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News & Events From the Ground Up, The Multi-functionality of Land
From the Ground Up, The Multi-functionality of Land
From the Ground Up, The Multi-functionality of Land
By Bruce H. Moore, former Director of ILC Secretariat

Whereas the property rights of poor people were previously seen as a call for social justice, today land rights are understood to also be at the nexus of the economic, environmental, political and social order.

The foundation for considering the issues and opportunities provided by a multi-functional approach to land, finds important lessons in the recent histories of land rights programs and movements.

The 1970s and 80s witnessed significant progress in transferring land to the landless and in providing security of land tenure, only to then witness many of these same lands reverting to the previous landed classes.  Without access to the factors of production, land rights beneficiaries all too often had to sell their land to meet family needs or mortgage their land under unrealistic repayment terms leading to default and the loss of their land.  The first lesson being that land tenure security is a necessary but not sufficient condition without support to make the land productive.

The 1990s witnessed a period of significant support and investments to raise the productivity of smallholder farmers, only to witness these intergenerational land users being forcibly evicted from informally held family farms. The second lesson being that investing in rural households to improve production is a necessary but not sufficient condition without land tenure security.

Where the approach to land rights is built on the concept of  multi-functionality, it builds from the evidence that land is at the nexus of a diverse and interconnected set of development factors; inter alia:

Food Security.   Contrary to the interests of investors in large scale land acquisitions, there is compelling evidence that smallholders produce more food per unit of land 1, in many agro-ecological conditions (commonly called the inverse relation of farm size to productivity), when they receive the same supportive public infrastructure as larger farms 2.  They contribute to aggregate food supplies. They do not displace labor and family incomes, as does mechanized commercial farming. They build family assets that expand the rural economy 3 while also providing assets for families to transition out of agriculture. 

Sustainable Natural Resource Management.  Smallholder farms generally use low input farming practices. They either do not rely, or rely less, on chemical inputs than commercial agriculture meaning less risk to waterways, water tables and soil quality while also reducing the health risks of absorbing questioned chemicals into the food chain.4

Environmental Sustainability.   Security of land tenure is the incentive to invest 5 in the long-term sustainability of the resource base – land, water, forests, coastlines and associated fishery resources.  Peasants with secure land rights work to improve the productive quality of the land knowing that they will be the long-term beneficiaries of their efforts and investments. This means sustainable livelihoods leading to improved family well-being.

Asset Based Development.  Where an asset-based and community-driven development (ABCD) approach 6 has been employed the quality of rural life has improved and those who choose to move, leave with skills and assets.  Households with secure property rights, whether in urban or rural settings, are able to safely invest in improving their property, as a direct or convertible asset. Family benefits take the forms of improved production and alternate income options; security of place, identity 7 and livelihood; and, resilience to economic and family shocks.

Democracy.  Societies with more equitable resource distribution have improved governance 8, characterized by public policies that are more responsive to the wider needs of all sectors of society.  A multifunctional benefit of land tenure is increased social inclusion and economic empowerment (progressively called the politics of place).  This means citizens are more able to exercise their rights to public goods 9 and services and the infrastructure needed to improve farm and non-farm incomes.

Poverty Reduction.   Research shows that in situations of more equal land distribution there are higher levels of economic growth 10. Furthermore, in many countries and locations the return on investments in agriculture surpass those of investments in other sectors of the economy. 11, 12 This evidence provides the basis for governments to establish legislation and regulations to provide land tenure security and to invest increased levels of public funding in smallholder agriculture.

Eliminating Discrimination against Women.  As set out in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, when women have the right to own land (jointly with their husbands or severally) and when they and their girl children have the right to inherit property, the overall household develops a more sustainable livelihood base.  This includes improved resilience to the shocks that may otherwise arise when land rights are denied women. 

Physical Quality of Life.  The Human Development Index, often referred to as the Physical Quality of Life Index, is a United Nations composite index that compares countries according to their levels of socio-economic development based on life expectancy at birth and educational achievement.  Countries that have invested in the rural sector and strengthened the livelihood resources of smallholder farms rank higher on the index.  This means improved levels of health and education.

Understanding the multifunctional benefits of land rights is not new.  However, land rights touch on fundamental inequalities in societies. Time and time again, across multiple international summits, these inequalities have been identified as obstacles that have historically excluded the very people that these summits have sought to benefit.   If the outcomes of these summits were to be blended into one plan, the call would be for urgent action to address the:

  • lack of access by the poor to productive assets;
  • insufficient participation by the poor in decisions affecting their livelihoods;
  • inequitable distribution of wealth; and,
  • reform of macro-economic policies that adversely affect the poor and powerless.

