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2.1 Throughout history, land has been recognized as a primary source of wealth, social status, and power. It is the basis for shelter, food, and economic activities; it is the most significant provider of employment opportunities in rural areas and is an increasingly scarce resource in urban areas. Access to water and other resources, as well as to basic services such as sanitation and electricity, is often conditioned by access to rights in land. The willingness and ability to make long term investments in arable land and in housing is directly dependent on the protection that society affords the holders of rights. Thus, any concept of sustainable development relies heavily on both access to property rights in land and the security of those rights.

2.2 Land also has great cultural, religious, and legal significance. There is a strong correlation in many societies between the decision-making powers that a person enjoys and the quantity and quality of land rights held by that person. In rural areas social inclusion or exclusion often depends solely on a person’s land holding status. Even in urban areas, the right to participate in municipal planning, in community decisions, and sometimes elections, can depend on the status of an individual as a “resident” or “home owner”. This is not a new phenomenon, since for many centuries only “land owners” could participate in elections in most western democracies. Access to land then is an important aspect of household, community, and national decision-making powers.

2.3 Access to land is governed through land tenure systems. Land tenure is the relationship, whether legally or customarily defined, among people, as individuals or groups, with respect to land. (For convenience, “land” is used here to include other natural resources such as water and trees.) Rules of tenure define how property rights in land are to be distributed within societies, along with associated responsibilities and restraints. In simple terms, land tenure systems determine who can use what resources, for how long, and under what conditions.

2.4 The manner in which rights to land are actually distributed and used can be very complex. Land tenure is often categorised as:

In practice, most forms of holdings may be found within a given society, for example, common grazing rights, private residential and agricultural holdings, and state ownership of forests.

2.5 Rights to land are diverse and, in practice, multiple rights to an object can be held by several persons or groups. This has given rise to the concept of the “bundle of rights”. Different rights to the same parcel of land, such as rights to sell the land, rights to use the land through a lease, or rights to travel across the land, may be pictured as “sticks in the bundle”, each of which may be held by a different party. Although a large and varied number of rights may exist, it is sometimes useful to illustrate that rights of access to land can take the form of:

Very often, the poor in a community have only use rights. A woman, for example, may have the right to use to land to grow crops to feed the family, while her husband may collect the profits from selling any crops at the market. While such simplifications can be useful, it should be noted that the exact manner in which rights to land are actually distributed and enjoyed can be very complex.

2.6 The rules of land tenure are applied and made operational through land administration. Land administration, whether formal or informal, comprises an extensive range of systems and processes to administer:

2.7 In many communities, access to land resources is governed by both statutory and customary laws. Conflicts can exist between traditional norms and national laws, as is often the case when land rights are considered. Local norms as enforced by community members are most likely to prevail, particularly in rural areas. National constitutions and laws granting equal access to productive resources are essential for gender equity. However, for these rights to appear legitimate and be enforced, they need to be accepted by the local community. Such acceptance is primarily enhanced through local community involvement in the process of the design and implementation, as well as the approach used during information and education campaigns. Understanding the local situation, as well as the national legal structure, is therefore essential in land-related programmes.

2.8 Increasingly, the dramatic demographic, economic and social changes affecting urban and rural communities in developing economies is marginalising those who are least equipped to cope with these shifts. Whether the issue is growth of informal settlements in urban areas, the decreasing role of men in the community due to labour migration, or the need to readjust household relations to accommodate the elderly, the orphaned, and the sick, people need to be able to access land and shelter efficiently and equitably.

2.9 As nontraditional household arrangements emerge, and as rural lands become engulfed in the urban fringe, the greatest risks of losing access to land fall generally to the most disadvantaged segments of society. Nations and communities need to rethink how overstressed land resources will be accessed and allocated in order to adjust to the changing demands and opportunities at the local level. The economic and social well-being of households are at increased risk when maintenance and decision-making roles are altered by, for example, death, divorce, abandonment or disability. When the heads of households do not or cannot exercise their traditional responsibilities there is a need to ensure that remaining household members have appropriate access to the land that supports them.

2.10 The changing dynamics of households and communities must be considered in land administration if it is to be effective and equitable. Improving gender inclusive access to land, and the benefits from land, may be one way to overcome economic and social disadvantages. Men as well as women can suffer discrimination in society through, for example, age, health, or education and they should also be seen as “an untapped resource”.

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