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25
Sep

Are Property Rights Human Rights?

Which human rights are the most important? Ask this question in a developed economy and you will likely hear: the right to freedom of speech, religious freedom, or the right to freedom from discrimination and so on.

Rarely, if ever, will this list include land and property rights — even though this right is the foundation of the Western economic system and so critical that US founding father James Madison once said, “Government is instituted no less for the protection of the property than of the person.”

Land and property rights often don’t make it into lists of top ten rights or even consciousness in developed economies not because they aren’t valued, but — in part — because they are usually so secure and secured so long ago that they are taken for granted (with the notable exceptions of indigenous groups).

Without secure property rights, you could leave for work in the morning and come home to find that someone had changed the lock on your home and moved in. Or someone could claim your vegetable garden just as you were preparing to harvest your sugar snap peas and lettuce.

For most people in Europe, North America, and some parts of Asia, this is so beyond the realm of possibility that we don’t give secure land and property rights much thought.

But ask any farmer, indigenous community, or resident in a shanty town in an emerging economy — where the World Bank maintains that the vast majority of property rights are undocumented and land governance systems are either non-existent or non-functional — what rights they need to climb out of poverty and you will hear a resounding: secure land and property rights.

Indeed, land rights — particularly the lack of secure land rights — continue to capture headlines across emerging economies. Just last week, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told the African Green Revolution Forum that the continent would continue to be stalked by poverty, hunger, and famine until governments strengthened smallholder farmers land rights and finally gave them the security and opportunity they need to invest in their land and improve their harvests and their lives.

Research around the world supports this view of land rights as the foundation for development. Secure land rights have been found to increase productivity by as much as 50 percent, double the rate of high-school graduation, and increase conservation.

The impact is even more pronounced when women gain secure rights to land. Study after study shows that economically empowering women starts with land rights. In Tanzania, women with secure rights to land have three times more income.

In Nepal, children whose mothers have secure rights to land are one-third less likely to be malnourished. In India, where 40 percent of people believe wife beating to be sometimes justifiable, women who own land are 8 times less likely to experience domestic violence.


Despite this clear evidence, women’s rights to land and property continue to be undermined by discriminatory laws and practices in more than half the countries on the planet. This not only frustrates women’s ability to climb out of poverty, but also leaves their children and community less resilient and poorer.

A new interactive survey is now helping to illustrate the gap between those who have secure property rights and those who do not. Take the 10 question survey developed by Habitat for Humanity’s Solid Ground Campaign and Cadasta Foundation and explore the gap between the haves and the have nots with regard to land rights: GotLandRights.com

This article was originally posted on one.org.

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