Land rights and the post-Covid economic recovery

Remote working has dominated our 2020 – but we were well prepared for it. Across our company we have long worked as One Tetra Tech, drawing on the skills and knowledge of our colleagues all over the world to deliver the best solutions for our clients. And currently, that is to the benefit of our work on land rights.

Among Tetra Tech’s international development staff, we have industry-leading teams working on land governance and property rights projects across the world. We’ve been able to call on key experts on our staff  to enhance our work funded by European and UK development assistance organisations.

Jolyne Sanjak and Nick Tagliarino are two of those key staff members – and while we’re all working from our homes, our relationships and processes have seemed closer than ever. While we’ve been working with them, they’ve been putting their heads together to write this blog on the importance of land rights even, or especially, in the wake of COVID-19. It’s their take that strengthening land rights security – rather than watching it erode – can enhance and improve the socio-economic recovery from the pandemic. And, they posit, it’s achievable with innovative thinking and tools. Read their blog blog below to find out more.

As the world continues to endure the rippling economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that progress toward secure land rights around the globe ramps up, rather than falls back given the critical linkages with inclusive economic growth. Immediate access to health care, sanitation, food, and shelter are obvious priorities for confronting this crisis, and economic recovery is also a vital near-term priority. Less noted, however, are the shockwaves of COVID-19 that have and will continue to exacerbate related constraints and tensions regarding land rights.

COVID-19 exposes long-standing socioeconomic disparities. These disparities are often perpetuated by inequalities in access to land and secure tenure. Inequalities are worsening and will be harder to address as land rights also fall victim to COVID-19. The virus is already delaying land reform and registration processes, and in some cases leading to closures of land agencies charged with monitoring land governance systems, opening new opportunities for corruption and abuse. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, illegal loggers and other illicit actors reportedly exploited the lowered presence of the state and resource limitations to illegally seize indigenous land. Recent literature highlights other land-related challenges triggered by COVID-19, including threats to women’s rights to property and inheritance; increased risks of forced evictions due to economic crises; increased risk of displacement and de-urbanisation; and weakened capacities and limited funding of land administration services. As highlighted in a recent webinar hosted by the FAO, the loss of land administration services is contributing to resource grabbing, corruption and abuse, and insufficient due diligence on land-based investments.

Innovative solutions to securing land tenure and promoting better public planning, stability, awareness of public policies, and livelihood opportunities – such as those Tetra Tech has partnered on across the globe – can be adapted to mitigate backsliding and to support economic recovery. Land rights need to be seen as integral to assistance packages to help people better confront the array of pandemic-induced challenges such as economic shocks, disruptions to agriculture, rising food prices, and increased pressures on land and resources.

For example, through the USAID Artisanal Mining and Property Rights project, Tetra Tech is closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19-induced price fluctuations on markets for natural resources, including cocoa and gold, and the degree to which these fluctuations may be contributing to economic fallout and affecting local livelihoods, tenurial arrangements, and land-use dynamics. Tetra Tech also works to strengthen women’s property and inheritance rights – critical in normal times and of heightened need as a result of COVID-19, which has been referred to as a “widow-maker” because more men than women have died from the disease. Without secure rights to property and inheritance, women are more at risk of losing their land and inheritance upon the death of a husband or male relative, a lesson learned from the HIV Aids crisis.

It’s understandable – but very likely short-sighted – that attention to land rights challenges might wane as the world grapples with the massive health and economic recovery needs. Inattention will ultimately constrain recovery, however, and in the meantime, examples of harm already happening (provided above) are emerging. While better information on trends is critical to gather, consideration of land rights in planning economic recovery investments can already begin with the following in mind:

Integrating land rights with economic growth interventions can help pave the way for recovery.

The severity of the crisis will surely require an integrated package of investments in economic recovery and livelihood restoration – and, it’s viable to include measures that promote land tenure security. For rural populations, secure land rights often not only provide freedom from fear of eviction (stability), but also protection of an income-generating asset, enabling poverty trap avoidance by increasing incomes, on-farm investments, and agricultural production. Numerous studies have linked strong property rights with economic growth as well as increases in GDP growth, per capita income levels, and higher rates of private investment.

Measures that strengthen property rights and tenure security can play an important, complementary role in the package of economic recovery measures, helping to ensure basic needs and inclusive growth in the aftermath of the pandemic. Tetra Tech’s experience from implementing USAID projects in Colombia indicates that promoting inclusive economic growth involves secure land rights along with measures that fill in institutional and infrastructure gaps, strengthen value chains, and provide access to finance. Other agriculture and economic growth projects implemented by Tetra Tech, such as the USAID Feed the Future Democratic Republic of the Congo Strengthening Value Chains (SVC) Activity, have increased household incomes and access to nutrient-rich crops by linking smallholder farmers to strengthened and inclusive value chains and supportive market service. More integration between these economic growth and land rights interventions will facilitate a viable path to economic recovery and resilience.

Innovative, multifaceted solutions might also help link secure tenure with access to finance

To promote inclusive growth that enables post-pandemic livelihood restoration and economic advancement, access to credit will also be an issue, and innovative measures – not simply land titling — that strengthen the linkages between secure land tenure and access to finance could prove useful. Packages of interventions that strengthen this connection will add value. The USAID Land and Rural Development Program (LRDP), implemented by Tetra Tech in Colombia , found that informal records of tenure rights could not be used to secure credit, so the project worked to secure land titles for producer association members while also establishing public-private partnerships to enhance commercial viability and link these associations to market opportunities, thus connecting the dots between land rights and inclusive economic growth. Moreover, as part of USAID’s global Integrated Land and Resource Governance Program (ILRG), Tetra Tech is currently working with the private sector in Zambia leveraging customary land documentation to help women in customary chiefdoms gain access to finance. ILRG is developing a deeper understanding of the spectrum of financing mechanisms that can be utilised in customary tenure areas, and the extent to which documenting customary land rights can help individuals within customary communities gain access to credit. In Ghana and Zambia, ILRG is fostering the self-reliance of local organisations by supporting them in testing innovative fee-for-service approaches land documentation.

The path to recovery and inclusive growth in a post-COVID world

When prioritising direct recovery outcomes in a post-COVID world, it will be pivotal that states, donors, and policymakers not lose sight of how secure land rights play an important role in fostering economic growth and that measures aimed at economic recovery will confront constraints if land rights challenges are left unaddressed. Innovative and integrated, multifaceted solutions that reach, benefit, and empower the world’s poor and vulnerable – will be more effective with attention to land governance and if harm to their land rights can be prevented. By following a ‘build back better’ approach after the pandemic ends, we can turn the tide while bringing us closer to a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world.