Land rights

Disadvantaged traditional occupants

For a large share of the world population, land is a vital asset. This is especially true in rural areas where subsistence farming is widespread. At the same time, land is an increasingly endangered asset due to droughts, desertification, coastal flooding and other impacts of climate change. The growth of the world population, urbanisation and changing diet habits are putting additional pressure on agricultural land.
Secure land rights are a prerequisite for investment and productive land management: tomato growing in Ethiopia. kd Secure land rights are a prerequisite for investment and productive land management: tomato growing in Ethiopia.

Three-quarters of those who suffer hunger worldwide are smallholders, livestock farmers or rural workers in developing countries. Women bear the brunt of the work done on smallholdings. What they produce, feeds their families and themselves. If women in developing countries received the same funding for agriculture as men do, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by 100 to 150 million.

It is astonishing as well as shocking that less than 20 % of the women concerned have secure land-ownership rights. Of the world population, 70 % has no access to a formal – officially recognised and documented – land registration system. Only about 10 % of rural land in Africa is formally documented. In view of increasing disputes and foreseeable conflicts, this is a huge socio-political challenge.  

More than half of earth’s entire land area is occupied on the basis of traditional and customary law. Some 1.5 billion people live on land they depend on, but do not formally own. In consequence they are exposed to the fear and threat of being arbitrarily expelled from this land. Competition for the best and most fertile land is increasing worldwide, so traditional occupants including indigenous groups and small-scale farming families tend to lose out. Growing competition, weak institutions and unclear (parallel) legal systems result in non-transparency and corruption in the land sector.

Land tenure and land use rights tend to be poorly secured in developing countries. As a result, rural development through sustainable and productive use of resources is inhibited.

Land investment

Since global food prices last surged about ten years ago, land has become considerably more attractive as an investment. Many large-scale land acquisitions and leases are concluded in developing countries with weak or authoritarian governments. Typically these countries are haunted by problems such as poverty and malnutrition too. Large-scale land acquisitions and leases are a widespread and hard-to-categorise phenomenon.

Investment in land often affects rural areas that have not been developed for commercial agriculture but are still used for small-scale farming. The interactive online database of the non-governmental Land Matrix initiative (see D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2016/12) currently documents over a thousand finalised investment agreements worldwide, 422 of them in Africa for a total area of around 10 million hectares.

Land demand is growing, there are competing uses, and the potential for conflict is increasing. The results of the Land Matrix initiative's analytical report 2016 show that the number and volume of new deals may be stagnating. However, the amount of land for which deals are operational is sharply increasing. Documented agricultural investment affects 26.7 million hectares, which is about two percent of the earth’s arable land. Productive use has commenced on 70 % of the hectarage.

International standards

Germany’s Federal Government is committed to securing land rights and development-friendly rural investment in partner countries. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) were endorsed by the UN Committee on World Food Security in 2012. They are a big step towards responsible investment and stronger land rights for small farmers. In its Coalition Agreement, the German government has explicitly emphasised support for the VGGT and their application.

Accordingly, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) supports efforts to secure land-tenure and land-use rights for disadvantaged groups in developing countries at various levels. It is active in international agenda- and standard-setting (for instance, in the context of the G7 and G20), and it also engages in tangible action in development cooperation with governmental as well as non-governmental partners.  

During Germany’s G7 presidency in 2015, the member countries agreed to align their ODA-supported investments with the VGGT. Thereupon, the BMZ assigned the German Institute for Human Rights to prepare a study on how the existing international standards of financial cooperation relate to the VGGT.

The study was recently completed. It confirms that the World Bank Group standards are broadly in line with the VGGT. These standards are also used by Germany’s development banks KfW and DEG. However, the study shows which additional diligence multilateral and bilateral financial institutions need to do in order to meet the ambition of the VGGT entirely.

Together with the KfW development bank, the BMZ has taken preliminary steps to minimise the risk of land-rights conflicts. Investment in rural development and agriculture are obviously needed in developing countries. Such investment, however, almost always goes along with land-use changes. It is essential to handle these issues sensitively.

During its G20 presidency this year, Germany successfully made the case for more transparency and human rights due diligence in connection with land investment. Investors from G20 countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, are particularly active in the agricultural sector in developing countries.

Through official development assistance (ODA), the BMZ helps partner countries draft responsible land policies and ensure good land management. German expertise is a valued element of the cooperation. For example, Germany’s experience of redistributing East-German farm land, which had been used by huge collectives during communist rule, can be of relevance in other contexts.   

Through the special initiative ONE WORLD – No Hunger (SEWOH), the BMZ is specifically promoting VGGT application in partner countries. The initiative encompasses projects by civil-society organisations such as Transparency International. TI is running a project to fight land-related corruption and secure land rights in Africa.

To promote fairer and more secure access to land for rural people, the SEWOH global project "Responsible Land Policy" is engaging policymakers, civil-society activists and private enterprises at various levels. It is laying a foundation for regulating – and securing official recognition of – land-use and land-tenure rights for small farmers, indigenous groups and communities in selected countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Together with the African Land Policy Initiative and the World Bank, the BMZ has established a Network of Excellence for Land Governance in Africa (NELGA). Training and tertiary education in land management as well as strengthening land governance capacities at national and continental levels are key objectives of this programme.   

Secure land-access and land-tenure rights are key factors for sustainable rural development. Only when people are sure that their land will not be taken away at some point in the future, will they invest and make sustainable, productive use of the land – and that is vital for development.


Gunther Beger is director-general for policy issues of development cooperation; civil society; churches and private sector; rural development at the BMZ.



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