Land and associated property is households’ main asset virtually everywhere.
Photo: Jörg Böthling


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Land and associated property is a major source of individuals’ identity and livelihood. The way in which land rights are assigned and can be used is a key determinant of equality of opportunity, environmental sustainability, social/economic transformation, and the ease and extent of public service provision. This article discusses why land rights are important but often only weakly protected and describes how recent technological developments make public efforts to secure such rights much easier – with tangible impacts for rural development.

Public efforts to secure and clearly define rights to land will have large benefits, especially for traditionally disadvantaged groups, via a range of channels (Fenske, 2011; Lawry et al., 2016). Secure tenure provides incentives for land-attached investments to enhance productivity of land use and discourage environmentally unsustainable practices (e.g. soil mining) that generate negative externalities. While customary land tenure systems offer high security if population density is low (Bruce and Migot-Adholla, 1994), a host of factors including population growth (Guirkinger and Platteau, 2014), urban expansion (Adam, 2014), outside investment (Deininger and Byerlee, 2011), or speculation (Sitko and Jayne, 2014) can undermine tenure security, especially for marginal groups, and create a threat of land loss. For example, in Malawi, 22 per cent of small farmers are afraid that their land will be taken away from them. For women but not for men, this perception is associated with a 10 per cent reduction in output (Deininger and Xia, 2016).

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