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 persons 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:
Private: the assignment of rights to a private party who may be an individual, a married couple, a group of people, or a corporate body such as a commercial entity or non-profit organization. For example, within a community, individual families may have exclusive rights to residential parcels, agricultural parcels and certain trees. Other members of the community can be excluded from using these resources without the consent of those who hold the rights.
Communal: a right of commons may exist within a community where each member has a right to use independently the holdings of the community. For example, members of a community may have the right to graze cattle on a common pasture.
Open access: specific rights are not assigned to anyone and no-one can be excluded. This typically includes marine tenure where access to the high seas is generally open to anyone; it may include rangelands, forests, etc, where there may be free access to the resources for all. (An important difference between open access and communal systems is that under a communal system non-members of the community are excluded from using the common areas.)
State: property rights are assigned to some authority in the public sector. For example, in some countries, forest lands may fall under the mandate of the state, whether at a central or decentralised level of government.
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:
use rights: the right to use the land for grazing, growing subsistence crops, gathering minor forestry products, etc.
control rights: the right to make decisions on how the land should be used and to benefit financially from the sale of crops, etc.
transfer rights: the right to sell or mortgage the land, to convey the land to others through intra-community reallocations or to heirs, and to reallocate use and control rights.
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:
land rights: the allocation of rights in land; the delimitation of boundaries of parcels for which the rights are allocated; the transfer from one party to another through sale, lease, loan, gift or inheritance; the registration of land rights; and the adjudication of doubts and disputes regarding rights and parcel boundaries.
land-use regulation: land-use planning and enforcement and the adjudication of land use conflicts.
land valuation and taxation: the gathering of revenues through forms of land valuation and taxation, and the adjudication of land valuation and taxation disputes.
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.