Addressing land tenure security is key to achieving several Sustainable Development Goals. What are the blind spots in current research?

An increasing body of research examines the effect of tenure security on human well-being and environmental outcomes. But what does it tell us, and where is more work needed?

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Imagine an outsider suddenly claimed the land settled by your family generations ago. Worse yet, the government does not recognize your land documentation, and as a result there are no avenues to contest this outsider or receive compensation if the land is lost. The loss of land (or the fear of losing land) is a reality for many people across the world, especially for those who have the least amount of economic and political power. Insecure land tenure can have cascading adverse effects on a range of outcomes, including child malnutrition, women’s empowerment, land disinvestment, limited access to credit, and exploitation and poor management of natural resources on the land. Policymakers have recognized that ensuring people have secure tenure rights to land (hereafter referred to as land tenure security or LTS) is foundational for several Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., alleviate poverty, eradicate hunger, promote gender equality, and use land productively).

Despite decades of research looking at the effects of LTS on human well-being and environmental outcomes, there are still significant knowledge gaps that complicate policy design and implementation. We sought to fill this gap by taking stock of the rigorous evidence that has investigated the causal effects of LTS on human well-being and environmental outcomes. Our diverse set of collaborators further allowed us to contextualize our insights with the goal of informing policy efforts to strengthen LTS.

We reviewed thousands of studies to find 117 that fit our purpose of examining the effects of LTS across 42 low- and middle-income countries. We found that while the literature generally showed strengthening LTS benefits human well-being and, in many cases, the environment too, there remain important blind spots in current research efforts. First, most studies focused on evaluating the effect of LTS via titling or land documentation, raising questions about other possible interventions, such as building governance capacity, raising awareness about land rights, and devolving rights to communities. Second, our synthesis also found a lack of attention on the effects of LTS on non-economic aspects of human well-being (e.g., health and cultural identity) and longer-term environmental outcomes, such as changes in biodiversity. This gap is notable because economic and shorter-term environmental outcomes are often used, but should not be the only focus, to motivate policies around strengthening LTS. Finally, we revealed few studies looked at the effects of LTS on both human well-being and environmental outcomes jointly. Only 20% of studies simultaneously examined both types of outcomes, and among this subset half reported trade-offs (i.e., beneficial for human well-being but at the expense of the environment or vice versa).

As efforts to secure tenure increase, we call for greater focus on how LTS can improve the human condition along with the use and management of critical natural resources.

Yuta Masuda

Senior Sustainable Development and Behavioral Scientist, The Nature Conservancy