It is a generally accepted principle that the natural resources of a country belong to all of its citizens and should be used to serve the common good.   Countries that are rich in natural resources should not be poor. However, there is an underlying paradox.  While the goal is to establish pro-poor land and resource governance, current institutions, including the state, tend to be controlled by the powerful non-poor.13 The leading question is how can the institutions created by political elites, and run mainly in their own interests (commonly called elite and/or regulatory capture), be transformed to support socially just and equitable development.

The call from smallholder farmers and their rural communities is for pro-poor land governance. Pro-poor land governance is a rights-based approach to development in contrast to the still largely dominant needs-based approach.  When applied to land, the differences provide a fairer platform for decisions on who has the legitimate rights to which lands and territories.  The two approaches are fundamentally different.  

The needs-based approach focuses on securing resources for delivering services to clients - insecure land users, smallholder farmers, agricultural workers, among other rural peoples.

The rights-based approach focuses on the empowerment of intergenerational land users to claim their rights as citizens.  This approach is notable in that:

  • rights involve duties and duties demand accountability by elected officials and public servants; and,
  • accountability requires compliance and enforcement, meaning that the rights of intergenerational land users will be protected by the rule of law from claims, exploitation and expropriation by powerful vested interests.

The rights-based approach to land has been identified in many international agreements, among the most fundamental being the United Nations’ Right to Development.  Established in 1986, this agreement declares the rights of all citizens to a fair and equitable share of the benefits derived from the natural resource endowments of their country.   

The country-level challenges involved in legislating and regulating the governance of land and natural resources may be illustrated by a mathematical formula (Figure1) that identifies the competing forces to be mediated.  The formula can help to identify the imbalances to be addressed in the reform of land governance systems.


Figure 1

Land Governance   =    (Secure Land Rights + Productive Services) x Peoples’ Participation / Governance Social Exclusion + Weak Public Institutions + Powerful Elites

Supporting the legal empowerment and negotiating capacity of community-based 14 organizations (Figure 2) to defend their land rights is an essential requirement.  Community organizations need to be strengthened so they can defend their rights and take a primary role in land acquisitions on the basis of information, collective influence and with access to independent legal and related professional services and support. 

Figure 2 presents a framework for assessing the balance between the factors that may either increase or moderate the forces of social, political and economic exclusion.15

Figure 2 

Overcoming Exclusion =   Legal Empowerment of the Poor + Collective Action / Powerful Political Interests + Corruption

Ensuring that current land users have security of tenure before land is considered to be available for sale or lease, to national or international investors, is an essential first step.  While authorities may state the starting point to be the constitution, legislation and regulation, the actual focus is, all too often, on administration and regularization. Unless provision is first given to considering historical and social injustices, there is the risk that ill-gotten lands will be legitimized.  Powerful vested interests may formally register, as their own, the informally held but legitimate claims of intergenerational land users.    

At a time when evidence is avowed to be the basis of policy making, the multi-functional benefits of land and the land tenure security of smallholders is continuously being set aside in favour of the globally dominant agri-business lobby and its appetite for more and more land.16 This grabbing of land, an internationally documented phenomena, is directly linked to growing inequality as more and more of the rural poor are displaced from their land, their only source of livelihood.    

The agenda for change and the ways to get there are well known.  The multi-functional potential of land to simultaneously work on multiple levels of economic, environmental, political and social importance are within reach.  Whereas the “nay-sayers” say there is a need to know more, smallholder farmers and their communities 17 are saying more than enough is known to do more. 

Citizens and their community based organizations are saying:

  • demand that security of tenure is provided to current land users before land is classified as vacant and available for sale or lease;
  • support the strengthening of civil society organizations, social movements, farmer organizations and rural peoples’ organizations in their struggle to gain individual security of tenure as smallholders or collective tenure to common pool resources;
  • promote an increase in the proportion of national budgets and official development assistance invested in family farms, smallholder agriculture and community forest users;
  • advocate for free, prior and informed consent in respect of land transactions;
  • support legal services for smallholders and collective users of land as part of partnership funding agreements, commercial acquisitions of land by nationals and foreign direct investment in land and natural resources;
  • ensure compliance with international principles, conventions, agreements, procedures and guidelines governing investments in land and other natural resources 18;
  • promote and support the direct participation of rural peoples’ organizations, farmer and producer organizations and indigenous peoples in decisions pertaining to transactions on their intergeneration and informally held lands, their territories and ancestral lands;
  • provide legal support to help individual and communities victimized by force evictions to protect or restore their resource rights;
  • leverage corporate reputational risk as a tool to promote the rights and conditions governing how companies gain social license for accessing lands where  they already have user agreements or are seeking to buy or lease land; and,
  • promote the development of impact benefit agreements and other accountability tools to monitor the compliance of companies and investors in their relations with local peoples.

