Human Rights, Land and Rural Development


Land rights are no longer governed by the law of the strongest. That is what the international community has agreed to. Governments and private companies have a duty to respect human rights and avoid corruption.

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Shewa Province, north of the capital Addis Ababa: Ethiopia is repeatedly hit by food crises. © Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

By Michael Windfuhr

(c) Dennis Williamson

Michael Windfuhr is a political scientist, educated at the University of Heidelberg. Since 2011, he has been the Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights, the national human rights institution of Germany. For the five years prior to this, he served as Human Rights Director of Bread for the World, the development organisation of the Protestant church of Germany.

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Three-quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas. These are mostly landless agricultural workers (around 20 percent) who often suffer from lack of seasonal employment or are often underpaid, or small-scale farming families (around 50 percent) who often have insecure access to productive resources like land, seeds or water, and receive scant support from state institutions. Although these farming families grow food, they cannot properly feed themselves on what they harvest and sell. They require income from agricultural production to buy enough food and to pay for other services such as health care or education for the family.


Many of these smallholder families are marginalised: the available land is often too small, for instance in South Asia, where many families own less than half a hectare. The farms are often located on steep slopes or in regions that dry out easily, or - as in Bangladesh - in regions that regularly flood. Marginalisation can also mean that farming families have no access to land titles, loans, and therefore also seeds, especially if they are led by women. A lack of transport and infrastructure often makes families dependent on a few middlemen. In any case, agricultural consultation is rather rudimentary in many countries. For many of these disadvantaged families, a combination of such factors is the reason why, as farmers, they cannot feed themselves from their land, and cannot therefore earn sufficient income. These families are also highly vulnerable to external influences: weather irregularities, climate change or increased import pressures can quickly endanger their production or its subsequent sale. Eight percent of this starving population is also nomadic, and thus dependent on livestock, fishing or the use of forests.

(c) Steffen Kugler/World Vision
Industrial logging in the Congo Basin endangers the traditional pygmy habitat. © Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World.

The high proportion of landless families, especially in India and Latin America, illustrates that two things are important for improving their situation: on the one hand, access to resources such as the distribution of unused land within the framework of agrarian reforms; on the other hand, creating more jobs in rural areas and stabilising incomes in the area. Many jobs could be created, especially in the processing of locally produced food and its trade.


Any effective strategy to reduce the number of starving and undernourished people must therefore include measures to facilitate access to land, seeds and water for these groups and to reduce their discrimination and marginalisation. Functioning infrastructure and reliable, constitutionally functioning institutions play a key role here. Rural regions in particular are politically neglected in many countries, and are not sufficiently taken into account in national budgets. Few African countries have a properly resourced rural development budget. [1] The infrastructure for transport, warehousing, processing and access to credit and banks is often underdeveloped in these countries. Additionally, all types of advisory infrastructure are particularly weak or non-existent, from agricultural consulting and reliable weather and market information to advice on the latest findings from agricultural research on adaptation to climate change.


Land rights and land governance as a special challenge


These problems are particularly evident in the land sector which, in many countries, is characterised by a rapid increase in investment in land together with often underdeveloped infrastructure and land governance in many rural areas. Given the major challenges in the sector, the "Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests" were adopted by the FAO Council in 2012. [2]

These are a response to the 2007/08 global food and financial crisis, after which a boom in land investment was recorded. [3]

(c) Steffen Kugler/World Vision
Ethiopia: A farmer growing onions on his smallholding. © Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

A human rights-based document was drafted detailing what good governance should be in the land sector. The text makes it clear that the human rights obligation to "governance" in the land sector comes from the pact on economic, social and cultural human rights, derived from the right to adequate food. The guidelines begin by outlining the principles that should shape any land policy.


First, it highlights the three key procedural principles of human rights: non-discrimination, participation and transparency. In many countries, land policy is characterised by a lack of transparency about investment projects and who will be affected by them.  If those affected are not consulted early enough, they are often overlooked in further planning and implementation. Often, minorities or certain groups such as women are systematically discriminated against in land policy. The text points out that those affected are not just people who formally own land titles, but all people who can legitimately show that they have benefited from land use and earned income from it. Even poorer people often use community pastures for their goats or sheep, and collect plants or fruits in forests, thus stabilising their income and nutritional situation. The text points out that indigenous land users have special rights of participation, and that their consent to change must be sought. Other principles include gender equality and constitutional procedures.


The main body of the voluntary guidelines states how to ensure that human rights are respected and that vulnerable groups are not overlooked in three key processes for the land sector:


  1. Any form of land registration must be handled very sensitively for all types of land use, from formal ownership to habitual uses such as the regular gathering of forest fruits. If groups of people are not properly registered, they will quickly be overlooked in later changes such as the sale of land.
  2. Land administration must function in accordance with the rule of law to exclude corruption, with the possibility of challenging any decisions made as directly as possible in the proceedings and, if necessary, challenging them in court.
  3. This especially applies to all land transfer procedures. The voluntary guidelines formulate minimum standards for investments in land, forest and fishery resources, for expropriations, for compensation processes and forms, for agrarian reform measures and redistributive agrarian reform. At the same time, the text requires maximum transparency, participation and no corruption when assessing the land, setting prices and taking all relevant steps.


The voluntary guidelines are first and foremost addressed to governments. Good governance in the land sector is a requirement for the implementation of the right to adequate food. At the same time, the text also addresses private entities. In paragraph 3.2, the text refers to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted unanimously in the Human Rights Council in 2011, and stresses that private companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and to exercise due care in doing so.


Overall, the voluntary guidelines address a twofold concern: to set minimum standards for land governance and investment, while ensuring that particularly disadvantaged groups with precarious or lacking access to productive resources are not overlooked, and thereby lose their access to these resources without alternatives or adequate compensation. In doing so, the guidelines describe precisely how the participation of those concerned can be ensured, how land-access and governance discrimination can be avoided, how traditional and informal rights of use can be respected, how the rights of indigenous peoples can be adequately taken into account, and finally how corruption can be avoided.


Additional information:


The African Union ministers’ decision in 2004 to spend more than ten percent of national budgets on agricultural and rural development has so far only been achieved by a few countries.


"Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests”, adopted by the FAO Council in May 2012.


Land market trends have been well documented for years by the Land Matrix Initiative ( last consulted on 24.08.2018), which seeks to bring transparency to the numerous land sales and planned land deals. The initiative is supported by various national and international, state and private organisations, including the International Land Coalition and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).

Über den Autoren

Michael Windfuhr

(c) Dennis Williamson

Michael Windfuhr is a political scientist, educated at the University of Heidelberg. Since 2011, he has been the Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights, the national human rights institution of Germany. For the five years prior to this, he served as Human Rights Director of Bread for the World, the development organisation of the Protestant church of Germany.

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