUA explicitly commits to promoting equitable security of tenure at all appropriate levels of government, with a particular focus on secure tenure for women (Paragraph 35; see also Paragraph 14(b).

“We commit to promote, at the appropriate level of government, including sub-national and local government, increased security of tenure for all, recognizing the plurality of tenure types, and to develop fit-for-purpose, and age-, gender-, and environment-responsive solutions within the continuum of land and property rights, with particular attention to security of land tenure for women as key to their empowerment, including through effective administrative systems.” (Paragraph 35)

This provision in the NUA recognizes that secure land tenure, especially for women, provides far-reaching benefits for entire communities. Land is the basis for fundamental and internationally recognized human rights with strong links to poverty eradication, including food, health, and education.

Strong land rights for women can have positive impacts on climate change

Paragraph 26 states, “We commit to urban and rural development that is people-centered, protects the planet, and is age- and gender-responsive. . .” When Member States provide secure land tenure for women, there are numerous benefits to society and to the environment. Women constitute the bulk of poor people and food growers globally and often have additional resource tasks like procuring fuel and drinking water. This means that they bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

Women with strong land rights can aid adaptation and mitigation efforts, as they can be more likely to achieve increased crop yields, conserve soil, plant more trees, improve large-scale mitigation efforts, and recover from natural disasters. The Paris Agreement final draft does not reference land, though the Women and Gender Constituency of the UNFCC did advocate specifically for the inclusion of women’s land tenure. Member States should incorporate the SDGs strong references to women’s land rights and climate change in their efforts to implement the Paris Agreement.

Examples from Our Work: Myanmar and Ghana

Myanmar’s population is about 70% rural. The vast majority of these families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods—again, a connection to food security. We have heard anecdotally that young people  moving from rural to urban areas in Myanmar, and leaving agriculture behind,  do so at least in part because of insecure land rights. Moving to the city in search of a better life is an inevitable and reasonable decision for many Myanmar youth.  Today, however, often these youth do not make the move as a choice between farming or an urban life.  Rather, they act out of desperation:  landlessness and extreme poverty, or flight to the city.

The economic capital of Yangon in Myanmar is at a turning point after five years of rapid urbanization: landlessness and smallholder insecurity, if left unchecked, likely will accelerate urbanization and increase the ranks of informal settlements around Yangon. The new Myanmar government believes these migrants should be given a choice, rather than be forced to leave their rural communities due to desperation.  With an intensive national program of land return to those who have lost farms to confiscations, land allocation to landless families who never had any land to lose, agricultural support to current and new smallholders, and strengthening customary land rights, the new government is working to make migration to cities a choice, and one that can happen sustainably.

Member states can leverage stronger land rights to mitigate both the push factors of migration by reducing rural poverty and vulnerability to climate change, and the pull factors by increasing rural incomes.

In Ghana, we encounter the issue of peri-urbanization in our current work where real estate development in peri-urban areas poses a threat to food security because the land sold is often prime agricultural land.

This kind of development is also an opportunity for Member States to require investors to invest in or contribute to infrastructure in the areas they are developing, in line with SDG target 2.a — increase investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, and to ensure that corporate commitments to communities are enforced.

Our work in Ghana and Myanmar illustrates the complexity of the links between rural land tenure and sustainable cities, and the need for strong advocacy and strategic interventions along the urban-rural continuum.

An improved rural-urban continuum has great potential to generate widespread sustainable development, by bolstering rural livelihoods, managing urban growth, and facilitating a mutually-beneficial transfer of goods and services to foster sustainable cities.

Beth Roberts is an Attorney and Land Tenure Specialist at Landesa.

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