Q&A with Tim Hanstad of Landesa

Land Rights for the Poor
Wed, 02/09/2011

Tim Hanstad is president and CEO of Landesa, an international nonprofit that works to secure property rights for the world’s poorest people. Hanstad will be a panelist at ICRW’s Passports to Progress event on March 8, International Women’s Day. He and three other social pioneers will discuss innovative ideas that have the potential to change the lives of women and girls in developing countries.


We asked Hanstad a few questions via e-mail about land rights and innovation in anticipation of our March 8 event, which kicks off ICRW’s 35th anniversary discussion series. Here are his responses:

ICRW: How is owning land a breakthrough innovation for women?

TH: Land is one of the most basic and vital assets for the rural poor. It provides a basis for shelter, food production, income, access to credit and investment, and is often the basis for entry into social and economic networks. Yet it is estimated that women own only a small fraction of land in developing countries (typically less than 5%), despite the fact that women often produce a majority of the food in the developing world.  

Secure land rights can provide women and girls with a key asset to become more effective change-makers. When women and girls have secure legal rights to land, research suggests good things happen: agricultural productivity improves, women’s bargaining power in the household increases, more household income is directed to children’s education and nutrition, domestic violence goes down, women have an increased ability to prevent HIV and AIDS infection and women are less dependent on the men in their lives.   

Aside from economic benefits, land and property rights can empower women and girls to participate more effectively in their communities and in the larger civil and political aspects of society. Women with property rights are more likely to be active members of their communities, and community institutions themselves are more likely to be responsive to the needs of women and girls as a result.

ICRW: Landesa often focuses on providing micro-land ownership for landless families as a way to lift them out of poverty. Can you tell us briefly how this works and why Landesa believes this is a viable approach, particularly for women?

TH: Micro-plots of land – and especially homestead plots – have played a critical food security and livelihood role in many settings around the world, from Russia to Indonesia to South Asia. We have focused most intensely on the micro-land ownership concept in India, where it holds great promise for the at least 15 million rural landless families. Previous attempts in India to promote land to the landless through multi-acre were not particularly successful; there just wasn’t enough land practically available to satisfy the bulk of the landless families. So Landesa applied the “small is beautiful” approach, and began experimenting with “micro-plots.”

We discovered that with a micro-plot as small as one-tenth of an acre, a landless family can grow nearly all their fruits and vegetables and still have space for livestock or a micro-enterprise. Micro-plots are developed with what is typically the family’s most abundant resource — their own labor. Secure rights to even a small area of land boosts family income, enhances family nutrition, provides physical security, serves as a vehicle for generating wealth and secures the family’s status within the community. Additionally, Landesa is working with state governments to ensure that women’s names are on the titles to these micro-plots, and in West Bengal, we are now attempting to ensure that daughters (as well as sons) are listed as co-inheritors.

As the amount of land needed is relatively small, micro-land ownership is a viable solution for India’s millions of rural poor to make significant improvements to their nutrition, incomes and status, contributing to self-sufficiency. Like the simple idea that catalyzed the global “micro-lending” movement, “micro-land owning” has the potential to prompt a fundamental shift in thinking about how to get land into the hands of the world’s poorest — particularly women. 

ICRW: What factors should the private sector consider if it is interested in investing in the development of other countries’ agriculture?

TH: First, investments in agriculture will always impact women differently than men. This is particularly important given the prominent (and typically under-recognized) role that women play in agricultural production and other parts of the agricultural value chain. Private investors should always understand the role of women in agriculture and the differential impact the investment will have on women.

Second, private sector actors should always gain a clear understanding of the land tenure realities related to their investments. If the investment involves accessing “new” land for production, it is highly unlikely that the land is presently “unused” and conversely highly likely that the new use of this land will displace existing livelihoods and customary (if not formal) land rights. This is not just about corporate social responsibility, but also about protecting the investor against the risk of social unrest. If the investment involves existing production, the nature of the land tenure (who holds the rights and what are the specific elements of those rights) greatly impacts the farmers’ incentive frameworks and their willingness and ability to make productivity enhancing improvements.  

Third, if women don’t have secure rights to the land they farm, they are likely to lose the land when it becomes valuable or is improved. 

ICRW: As part of ICRW’s 35th anniversary celebration, you will participate in a March 8 discussion on innovations that have the potential to change the lives of women in developing countries. What is one innovation you think the private and public sectors need to pay more attention to within your field of expertise, and why?

TH: Research on the benefits of women gaining secure rights to land and property suggests positive results: an increase in women’s participation in household decision-making, an increase in net household income, a reduction in domestic violence, an increased ability to prevent being infected by HIV and increased expenditures on food and education for children.

Understanding the complexity surrounding women’s land rights is critical to ensuring that those rights are protected and improved. Because laws, customs and norms can change from country to country, and even vary between regions and ethnic groups within countries, the private and public sector need to pay more attention to whom within the household have rights to land and who has control over the benefits of the land. Supporting women’s rights to and control over the land they farm will have a positive effect on women, their families, and their communities.

And, while the goal of providing women with legal rights to land is challenging, it can be done. We now have abundant experience across the globe with innovative approaches to changing the legal framework, making progress against the stubborn barriers of custom, and empowering women and girls with enhanced legal rights to land. 

1 Comments

land rights for women

Thanks for this material. I will be taking the subject further on my own blog over the next days. http://tinyurl.com/3ycb4gx The redistribution of land is a vital part of the gospel of Jesus and its political implications, not just in the so called third and fourth worlds but also in the West. Here in Europe the inequalities of land ownership are outrageous, but have been this way for so long that the status quo is hard to disturb. Alastair McIntosh is doing important work on this that is worth checking out. www.alastairmcintosh.com

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