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What does the evidence say about the expected benefits of rural land tenure security?

17 September 2018

©IFAD/G.M.B. Akash

Improving farmers' land tenure security (LTS) is expected to have many economic, social and environmental benefits, and is cited as a key means of meeting SDG2: "end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture". But whilst investment in LTS interventions is subsequently growing, so are calls for increased clarity on the validity of the expected benefits of LTS, and on the contextual factors that may shape them.

IFAD produces robust research to inform rural development practice. In early 2017 we undertook an intensive evidence review to address three research questions: (i) how valid are the different expected benefits of rural LTS; (ii) what are the contextual factors that may shape the impact of LTS interventions; and (iii) where are the gaps in the existing research.

With a systematic review we identified 59 studies (36 based on quantitative data and 23 on qualitative data) that met our detailed inclusion criteria. The criteria covered studies that use quantitative or qualitative data to assess the impact of rural LTS in low- or middle-income countries, and that passed a test for methodological rigour (see Higgins & Green, 2017). We then synthesised the studies by first aggregating the findings of the quantitative studies (see chart below), and then digging into the qualitative studies to try to explain what we found.

Our analysis shows that LTS can indeed serve as a powerful tool to increase farmers' productive and conservational investment in their land, and also to empower women. In terms of productivity, income and credit access, however, the evidence is inconclusive, highlighting the need to think carefully about how these expected benefits can be achieved in specific contexts. From the qualitative studies we draw that strengthened formal LTS can fail to change perceptions of tenure security when beneficiaries have past experience with State-led land appropriation. Also, when new land administration systems are misaligned with existing traditional systems, this can give rise to elite capture, gender discrimination, and increased conflict over land.

The main expected benefit of rural LTS is that it incentivises farmers to invest in their agricultural activities, leading to greater productivity, food security and income. Our review finds substantial support for the investment effect, but less evidence for higher productivity or income, with a gap in the research for impact on food security. The short time period of many studies means that these less immediate effects may not have been detected. We also identify a substantial research gap for conflict prevalence, but find unanimously positive effects on women's empowerment indicators for LTS activities that focused specifically on women's land access. However, numerous qualitative studies note that women were often excluded from interventions without a specific female focus.

Improved credit access, achieved by using secured land as collateral, is another widely publicised expected benefit of LTS, but we find mixed evidence for this impact amongst the quantitative studies. Themes from the qualitative studies suggest local factors play an important hindering role, particularly the lending policies, loan application process, and accessibility of lending institutions.

We identify strong support for impact on investment in land conservation, the main expected environmental benefit of LTS. Qualitative insights highlight that households with stronger LTS were incentivised to take a longer-term view of their land use, and were instilled with a greater sense of responsibility to conserve their land.

This blog is based on the following paper: Higgins, D., Balint, T., Liversage, H. & Winters, P. 2018. Investigating the impacts of increased rural land tenure security: A systematic review of the evidence. Journal of Rural Studies, 61: 34-62