Changing the World One Property Right at a Time — A USAID podcast

Changing the World One Property Right at a Time — A USAID podcast


You’re listening to a podcast by the U.S.
Agency for International Development. I’m Kelly Ramundo Part 1: Grabbing for Land Narrator>>Imagine you’re a farmer in Ethiopia
or in Mozambique. You’ve been living and working on a small plot of land your entire
life, but you don’t really own it. At least not in the eyes of your government. So if
it’s not really your land, you may fear it being taken away from you. And it’s happened,
a lot, over the past few years as governments sold off millions of hectares to the highest
bidders. There’s a group of people, nestled in basement
offices of the United States Agency for International Development, trying to change this. These
experts say the seemingly simple act of helping landowners establish clear rights to their
property – called Land Tenure – can have profound consequences.
And not just for smallholder farmers. But on the entire economies of developing countries.
And for the international companies looking to invest in agriculture, a booming business
these days, and a necessary one. Gregory Myers is USAID’s division chief
for land tenure and property rights, and he recently helped broker the international adoption
of a document called the Voluntary Guidelines for Land Tenure, a kind of best practices
for resource governance. Meyers says guidelines aim to ensure that
local people with customary rights to the land are less likely to be displaced and more
likely to work with investors. To understand why the guidelines were the
needed, Meyers says we’ve got to go back to the global financial crisis of 2007 and
2008. Myers>>In those years, when the market – the
equity markets were bottoming and people were essentially looking for new investment opportunities,
a lot of businesses around the world – private companies, sovereign wealth funds, et cetera
– started to look for investments in hard assets, which would be land or agriculture
and began to speculate, in 2007 and 2008, by trying to acquire, either through leases
or by purchasing large tracts of land around the world, which has now become known as a
land grab. Narrator>>So, in 2007, 2008, companies start
to move around the world looking to acquire land. most of it in Africa. But that’s not
all that was happening. Myers>>Parallel to this, there is the global
crunch around the food crisis and price speculation for food commodities. So it becomes almost
a vicious circle with some countries looking for access to land and trying to acquire access
to that land to meet their own food security needs. And that starts to drive up the price
of land, which means that more speculators want to come in and try to acquire access
to land And this is not a new phenomenon; it’s a
phenomenon that’s been going on since time immemorial. But the size, the scale and the
quickness with which all this took place was extraordinary. Narrator>>In 2010, the World Bank released
its own study of the land-grab issue. That study estimated that countries, sovereign
wealth funds, or companies had gobbled up 50 million hectares of land.
Many NGOs say that the World Bank estimate is low, and that five times as much land may
have been bought or leased – 250 million hectares. Myers says is impossible to know
much land was taken. What we do know is that many people were displaced in the process.
But how could this happen? Myers>>Because in most of these countries
where these transactions have taken place, there are very weak or what we would even
call dysfunctional property rights systems and, unfortunately in many of these countries,
the state has articulated control or ownership over the land when in fact the state really
doesn’t own the land; actually the people who are on the land own the land. But the
state doesn’t – in many of these countries, doesn’t recognize that ownership. Narrator>>Myers says that some were looking
to make a profit with no regard for who owned the land. But other investors came to deals
with good intentions. And then found themselves in a bind. Myers>>Because they go to a country like
Ethiopia or Tanzania or Madagascar or Mozambique or Ghana, and they say, we would like to invest
in agriculture and we would like to lease land, et cetera. And the government of that
country says, yes, we own the land, and here’s free land that you can invest in. They may
not realize that they in fact are actually in a – in a – in a process of dispossessing
people from their land rights. Narrator>>But that’s not the only issue
at play. We live on a hungry planet. Between 800 million and a billion people go to bed
hungry every night. Clearly, he says we have to do something to promote agriculture.
But that means there has to be investment in agriculture. So, while these investments
in farmland – whether they’re speculative or good investments or not, those investments
are, to a certain extent, still very important, because the public sector doesn’t have the
money that it’s going to require to be able to improve agricultural productivity to meet
the needs of – the food security needs of the future. Narrator>>So, if you need the private sector
to tackle the growing food needs of a growing population, the question becomes: do you bring
responsible private sector investment into this equation? Myers>>The only way that’s going to happen
sustainably and in a way that’s not going to lead to a lot of violence or conflict is
that we’re going to have to address the issue of property rights.
So what we would do is, we would first try to find a way to secure the rights of the
resources that people in these countries have, and then to find a way to link them to these
private sector investors in ways that would be very profitable for those small holders. Narrator>>That strategy is at the heart of
the U.S. Government’s flagship food security program, called Feed the Future: Myers>>On one hand encouraging private sector
and on the other hand supporting small-holder farmers. So while this issue around land-grabbing
is highly controversial, it could also potentially be highly transformative, depending on the
way in which it happens. Narrator>>Part 2. The Guidelines So the world needs agricultural investment
to feed itself. And people have a right to their land.
