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Pro-Poor Policy Reforms and Governance in State/Public Lands : A Critical Civil Society Perspective

Contemporary policy discussions around land issues concern the contested past and
uncertain future of public/state lands worldwide, taken in the context of two broad
currents in the development policy discourses, namely, effective poverty reduction
strategies and efficient land governance approaches. This paper offers a civil society
perspective on this complex development question. It examines the question using the
lenses of poverty reduction, governance, human rights, and empowerment. State/public
land is an important category in contemporary discourses around pro-poor policy and
governance because of the enormity of its scope worldwide in terms of actual land area
and the number of rural poor directly linked to it. But it is a category that is not fully
understood by mainstream state and non-state actors, including many civil society
actors. It is especially crucial to specify the key criteria of a ‘pro-poor land policy’ and
‘truly democratic land governance’ concerning state/public lands. This paper attempts to
do that, using insights and lessons from previous scholarly studies and also empirical
cases drawn from activist databases, including that of the international human rights
organization Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN).
“States and the international system have not been capable of defeating poverty and
hunger in the world. We reiterate our call to our governments, to the FAO, to the other
institutions of the UN system, and to the other actors who will be present in the ICARRD,
and our societies, to decisively commit themselves to carrying out a New Agrarian
Reform based on Food Sovereignty, Territory, Dignity of the Peoples, and which
guarantees us, as peasants, family farmers, indigenous peoples, communities of artisanal
fisherfolk, pastoralists, landless peoples, rural workers, afro-descendants, unemployed
workers, Dalit and other rural communities, the effective access and control over the
natural and productive resources that we need to truly realize our human rights.”

Importance and relevance of the issue

For organizations and movements of the landless or near-landless rural poor
today, many of whose rights are either fragile, insecure or non-existent, land has a
multidimensional character. Land is crucial for constructing a rural livelihood, for laying
the foundations for social inclusion and empowered political participation especially in
development-related decision making, and for ensuring cultural and collective identities.
Full and meaningful, effective access to land is central to their existence and survival.
Most close observers today agree that there is a strong connection between state/public
land and rural poverty, while at the same time, rural society remains heterogeneous with
much social differentiation along class, gender, ethnic and historical lines. Given this,
how to ensure full and effective access to land resources for the rural poor in state/public
land is of major concern.

The conventional perspective and the need to rethink it

Conventional thinking about land policy in public/state lands revolves around two
broadly distinct but related streams of thought, both of which are concerned with
‘combating poverty’. The first current emphasizes the productive assets deemed
necessary for the rural poor to construct livelihoods, views public/state lands as having
great potential to be transformed into active capital of the rural poor, and sees the need to
carry out reforms in terms of how these lands are officially recognized, (re)allocated, and
used within and between households and communities. The second current emphasizes
making the necessary reforms while at the same time promoting good governance, or the
most technically and administratively efficient ways and means to carry out ‘pro-poor
land policies’ (usually assumed to be the most transparent, fastest and cheapest as well).
While both streams of thought correctly draw a link between rural poverty and
state/public lands, they both suffer fatal analytic weaknesses that undermine their power
for pro-poor land policymaking (broadly defined). The first weakness has to do with their
understanding of landed property rights as ‘things’ and not social relations ; and the
second has to do with their ‘blindness’ to several key dimensions in the stratification of
human life, which if left ‘unseen’ will inevitably impede truly pro-poor land
policymaking.


Toward an alternative framework for pro-poor land policy

Too often, ‘pro-poor’ land policymaking has had the reverse character and effect
in reality, leading to crooked processes and skewed outcomes favouring elites rather than
the rural poor. This suggests that it is not enough to claim that land policies aimed at
public lands are pro-poor ; it must be so in practice, in terms of both the process and the
outcome. But how to achieve this is not obvious. What is needed is an alternative
framework that is capable of understanding better the importance of effective access to
land by the rural poor, of anticipating the obstacles to achieving effective access, and
identifying possible steps forward. We propose a set of core criteria that we believe can
be used toward the construction of alternative approaches that will be more capable than
the existing ones of generating truly pro-poor land policies and policy outcomes. The
proposed framework is grounded in a human-rights based perspective that takes seriously
the heterogeneity of rural society in terms of class, gender, ethnicity and history, and that
gives absolute primacy to promoting and boosting rural poor people’s full and
meaningful, effective access to land-based wealth and power in state/public land.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.