In 1967, an article about land reform in Latin America by the law professor Roy Prosterman caught the attention of the U.S. military, which was struggling to support South Vietnam’s faltering government and to keep poor Vietnamese farmers from abandoning their fields to join the Vietcong. Prosterman’s article argued that secure land rights offered farmers a stable path out of poverty and a reason to stay on their plots. In the years that followed, Prosterman (who later founded Landesa, the land rights group I now direct) worked in Vietnam to understand the problems faced by poor farmers and help the government develop a law to address them. Begun in 1970, South Vietnam’s “land to the tiller” law eventually secured land rights for one million Vietnamese farmers. In the areas of South Vietnam where the law was implemented, between 1970 and 1973, rice production rose by 30 percent, and monthly Vietcong recruitment fell by 80 percent.
In the decades since, dozens of countries have made progress by quietly undertaking similar reforms. Yet many nations still have not gotten around to formalizing the land rights of their citizens: according to the World Bank, only ten percent of the occupied land in rural Africa and 30 percent of the occupied land around the world is legally documented. Moreover, some 1.5 billion people depend on indigenous or community holdings—but only around a fifth of that area is legally recognized. Such gaps contribute to social dysfunction, entrench poverty, provoke conflict, and exacerbate environmental destruction. The good news is that policymakers, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations are increasingly prioritizing land rights in their development agendas.
Most people who live in poverty depend on land for their survival. Yet those who lack secure legal rights to own or use that land are not able to protect it from being seized by more powerful interests. This insecurity discourages investment: farmers without secure land rights, for example, often decline to make long-term commitments in the form of better seeds, soil improvements, or
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