No one knows better than farmers, that agriculture, especially smallholder farming, is a hard way out of poverty. But they also know that without assets 19, leaving their small farm means moving from poverty in the country-side to poverty in the city. Rural to urban migration is largely not a choice but a lack of choice – a lack of access to the means to make their land more productive or to move from farming to non-farm ways to earn a living.  There is a direct link between land insecurity and livelihood insecurity.

As much as it is known that rural migration has brought an urban bias to development planning and funding, it is also known that urban growth is a symptom of rural neglect.  While the world is urbanizing at a rapid rate, it should not lead to further rural neglect.  Without land tenure security and investments in farm and non-farm livelihood opportunities, more and more of the 3.4 billion people today living in rural communities will become city bound. Furthermore, the United Nations Population Department projects that there will be 3.6 million rural dwellers by 2035. While the percentage of the world population will then have reached 61%, the rural problematic will be even graver should sustainable rural development programmes not be prioritized as a way to alleviate both rural and urban poverty. 

Farmers feed cities.  The evidence is increasingly recognized that smallholders are and can increase their production for food markets providing they receive public support similar to other players in the agri-food system. Beyond their potential contribution to aggregate food supplies, smallholders, with tenure security, will add value to their land and hold it as a source of family security, including using it as a convertible asset when needs or opportunities arise to improve their family income and well-being.

Development theory, planning and on-the-ground practice frequently starts with an assessment of the relationship of land, labour and capital.  Of these three, land is at the nexus of labour and capital.  As a multi-functional contributor to sustainable development it is of fundamental importance to understand, in locally specific form, how land contributes to economic, environmental, political and social development.  The principle that the natural resources of a country belong to its citizens and should be used to serve the common good should be the metric for legislating, regulating and ensuring legal protection of land and resource rights for all.  Whether it will be found and acted upon depends on how the forces governing land and natural resources strive to ensure that the “Right to Development” is central to the way forward.

End Notes

1 Small farms are seen in many systems to have greater crop productivity per unit area than large farms. Samberg,Gerber, Ramankutty, Herrero,and West 3/29                                                        

2 The inverse relation derives from the moral hazard disadvantage for larger farms in using hired labour while small farms use self-motivated family labour.  As agriculture becomes more capitalized this smallholder advantage tends to be reversed by disadvantages on financial markets.  This reversal is fundamentally due to government, market and institutional failures that discriminate in favor of large farmers.  Cordillo, de Janvry and Platteau 296

3 Smallholder development can create strong links to the rest of the rural sector, both through hiring of extra local labour at peak farming times and through more-favourable expenditure patterns for promoting growth of the local nonfarm economy, including rural towns. Small farmers tend to spend extra income locally, on construction materials, locally made furniture, entertainment, etc., thereby stimulating local (small-scale) business and job creation. IFAD, 11

4 Growth in agricultural production to meet rising global needs using prevailing farming practices is unsustainable – a transformation is needed. Current practices are undermining the ecological foundation of the global food system through overuse and the effects of agricultural pollution, thereby enhancing degradation, reducing ecosystem capacity to generate sustainable yields and threatening to negatively impact food security and poverty reduction. IFAD, 7

5 Another often overlooked influence on productivity is land tenure.  A survey by the Rural Development Institute revealed that farmers with documented land rights were twice as likely to make long-term investments in their land. Brown 169

6 Assets (broadly defined) as a source of identity are therefore linked to ‘agency’ or capacity to act. Mathie and Cunningham 3.

7   The relevance of property rights goes way beyond their role as economic assets.  Secure and accessible property rights provide a sense of identity, dignity and belonging.  They create reliable ties of rights and obligations within a community, and a system of mutual recognition of rights and responsibilities beyond it.  For many poor individuals and communities, land is more than just an aggregate of occupied and used plots.  It is the expression of a way of life, which they should have the opportunity to improve by their own efforts. Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Vol 1/34

8 the establishment of democracy occurred about 40 years later in the countries characterized by dominance by large landlords compared with those that relied on a smallholder production structure. World Bank 2003

9 high concentration of land either reduces the incentives for the provision of public goods … or biases the provision of such goods in the direction that is more useful to landlords.  … In most cases the total surplus to be derived from land and associated public goods tends to increase with greater equality in the asset distribution. World Bank 20/292

