August 19, 2019 | By Kalkidan Lakew Yihun

Next Generation 2019 – Connecting Tenure Security with Innovative Agricultural Practices

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2019 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2019, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

At the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium, USAID’s Beth Dunford reminded us of the need to talk about both food and water. She said, "We can't talk about food without talking about water, and we can't talk about water without food." While listening to her fascinating flash talk, I added a note to myself: we can't talk about either without talking about land.

Human lives and livelihood depend on the earth, making land a crucial resource for life. Land is particularly essential for millions of small-holding farmers in developing countries—it is not just a source of food but also creates a sense of identity and community. Unfortunately, the majority of small-holder farmers in developing countries often do not hold a secure right to their land.

According to estimates, about 70 percent of people in developing countries lack any form of registration of their land, creating weak and insecure land tenure for the millions of small-holding farmers, farmers who are already at risk of food insecurity, and vulnerable to unlawful eviction by powerful forces, mainly their government. The recent global land-grab rush by foreign investors following the 2008 commodity crisis is among the significant contributors to the growing eviction and marginalization of smallholder farmers in developing countries. Since the beginning of the 2008 food crisis, developing countries have sold farmland eight times the size of the United Kingdom to wealthy investing countries. Land grabbing often occurs in the world's poorest countries, and usually these countries have weak laws and protection. According to the IMF, countries such as Angola—that rank near the bottom of the Worldwide Governance Indicators—have shown an increase in land acquisition by 33 percent, compared to countries such as Brazil—which rank around the middle—demonstrating the importance of governance in protecting land rights.

Governments often claim the land that is being leased to foreign investors is “unused” or “underutilized,” but the reality is different. Communities are often stripped from land due to land transactions. Sadly, out of the many African governments that are facilitating such land transaction, my country, Ethiopia, is among the top. Between 1995 and 2016, Ethiopia transferred at least 7 million hectares of agricultural land to what the Government claimed were investors. And yet, despite such a large scale of agricultural investments, the country has not improved its long-standing history of food insecurity. In May 2009, The Economist pointed out the irony of Saudi Arabia spending almost as much money on agricultural investment in Ethiopia as the UN World Food Programme was spending on food aid in that country ($116 million). Such a growing trend of land grabbing in poor and food-insecure countries has often triggered conflict and dispute over land. My master's research focuses on such issues, and explores the broader, underlying land-based tensions that are driving inter-group conflict in rural Ethiopia.

Land grabbing is not the only factor that contributes to land-based conflict: several other interconnected social, economic, and political factors also fuel and refuel land-based conflict, not just in Ethiopia but in many African countries. However, my research adds to the growing body of evidence that the lack of strong tenure security for Ethiopian farmers is at the heart of the problem.  In Ethiopia, rights to land are vested in the State. Farmers only enjoy usufruct rights (rights to the use and fruit of land but not ownership) and are at risk of expropriation when land is needed for ‘public purposes’. According to Acemoglu and Johnson, the risk of arbitrary expropriation is a significant barrier to investment, making property rights detrimental for investment.

For all these reasons, I was surprised that, in the many useful discussions during the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium in regards to innovative agricultural practice, very little was said about land rights. How can we work with farmers to help them adopt sustainable agricultural technologies if their land could be taken away from them very easily and very quickly?

I resonate with my fellow Delegate, Jellie Molino, a lawyer from the Philippines, who reminded us of the importance of legal protection for farmers to enjoy equitable share of natural resources, and with Annah Latane, a Food Security and Agriculture Specialist with RTI International, whose flash talk took us to Senegal as she pointed out that farmers need predictability, stability, and insurance. I can relate my own research on land tenure security to her points—stable and secure tenure matters for farmers if we want to foster investment. As a 2019 delegate for the Council, my biggest take away is the need to match the inspiring innovative agricultural solutions we heard about for two days with the legal aspects of land rights. Roy Steiner of the Rockefeller Foundation left us with the need to begin our vision with what the world could look like if we make the right decision.  My vision for Ethiopia and other developing countries with weak tenure is to identify the many possible right decisions we can make to ensure that farmers and pastoralists are not further pushed away from their lands and to help find affordable solutions they could adopt to sustainably secure their land—their food and water.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.