This, says Meyers, is where the voluntary guidelines come in to play. The guidelines
were created by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization after two years of negotiations
that started in 2008. They were written with input from civil society, farmers groups,
the private sector and world governments. They were adopted in May by the U.N. Committee
on World Food Security and the final product was hailed as a major milestone because land
rights can be a highly charged and sensitive issue. So with the new guidelines in place,
what comes next? Myers>>That’s really the – that’s really
the most important question. The new frontier for us is really finding ways to implement
the guidelines. Narrator>>As one example, the G-8, the group
of 8 major industrialized nations, just launched something called the New Alliance For Food
Security and Nutrition — an effort to mobilize billions of dollars in private-sector investment
in African agriculture. Land Tenure will a part of that. Myers>>There are six countries that we will
focus on. And very quickly those countries could start the process of adopting. And the
entry point for those countries would be to look at their policies and laws for land tenure
and property rights; to look at modifying those laws to, one, recognize the rights that
exist on the ground; and two, to look at their investment laws so that they can encourage
private-sector investment in agriculture, but in a – in ways in which are most beneficial
for small-holder producers, but at the same time which don’t undermine the private-sector
investment. Narrator>>Myers thinks the voluntary guidelines
will have clear benefits for three parties: land owners, companies, and countries. A win-win-win,
he says. Small farmers could benefit from the huge influxes of private sector investment
in agriculture. They could organize, become shareholders, reap the benefits of the economic
growth taking place in Africa for the first time.
Companies would get to be good corporate citizens, and earn profits in way that respects human
dignity. And countries, well, that’s really two different entities, says Myers. The United
States would benefit because if farmers starting growing enough feed their countries, we could
reduce our food aid to these places, like the Horn of Africa. And the host countries
would benefit because local populations would begin to contribute to their country’s economic
growth, by paying taxes, but not needing social safety nets.
In the end, everybody wins. Part 3: The Human Face of Land Tenure Let’s go back to the smallholder farmers.
The most vulnerable parties in this equation, and perhaps, the greatest beneficiaries. Meyers
recently travelled to Ethiopia, where USAID has been implementing a land tenure program
with the government for the last few years. He remembers one woman’s story specifically.
USAID, as part of the land tenure process, had recently helped mark the boundaries of
her land. Unable to farm herself, she was leasing it out to a man, who told her the
property measured just quarter of a hectare. Myers>>So after we did the certification,
she realized that she actually had a hectare of land. And so afterwards she went back to
the same man and she said, well, now you have to pay me four times the rent –– which
he’s now doing. So her household income went up by four times. And she said, as a
result of that, she was able to buy more food for her children and – including sending
kids to school that she hadn’t been able to send to school before, including a daughter.
So we thought, well, that’s a remarkable story. And when we talked to other people
who had received certificates, we started to hear similar stories about how now they
had really much greater economic empowerment as a result of just having information about
what they had rights to. Narrator>>Women are empowered in other ways
as well: Myers>>And in Ethiopia, in one case in our
early interviews, a woman came to us and said, I know my husband is having sex in town when
he goes to the cities. And I am very worried that he’s being exposed to AIDS. And I’m
afraid that he’ll bring it back to me and to our village. And so now that I have a land
certificate, I can literally kick him out of the house and tell him, you know, I have
my land, and I can feed myself and my children, and we’re not dependent on you. And so if
you choose to make those kinds of risky decisions, you know, you’re on your own. Narrator>>While Africa is the epicenter of
land tenure issues, USAID’s work to ensure that people in developing countries acquire
rights to their own property spans the globe. In East Timor. In the Philippines. And in
African countries like Kenya, Liberia and South Sudan. Women and men are realizing the
personal pride and the economic benefit that holding a land deed with their names on it
can bring. Meyers sums it up well: Myers>>We have a motto down here in the land
tenure division that says, “Changing the world one property right at a time.” And
I think we all firmly believe that this is a fundamental building block of any democracy
or market-based economy, if you don’t have the right to property, you cannot be a member
of the economy and you don’t have a say in the political process.
And I believe that as countries move forward toward recognizing or toward addressing this
issue, which we call an enabling environment, eventually I think that this will reduce the
kinds and the types of investments which we need to make in development, because people
will have a greater political standing and greater economic opportunities to be able
to do the kinds of things that you and I do here in the United States: to make our own
individual decisions about how we best deem to manage our lives, how we want to engage
in political decisions or political discourse, and how we want to engage in economic opportunities
that will benefit ourselves and our families. Narrator>>So Myers and his team battle on
in the basement of USAID, fighting land grab with guidelines, protecting rights and promoting
investment. Changing the world one property right at a time. For more on USAID’s work in land tenure,
check out the Agency’s website under its environment and global climate change page.

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