Let’s Talk About Land, Baby: The Importance of Land Rights in Development

Today’s development talk is focused mostly on money. Terms that dominate development discussions like aid, finance, funding, and investment all indicate the importance of capital in promoting development, and this importance should not be overlooked. Creating jobs, improving infrastructure, and providing supplies to improve health and environmental conditions all necessitate capital that in many cases and for a variety of reasons is lacking from less developed states.

However, there’s another less popular factor in development that carries huge implications for wealth, power, and progress, and although it may seem readily available and distributable, it can be shockingly difficult to access. This factor is land.

The Status of Land

Though every state has distributable land, it is a finite resource. Some of this land may be clearly occupied by residential areas, commercial activities, or industries such as agriculture and manufacturing. Land like this is difficult to redistribute; in addition to the fact that it is more likely to be officially titled, it is visibly in use and already part of the country’s market and role in the macroeconomy. In many cases though, land is not formally owned or is occupied by only sparse or remote populations, and so even if it is inhabited it can “officially” be considered empty and open for redistribution.

Much of this untitled land is not just empty, though, and the threatened inhabitants are often indigenous peoples. A 2015 report by the Rights and Resources Initiative found that despite the fact that indigenous peoples and communities hold as much as 65% of the world’s land area, these groups lack formal legal ownership of 80% of this.[1] This disparity not only contributes to a legacy of human rights abuses; it hinders development by disrupting and often eliminating localized economic gains, creating threats to health and the environment due to contamination such as oil spills, and contributing to social tension that often results in protests and violence.

Land and Loss in Peru

Peru serves as a particularly compelling example of a poorly handled land titling. Starting in 1968, agrarian land reforms allowed peasants to repossess lands where they were forcibly conscripted as laborers under the plantation-like hacienda system,.[2] Then, the 1990s saw a wave of globalizing and neoliberalizing reforms; new laws and constitutional amendments in 1991, 1993, and 1995 repealed agrarian reform laws in favor of private initiative, state control of natural resources, and private investment.[3],[4],[5]

In 2007, President Alan García published “The Syndrome of the Dog in the Manger,” a treatise on poverty in Peru that deemed uninhabited or undeveloped communally owned indigenous lands an inefficient use of resources.[6] He passed a series of presidential decrees to promote resource extraction and establish a land concessions system for private investors to easily access land. In 2010, 72% of the Peruvian Amazon was zoned for hydrocarbon activities, and a “hydrocarbon boom” in conjunction with export revenues created incentives to ignore indigenous presence in favor of ceding land to corporations.

These abuses have continued into the present day. Last month, some 3,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into one of the largest Amazon tributaries in Peru, contaminating the water sources of “at least eight indigenous communities.”[7],[8] Last year, the country declared a state of emergency when protests over the Las Bambas mine project in the Andes turned deadly.[9] Over the past decade, Peru consistently made world news as indigenous peoples protested land concessions for resource extraction that encroached on untitled, or even titled, territory.[10],[11],[12],[13] In addition to being evidence of the environmental hazards posed by land expropriation and resource extraction, these events are manifestations of frustration with the government’s failure to effectively manage land ownership, value indigenous rights, and find a sustainable approach to development.

Incorporating Land into Development

Some critics of development may argue that projecting Western conceptions of formal, individual land ownership on to societies that have unique historical systems of land management is paternalistic or counterproductive. This is an important point, and discussions of land titling should absolutely consider different communities’ histories of land tenure and culturally appropriate ways of codifying land ownership. However, as a baseline it must be understood that untitled land is inherently at risk of expropriation. In addition to posing a potential human rights abuse, that risk of expropriation disrupts local economies, contributes to conflict, and impedes development in the long run.

Peru and other states that struggle with indigenous land management have a lesson to teach the world about land, human rights, and development. If we want to support development, we need to go beyond searching for and talking about money. Development needs to be about identity, autonomy, and access, and that needs to start with land.


[1] Rights and Resources Initiative, “Who Owns the World’s Land? A Global Baseline of Formally Recognized Indigenous and Community Land Rights,” Rights and Resources Group, 29 September 2015, http://www.rightsandresources.org/wp-content/uploads/GlobalBaseline_complete_web.pdf

[2] Marti, Timothy. “Indigenous Land Rights and Development in the Peruvian Amazon: Communalism versus Capitalism.” Hinckley Journal of Politics 13 (2012).

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Gender and Land Rights Database. 2010. Web. Accessed 3 November 2015.

[4] Plant, Roger, and Soren Hvalkof. Land titling and indigenous peoples. Inter-American Development Bank, 2001.

[5] Stocks, Anthony. “Too much for too few: problems of indigenous land rights in Latin America.” Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 34 (2005): 85-104.

[6] García Pérez, Alan. “El Perro del Hortelano [The Dog in the Manger Syndrome]” El Comercio 28 October 2007. Print.

[7] Davies, Wyre. “Indigenous community in Peru suffers after oil spill.” BBC World News (Rio de Janeiro), 15 March 2016.

[8] “Peru oil spill pollutes Amazon rivers used by indigenous group.” BBC World News, 23 February 2016.

[9] “Peru declares state of emergency in mining region.” BBC World News, 30 September 2015.

[10] Collyn, Dan. “Peru polarized after deadly clashes.” BBC News 10 June 2009. Web.

[11] Hill, Liezel. “Newmont says too early to call Conga Project amid review.” Bloomberg Business 27 February 2012. Web.

[12] Aquino, Marco, and Terry Wade. “Peru uses emergency rules to try to end anti-mining protest.” Reuters 28 May 2012. Web.

[13] “Peru declares state of emergency over mine protests.” Al Jazeera 23 May 2015. Web.

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