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Strength in Numbers: How Communal Property Rights Can Strengthen Sustainable Investment

A group of people standing around a table, pointing at a map, and discussing property rights

Matt Sommerville, Chief of Party of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Tenure and Global Climate Change (TGCC) Project, recently attended the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference, leading a team of Tetra Tech staff and beneficiaries working on activities in Zambia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Ghana, and Paraguay.

All opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.

Property rights underpin all aspects of economic and social development. Without them, individuals are less likely to make long-term investments in land, infrastructure, or other means of production. Yet over recent decades, the development community has realized that individualized property rights are not the only way to promote sustainable resource management. Rather, in many places communal and customary rights are an important mechanism for increasing sustainable investment.

A few weeks ago, I attended the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference, the world’s preeminent platform for discussing the advances in governing land and natural resources rights, which is held annually in Washington, DC. There, teams from Tetra Tech presented on diverse activities that we are implementing for USAID globally, demonstrating our project teams’ expertise in areas from livestock tenure to diamond mining, coastal landscapes, and policy interventions.

A major focus of this year’s conference was low-cost land documentation approaches. Tetra Tech’s work on the TGCC project, an effort in Zambia and Myanmar focused on land tenure and sustainable communities, provided effective case studies for how to achieve this. Through the TGCC project, we are demonstrating how to integrate new mobile technologies for data collection within traditional community engagement techniques. Using mobile technology, we have trained local partners how to generate community boundaries, and in some cases household parcel maps, something that had never previously been available at the local level.

As development practitioners, we increasingly are thinking about not only land rights, but also grazing rights, rights to trees, and subsurface mining rights. In many developing countries, the rights of pastoralists to graze and migrate may be constrained by efforts to document agricultural rights. Reconciling these types of potential conflicts is at the heart of Tetra Tech’s development work and can be seen in practice through the USAID-funded Land Administration to Nurture Development (LAND) project in Ethiopia. Additionally, Tetra Tech’s Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development (PRADD II) program in West Africa is exploring how to bring small-scale diamond mining under the umbrella of legally traded diamonds, while also exploring how diamond profits have been reinvested in cashew tree plantations, leading to new uses of historical grazing areas.

The role of private sector investors was also an important theme at the conference, and an area that TGCC is working on. For instance, cocoa in Ghana is sourced from thousands of smallholder producers, many of whom do not have rights to the land they farm. TGCC is assisting companies to examine how strengthening smallholder rights to land, and even trees, can support land rehabilitation in Ghana. Similarly in Paraguay, we help companies understand how knowledge of claims of traditional community rights can support improved land use by the cattle industry. The maps we developed in Myanmar and Zambia may also act as a tool for communities to negotiate with private sector investors.

The last, and probably most important aspect, to highlight is the visit of Chieftainess Mkanda. Tetra Tech had the great privilege to host Chieftainess Mkanda of the Chewa people of Zambia throughout the conference week, where the Chieftainess spoke eloquently on the role of local leaders in sustainable land management. She noted that “We live in the village, we know our subjects and the challenges they face. As traditional leaders, we are well placed to manage land allocation based on peoples’ needs and to protect our peoples’ rights. We need support from the state in extension and a framework to share information, but we bring local legitimacy to land management.” Hence, Chieftainess Mkanda echoed the need for interventions that encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue to address long-standing challenges. Her presence at the conference also demonstrated Tetra Tech’s commitment to ensuring that the voice of local beneficiaries and partners reaches the ears of decision makers.

I am confident that Tetra Tech will continue to play an important role in future World Bank Land and Poverty Conferences, as we continue to focus on bringing integrated development approaches and innovations into field implementation activities.

About the author

Headshot of Matt Sommerville

Matt Sommerville

Matt Sommerville is a senior associate with Tetra Tech’s environment and natural resources team and served as Chief of Party for the USAID-funded TGCC program.

Based in Zambia, Matt oversees field-based activities of more than fifty staff in Zambia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Ghana, and Paraguay, as well as analytical products from an additional eight countries, each of which focuses on understanding and expanding the role of secure property rights on sustainable livelihoods and management of natural resources. Prior to leading TGCC, Matt was a member of Tetra Tech’s Environment and Natural Resources sector and Land Tenure and Property Rights sector managing global contracts on climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as on Liberia’s forest management. He holds a PhD in Biology from Imperial College London, an MSc from Oxford University, and a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College.
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