Michael Brüntrup works as a senior researcher at the German Development Institute in Bonn, Germany.


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Land rights form the base of land management in the world and pave the way to a sustainable or unsustainable land use. In the context of the World Bank’s land and poverty conference, which took place in March 2019, our author depicts the evolution of land governance issues in the last two decades and their impacts on small-scale farmers and beyond.

The World Bank celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Land and Poverty conference in Washington D.C./USA from 25 to 29 March 2019. When the series started 20 years ago, the land issue was not high on the international agenda. The focus at that time was on securing land rights for smallholder farmers, obtaining credit for agricultural growth, increasing income, lowering poverty and economic resilience. It was a time when agricultural prices were as low as interest in farmland and in other agricultural and food issues, in developing and developed countries, including in development assistance.

Then came the global food price crisis in 2007/2008, soon after the financial crisis. Both crises triggered a renewed global interest in land on all continents, for production and for speculation. Many countries experienced rushes to land, and the phenomenon of land grabbing made it to the headlines in the media across the world. More generally, discussions restarted about the appropriate size of agricultural units, particularly smallholders versus large holdings. It became clear that better land governance was needed to protect the smallholder farmers and other poor people using land-based natural resources against loss of access to these resources, but also to improve and clarify conditions for land acquisitions by investors as well as farmers who want to grow. The declaration of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (known as the VGGT) by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2012 was a landmark in that regard.

However, this was not the end of the “land story”. At least six more phenomena add to an increasing focus on land, and this year’s lead theme at the World Bank’s Land and Poverty conference, ‘Catalyzing Innovation’, hints to another cross-cutting topic that will influence land governance profoundly.

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