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Land rights

Are land rights human rights?

The answer is yes. A new program called Place from the Thomson Reuters Foundation shines the spotlight on the importance of land and property rights around the world.

Paola Totaro
Paola Totaro is an award winning journalist and founding editor of Place, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s innovative platform to boost coverage of land and property rights, one of the most under-reported issues worldwide. Italian born, raised in Australia, Paola is the immediate past President of the Foreign Press Association in London.

To learn more, we spoke with Paola Totaro, founding editor of Place.

Thisisplace.org wants to start a global conversation about land and property rights as human rights. Why are land and property rights something we – as global citizens – should be thinking about?

Paola: It’s not widely known that around 2.5 billion people around the world live, work and depend on indigenous and community lands. They are effectively guardians of about half the world’s land – and yet they have ownership rights to less than a fifth of the total.

If you think about it, land and property rights protect the house you live in, the roads you use, the water you drink, the garden you planted. But imagine if your birth was not recorded? Do you exist at all? And if your property or land was never registered – or the country you live in has no way of formalizing ownership – how do you prove it is yours? What rights do you have if the bulldozers come to take your house from you?

Security of tenure – land rights – are needed for a host of reasons, from fighting poverty and hunger and protecting communities from the loss of their livelihoods through to promoting gender equality. In many countries for example, from India through to many countries in Africa, women are still unable to inherit land and are thrown out of their homes if they are widowed.

Land rights help indigenous communities manage their own lands and forests – to help mitigate climate change – and reduce conflict in areas where land is at a premium or under pressure of development. Land rights are important to keeping peace.

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Land and property rights are an especially important topic in Africa, where approximately 90 percent of the land is undocumented. What challenges does this present for the people living in these areas, governments, and businesses?

Paola: The reality is that undocumented land is a problem in both African cities and in rural areas. Many countries are still using land administration systems they inherited from colonial times and kept after independence. They are still using old surveys, mapping and registration systems.

In addition, while many African countries have introduced legislation to allow land ownership claims by communities and indigenous peoples dependent on ancestral forests or farmland for their livelihood, many simply do not have the resources to embark on the often lengthy process. Customary laws are also an impediment: the majority of Africa’s small farmers are women– around 70 per cent according to the World Bank – and they are vulnerable because patriarchal tribal traditions stop them from being allowed to own land or to inherit from their fathers or husbands. This leaves them especially vulnerable, blights the lives of their children and continues the cycle of inter generational poverty.

Secure land rights can make a huge difference to the world’s poorest families. They can increase agricultural production and annual family incomes and families with security have been shown to double their investment in their property. Education rates rise with security as does productive work time – while teen pregnancies and domestic violence has been shown to drop.

There are so many reasons why this is a topic to follow – how can I get involved?

Paola: Poverty, hunger, conflict, women’s equality, conflict – all these issues share a common point: land and land ownership.

For the poor in both cities and rural areas, land can be the most important – and only – asset. Without security, people are less likely to invest in their land, become vulnerable to being forcibly removed and are less likely to be involved and active advocating in their communities.

Place wants to bring the stories of people faced with these issues to the global conversation, to encourage those in developing countries to understand how important land security is and to give voice to those living the struggle for land rights. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, share our stories and videos, encourage your friends and children to learn and talk about this little known issue. Land rights are human rights.


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Find comprehensive reporting about land and property rights at thisisplace.org

Learn about more under-reported stories by exploring the Thomson Reuters Foundation 

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