10  countries that were characterized by a more unequal initial land distribution tended to show clearly lower rates of economic growth. It appears that the unequal access to economic and social opportunities which underlies this unequal asset distribution is quite inimical to long-term and sustainable development. World Bank, 69/292

11   Every additional dollar of demand for primary agricultural production generates an increase in household incomes, ranging from US$ 1.42 in Canada to US$ 3.34 in Argentina. This statistic is extremely important, given that agriculture generates more household income than other industries. IICA 22

12  in another cross-country study, Christiaensen, Demery and Kuhl (2011) found that a 1 per cent increase in agricultural per capita GDP reduced the poverty gap five times more than a 1 per cent increase in GDP per capita in other sectors, especially among the poorest people. IFAD, 11

13 The distribution of power plays an important role in determining the likelihood of the emergence of fair property rights systems. Land and income distribution is another factor in this regard.  Indeed, it has been shown that the nature of the prevailing political regime and land and income inequality are important determinants of property rights structures.  When political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, and/or land and income distribution is skewed resulting in extreme inequality, political authorities are unlikely to implement and enforce property rights in an equitable manner.  Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Vol II/81

14 The power of collective agency is reflected in a community’s ability to use its assets as leverage…communities demonstrating unity, organizational capacity, local innovation and the ability to mobilize assets …attract external actors seeking a worthwhile investment.  Mathie and Cunningham, 3

15 Exclusion is not a random process, nor does it occur on a level playing field.  It is structured by power relations. Hall,4

16 Investments by agribusiness firms and others to acquire land in low-income countries and to produce food exclusively for export are almost certainly going to leave people in these countries less well off, Many will be left landless.  At the national level, there will be less land to produce food for local use. Brown, 67.

17 With the right conditions, smallholders can be at the forefront of a transformation in world agriculture. With their immense collective experience and intimate knowledge of local conditions, smallholders hold many of the practical solutions that can help place agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable footing. IFAD, 7.

18   FAO, “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security

19 Land reform should remain an essential element of national agricultural and rural development strategies not only because land-based agricultural occupations must continue to provide livelihoods to a vast majority of the rural population, but also because macroeconomic growth in most ontexts has failed to create improved prospects for the rural poor to acquire assets, gain employment, or increase their income and quality of life. Ghimire and Moore, vii



Brown,L. “ World on the Edge:  How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse”, Earth Policy Institute, New York,  2011

Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor and the United Nations Development Programme, “Making the Law Work for Everyone” Volumes I and II, New York, 2008.

Cordillo,G., de Janvry,A and Platteau,JP., “Access to Land, Rural Poverty, and Public Action”,  Oxford University Press, New York,2001.

FAO, “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2012. 

Ghimire, K. and Moore,B., “Whose Land? Civil Society Perspectives on Land Reform and Rural Poverty Reduction”, United Nations Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the Popular Coalition to Eradicate Hunger and Poverty (renamed the International Land Coalition), Rome, 2001.

Hall,D., Hirsch,P., and Li,T. “Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia”, National University of Singapore Press, Singapore 2011.

IFAD and UNEP, “Smallholders, food security and the environment”; International Fund for Agricultural Development, Rome, 2013

Mathie, A. and Cunningham,G., “From Clients to Citizens: Communities Changing the Course of their Own Development”, Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd., Warwickshire, UK, 2008.

Moore, B., “Land Rights: Challenges at the Nexus of Violent Conflicts and Environmental Degradation”, The Pearson   Papers, Volume 12, Ottawa, 2009

Moore,B., “The Continental Land Rush: Canadian Roles in Advancing the Land Rights of Africans”, North South Institute Forum – Governing Natural Resources for Africa’s Development, Ottawa, 2013.

Samberg,L,Gerber,J.,Ramankutty,N.,Herrero,M.,,and West,P., “Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production”, Environmental Research Letters, Vol II, Number 12, IOP Publishing Ltd, Bristol, UK, 2016.

Trejos,R., Arias,J., Segura,O., and Vargas,E., “ More than food on the table: agriculture’s true contribution to the economy”, Interagency Group on Rural Development (IICA, IDB, World Bank, ECLAC, FAO, IFAD, GTZ and USAid), Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, Costa Rica, 2004.

World Bank, “Land Policies for Growth and Poverty Reduction”, World Bank and Oxford University Press, 2003.


Bruce H Moore was the Director of the International Land Coalition, an alliance of United Nations, civil society, and multilateral organizations working to enable rural poor families to gain their land and resource rights. He is a former United Nations diplomat and Executive Director of a Canadian NGO supporting international development partnerships.

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