Securing Land Rights for the Poor Now Reaping Rewards

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The hotly debated issue of land rights for the poor has never been more relevant. There is mounting evidence that access to land rights can catapult the poor out of poverty and spur growth for the economy. Experience in India and China is now showing the economic power unleashed when the poor gain full legal rights over their land. But it can be a thornier issue in Africa, where much land is still held under customary law, with people either holding it through their clan or tribe, or being considered as owners of where they live, without formal documents. Many countries are now adapting their laws to switch to a system of formal titles, but the process is very uneven and some question whether western-style property titles are appropriate in an African context.

While there are many schemes to alleviate or eliminate poverty through micro-credit, grants or aid, some believe the secret is in creating a sound framework of property rights, giving poor people important collateral to raise money against the value of the land on which they live. The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has calculated that the total value of informal urban dwellings and rural land owned under customary law is around three times greater than Africa’s entire gross domestic product and 100 times greater than its foreign direct investment.

But the urgency of this problem can be seen in the numbers of rural poor – many of whom will migrate to the world’s fast-growing cities. In China there are 800 million, in India the rural poor number 270 million and 70 percent of Africa’s 888 million (2005,UN) are rural poor.

The Rural Development Institute (, an NGO based in Seattle, Washington, USA – and with offices and projects in India, China, Indonesia, Russia, Africa – uses lawyers to advocate and fight for land rights for the rural poor. To date, RDI has helped provide land rights to more than 100 million poor families worldwide. Their approach is called micro-owning whereby the poor are helped to acquire land assets. These are often small plots of land – sometimes 1/10th acre – that can provide the nutritional needs for a family and help them on the road to the virtuous cycle of long-term, sustainable and generational poverty alleviation.

“Micro-ownership transforms the lives of the rural poor,” according to Radha Friedman, Associate Director, Development and Communication, just back from visiting RDI’s Indian projects. “Outside Bangalore in the state of Karnataka one woman who was landless worked two shifts a day in the hot sun. She was barely able to feed her children. She was making 8 to 10 rupees a day – when a bottle of water costs 10 rupees. We helped her secure a plot of land to grow jasmine flowers which she sells in the market. She now makes between 85 to 200 rupees a day. She can eat three times a day and her kids can afford to go to school. She said she had not thought about how far she had come, but it clearly showed she had such pride in what she had achieved. A number of Indian states have adopted this program, enabling people to purchase micro-gardens and micro-plots of land. It has been such a success that other Indian states are now showing interest.”

“All of this didn’t happen overnight,” said Lincoln Miller, Chief Operations Officer at RDI. “We conducted lots of research and surveyed the rural poor. We analyzed how the laws were affecting them. It took a long time to change government attitudes. We hopefully find a voice in the government who will listen to us. They need to recognize that land rights are one of the best routes out of poverty. In Africa we are primarily working in Burundi, Rwanda and Angola. In addition to working with government to change national policy and laws, we also conduct awareness-raising and education at the grassroots level, especially targeting women. Land rights are a political issue. The majority of the world’s poor is rural. By giving them land rights this process can help mitigate migration to the city.”

The benefits of owning land include improved family status, pride and hope, reduced hunger and improved family nutrition from crops produced on land , increased income from sale of excess production, improved rural health, including reduction in infant mortality and reduction in death from disease or infection due to malnutrition, labor-intensive and productivity-enhancing, investments in land motivated by secure land rights, increased family savings as a result of ability to invest in land improvements, ability of poor to benefit from any market increases in land values, enhanced capacity to conduct micro-enterprise activities, empowerment of women, and decreased pressure to migrate to already crowded urban areas.

However in South Africa, land rights have been further complicated by the legacy of apartheid. In 1994, 80 percent of farmland was in white hands. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) want to see 30 percent of that transferred to black ownership by 2015. Blacks are also able to claim ownership for land as long as they live on it.

The strong reaction against past experiments in collectivizing land can be understood in the experience of Zambia. Under President Kenneth Kaunda, everything was nationalized, from copper mines to corner shops. Average annual incomes almost halved in 40 years despite the country receiving more aid per head of population than virtually any other in the world.

Any organizations or individuals seeking land rights need only to contact the RDI by email to get the legal ball rolling.


  • The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions tracks forcible evictions from land. In its latest global survey of forced evictions from 2003-2006 reveals that nearly 2 million people in Africa and over 2.1 million people in Asia and the Pacific have been forcibly evicted from their homes since 2003.
  • Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the Shack/Slum Dwellers International targets the plight of people living in semi-urban and urban areas:
  • The Cities Alliance: Cities without Slums links together a global coalition of cities and their development partners committed to scaling up successful approaches to poverty reduction:
  • Rural Development Institute: Email: Website:

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