Did Habitat III make progress on the stickiest of urbanization issues — land reform?

Policymakers will be pushed to recognize the importance of tenure reforms in cities, analysts say. Such processes also can do much to stem rural migration to cities.

People pass by a small agricultural plot in Kathmandu, Nepal. “If you want to do proper urbanization, you need to do … land reform,” said a U.N. official recently. (Da Visu/Shutterstock)

Today, women own most of the land plots in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Ten years ago, they didn’t own any. That’s because it was illegal for a land title to be registered in a woman’s name. But starting in 2007, the country embarked on a national land-registration programme with the goal of regularizing the status of land in the country in order to empower Rwandan women and improve economic prospects.

Now Kigali is a bright spot on the African urban landscape. With award-winning master plans, city leaders have worked to keep the city clean from litter and pollution, and well-organized with functioning transit. Their efforts are paying off, as a building boom is cementing Kigali’s reputation as one of the continent’s leading examples of sustainable urbanism.

Land-reform efforts a decade ago are not the only key to the city’s success, but they are certainly a factor. They’re also a testament to the importance of land — the foundation of any city.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

In October, the United Nations convened a major international summit on the future of cities, known as Habitat III. The conference’s secretary-general, UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, insisted that land issues were the most important component of success urban development. “If you want to do proper urbanization, you need to do … land reform,” he said on the eve of the conference.

But he also cautioned that this is easier said than done. “Even if I say ‘land reform’ 40,000 times,” he said, “that is not going to be diminish an ounce of the conflict that is behind this idea.”

Pull of cities

Humans have fought over land for centuries, so brokering land reform peacefully is fraught with challenges.

“Mitigating that pull factor of rural-to-urban migration by having stronger land rights in rural areas can in turn increase agricultural productivity, which increases rural incomes.”

Beth Roberts
Landesa

“People exert tremendous energy and imagination to have land claims recognized as rights, because access and use of this finite resource — land — determines their social status, wealth and power,” said Oumar Sylla, who runs UN-Habitat’s Global Land Tool Network. Land is ultimately an existential issue for many people. As a result, he said, land reform is “a highly contentious and political process, because it has very clear dimensions on people’s livelihood.”

[See: Post-conflict Colombia looks to its cities]

Part of this challenge stems from the varying natures of land ownership, which have sprung up in different ways across the world depending on local custom and tradition, in ways that can clash with progressive reform efforts.

In Ghana, for example, hereditary chiefs have been the customary owners of land for generations. “There is a lot of bad blood between national governments and traditional authorities because of compulsory acquisitions, attempts to do land reform in the past,” said Beth Roberts, a land tenure specialist at Landesa, a land rights NGO. “You always have this very widespread sense that land, access to land and rights to land are something that is really valued by most of the people in the country.”

Ghana’s government will soon introduce a land bill aimed at reducing tension with traditional authorities by straightening out the relationship between formal and customary systems of tenure. The effort comes as urbanization is rapidly increasing slumlike conditions in and around Accra, the capital and largest city. Already, a third of people in metro Accra live in informal conditions; nationally, the figure is 5.5 million out of a total population of 14 million.

[See: Habitat III prompts hope for more inclusive view toward informal settlements]

One cause of the proliferation of slumlike conditions in Accra is precisely the convoluted land situation, with smallholders and subsistence farmers at the mercy of local elites and multinational investors, who buy up cheap land for monocrop production or oil production. Swaths of land governed by Western-style rules inherited from British colonial powers and those subject to customary tribal rules often are just a few miles apart.

When land changes hands to their detriment, these farmers end up striking out for the big city and seeking out the cheapest housing possible. Thus, according to Roberts, one of the key benefits of land reform is to balance out the migration from rural to urban areas and to ensure a sustainable movement of people between the two — not just a big-city magnet sucking younger generations out of the countryside.

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

Backers say this concept, known as “integrated territorial development”, can reduce poverty and ensure food security in city and countryside alike through a more interdependent and less subservient relationship.

“Mitigating that pull factor of rural-to-urban migration by having stronger land rights in rural areas can in turn increase agricultural productivity, which increases rural incomes,” Roberts said. “That reduces the speed and the frequency and the number of people migrating to urban settings. It can also decrease poverty in urban settings, because the amount of food that’s getting to market in urban areas is increased.”

‘No distinction’

While it seems clear that successful land reform can alleviate many of the pressures of rapid urbanization, policymakers don’t necessarily think that way. “The urban dimension is not really optimized in many land policies, which just focus on rural land,” UN-Habitat’s Sylla said.

“The New Urban Agenda makes it clear that there is no distinction between urban and rural land tenure. Rather, it should be treated as a rural-urban continuum.”

Oumar Sylla
Global Land Tool Network

In many growing cities, that distinction is a blurry one, as urban sprawl and especially the growth of informal settlements on a city’s outskirts bump up against agricultural land. This area, known as the “peri-urban” zone, is a key interface between city and countryside — a place where horse-drawn carts carrying produce cross paths with minivans loading passengers for long commutes to the city centre.

However, that policy failure could be improved with the adoption at Habitat III of the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year strategy on sustainable urbanization. The document sets out key provisions on land reform in Paragraphs 35 and 49, which address different types of land tenure and the integration of rural and urban areas, respectively.

[See: The New Urban Agenda can strengthen land policies — with some caution]

Where Habitat III finally ended up on land issues met with Sylla’s approval. “The New Urban Agenda makes it clear that there is no distinction between urban and rural land tenure. Rather, it should be treated as a rural-urban continuum,” he said. “The approach to urban development as distinct from rural development is not viable and realistic, considering the complementary functions and flows of people, capital, goods and services, employment, information and technology between the two areas.”

There are bright spots already. In addition to Rwanda, Roberts cited Taiwan’s Land-to-the-Tiller programme from 1953, which Myanmar now is using as a model for new national legislation. And in 1999, Ethiopia enacted comprehensive national land reform that is now considered a regional model — and in so doing, halved its poverty rate due to the resulting improvements in agricultural efficiency. Like Rwanda, the country explicitly recognized women’s right to land for the first time.

While the bulk of land by area inevitably will cover rural rather than urban areas, the end results of such efforts are always felt in cities. “The more you have secure rights to land, the more you’re going to draw people back from urban areas,” Roberts said.

Stay up to date on global progress toward sustainable cities! Sign up for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary