The Current State of Land Tenure – My experience from the 44th CFS

By Sebastian Schweiger
High-level Event to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the VGGT @Schweiger 2017
In order to learn from the Committee on World food Security (CFS) and side events, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Land Tenure team sent me to participate at the 44th session of CFS.

I am a political science bachelor student from the French university 'Sciences Po' doing a six month internship in the IFAD headquarters in Rome. Opportunities like the participation at the CFS represent the extraordinary chance the Land Tenure Team gave me to learn from development and land experts from within their environment. My objective for the CFS was to attend sessions touching land tenure issues to learn and observe how this topic is tackled in this kind of international fora, and to understand the international trends and public debates around the issue.

In his intervention during CFS, Justus Levi Mwololo from the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum struck me as the only participant to analyse the causes of modern day land distribution from a historical point of view: he claimed that foreign post-colonial control over land was consolidated through big corporations and is consequently the root cause for current struggles in Africa. In the context of the 44th CFS, his intervention was rather unique: while most participants focused on current hurdles, the potential of existing mechanisms and new innovative approaches, Mr Levi Mwololo elevated the discussion to an historically-grounded analysis of current dynamics.

Current challenges

The side event Global Hearing of the Landless, organized by the CSM Constituency of the Landless, explored solutions on how to effectively secure and institutionalize the Land Rights of the Landless Poor. Rhoda Guete, Coordinator of the CSM Landless Constituency from the Asian Peasant Coalition, expressed her grave concern regarding what she called, "imperialism enforced by expropriation", exemplified by the hundreds of thousands of hectares in Malaysia owned by multinational enterprises. She claimed that opponents to land acquisitions often fear violence, such as during the construction of an airport in West Java, Indonesia, where an airport was built by the state and land activists' rights were supposedly violated. This side-event came to the shared conclusion that landless people around the globe are particularly vulnerable to marginalisation and must, consequently, be given special attention.

The case in Java is closely connected to the numbers presented by Jesse Coleman from the Columbia Center on Sustainable Development (CCSD) during the event Impact of Increasing Capital Flows that focused on capital flows in sub-Saharan Africa. According to her, in many countries domestic investments in land (private and public) outscore foreign investments significantly. This goes hand in hand with Milu Muyansa's intervention during that event. He claimed that a large portion of farms in Africa are owned by urban males that have a public service occupation and own multiple parcels of land. He continued to say that an often neglected and little understood phenomenon in land ownership is land accumulation on a national level. For the same reason Salete Carollo pointed out that in her home country, Brazil, 1 per cent of the population owns 40 per cent of the land. Whether it is domestic elites or foreign corporations who own large amounts of land, it depends on each region's specific context. The meeting's panellists, from the CCSD, the Cities Alliance, Cultivating new Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), the Michigan State University, and IFAD (IFAD Lead Technical Specialist on Land Tenure, Harold Liversage) identified the lack of knowledge on the topic as a core issue. There is a long way to go before the impact, dimension and origin of land-based investments can be fully assessed, but the principles found in the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) can provide a base to tackle many of the problems rising from land struggles. The same conclusion was found in the meeting organized by United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) Applying the VGGT in agribusiness investment projects which brought together donors, private sector and civil society.

Impact of Increasing Capital Flows CFS Side Event @Schweiger 2017
According to William Cobett, panellist from the Cities Alliance in the Impact of Increasing Capital Flows event, described how weak urban land tenure governance can also enhance displacement and conflict through the assignment of dangerous lands for housing. Such lands are often used by mostly poor citizens that are unaware of potential dangers like floods or landslides.

As the ambassador of Sudan, Amira Gormass, stated during the Global Hearing of the Landless, the observed famines and struggles over land take place while global food production is already sufficient to feed the entire world population; she sees landlessness as an underlying issue for people suffering from malnutrition in a world of mass production. In order to counter this paradox, all stakeholders should be included in transparent land redistributions.

The solutions are there

On the side-lines of the events, during personal talks, delegates from development agencies, research institutes and ministries ensured me that in many countries facing land struggles the legal side of land tenure is sufficiently developed. William Cobett from the Cities Alliance explained during his passionate speech that the challenges around what he referred to as "land grabs" and involuntary displacements of people are rather a result of a mismatch between jurisdiction and governments, meaning that sometimes state employees are not aware of legal boundaries or knowingly choose not to implement existing laws.

As a political science student, it was interesting for me to see that seemingly abstract concepts like fairness, inclusion and transparency already have a ground on which their realization can be based: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the VGGT. These goals and guidelines were omnipresent throughout the entire CFS, as they put principles into words that have the prospect of significantly improving the state of the world and to counter rising poverty and inequality.

With this background one could ask why we are still analysing struggles if the guidelines just wait for implementation. However, as the representative of DFID explained there are challenges related to political commitments, but also lack of resources and capacities.

On this subject, the Thematic Session Land and Conflict for the 5th anniversary of the VGGT treated the changing role of the different stakeholders in the implementation of the VGGT in contexts affected by conflict. In the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, Oumar Sylla, Unit Leader of the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) which is a key partner of IFAD (see past blogs), identified elite grabs as a trigger for communities to mistrust one another and the central government. According to the panellist, corruption and individual profit are common amongst elites that are involved Congo's politics. The representative from UNHABITAT identified the VGGT as an effective tool to resituate the confidence between communities, to help create land conflict resolution centres, to guide the private sector towards job creation, to create data on land and secondary rights and to reconstruct the dialogue between civil society and the government. The idea of using sustainable land governance as a mean for peace reconstruction has already proven its potential in Latin America, where in Colombia the state uses the VGGT to build up the Government's capacity to administer the land previously occupied by rebels fairly – a similar story was shared about Guatemala during the same Land and Conflict thematic session. The VGGT can also be the very foundation of future peace consolidation processes in the Arab region, as it was agreed upon during the thematic session. This event concluded with consent of all panellists that land is a trigger in most conflicts and must therefore be part of conflict resolution.

For Rhoda Guete it is clear: the implementation of fair land tenure requires political commitment. She brought up the great responsibility the international community and civil society have in this process, by encouraging the observance of the VGGT before conflict erupts. Also Jamal Al-Taleh from the Land Research Centre in Palestine focused in his intervention on the international dimension. The researcher called upon the international community to stop ignoring of the violation of land rights and the rights of landless people. He even called for the set-up of an international database on landlessness, the creation of Voluntary Guidelines and an international conference for the landless.

GLTN – IFAD Side event on Tenure Security Learning Initiative @Schweiger 2017
On the side-lines of the CFS, IFAD presented its engagement in a workshop on the lessons learned in the implementation of the Land and Natural Resources Learning Initiative for Eastern and Southern Africa (TSLI-ESA). TSLI-ESA is a joint IFAD and GLTN initiative aimed at improving knowledge management and capacity development of the staff and partners of IFAD supported projects for strengthening security of tenure in Eastern and Southern Africa region. This workshop presented experiences from four countries that represent the lengthy but successful path projects can take to contribute to improve land tenure challenges.

The achievement of the SDGs and the implementation of the VGGT require precise monitoring. In the Monitoring of the VGGT from a Land Governance Perspective thematic session on the potential contribution of existing initiatives, including land governance monitoring, Everlyne Nairesiae from the Global Land Indicators Initiative (GLII) identified two crucial purposes for monitoring of indicators: the comparability between countries around the world and the national application of the principles and goals. This could help to hold governments responsible for the developments in their countries and it can encourage more targeted cooperation. Therefore, monitoring of SDGs and VGGT can play an indirect role in securing gender equality, peace consolidation, sustainable land use, etc.

Monitoring of indicators is consequently one of the main priorities for the Global Donor Working Group (GDWGL) – a group of more than twenty major donor institutions in the field of development cooperation for land tenure (see blog on GDWGL). During the design of the GDWGL Road Map for 2017-2020 in the context of the 44th CFS, the GDWGL has reinforced one of the main goals from the annual plan for 2017: the improvement of the measurability of the main SDG land tenure indicator (1.4.2) and the reclassification of the indicator by 2019 with the strongest possible classification for measurability (Tier I) by the Inter-agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs). The IAEG-SDGs is the institution that classifies the SDG indicators into three tiers on the basis of their level of methodological development and the availability of data at the global level. Furthermore, the GDWGL emphasised throughout the GDWGL Road Map for 2017-2020 and the 10th Physical Meeting the importance of proving the impact of land tenure. The land community faces the difficulty of providing evidence for the causal effects of changes in land tenure. Hence, different institutions support research programmes to underline a theory that shows also the impacts of land tenure and that can be used as a tool in land tenure, the Theory of Change.

GDWGL 10th Physical Meeting @Schweiger 2017
A discussion on Land Tenure Guidelines in global politics

It becomes clear that the base for improved land tenure governance is set with the support of global agendas and international commitments. In order to get governments and other stakeholders to implement principles of fairness, many experts suggest alternative approaches that would mean a rethinking of access to land in world politics.

Jamal Al-Taleh, for example, linked rights to land to human rights. According to the Palestinian researcher, Human Rights cannot be guaranteed without rights to land. Jes Weigelt from GLII also sees a similarity in the two rights: the expert claimed during the Monitoring of the VGGT from a Land Governance Perspective thematic session that the VGGT, and therefore their principles of secure and equal rights to land, have an independence from national agendas and are universally recognized as important, just like Human Rights .

The connection of the VGGT and their principles to Human Rights, however, is not commonly agreed upon. This became evident during the discussion of the Monitoring of the VGGT from a Land Governance Perspective thematic session, when participants emphasized the voluntary nature of the VGGT, which makes the VGGT and their principles distinguishable to Human Rights. This discussion illustrates a polarization between binding and voluntary principles that exists throughout all fields of international policy (e.g. climate change politics). The land community, therefore, touches upon the sensitive grounds of sovereignty and national self-determination.


Today, the challenges surrounding land governance are more intensive than ever as humanity faces climate change, increasing population pressure, expanding economies and weak governance. As stated in the introduction, future land tenure trends will be shaped by decisions taken today. Since land tenure influences a wide range of topics – from employment to food security and climate change – it is crucial for all stakeholders to commit to sustainable policies. The SDGs stand at the beginning of a global thinking that will impact lives for decades to come; and land governance is one of the indispensable thematic areas of the SDGs. By connecting long-term political orientation to the current reality on the ground, the 44th CFS offered a unique perspective on future challenges.