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L'importance des données foncières en matière de prises de décisions

Ce document récapitule les idées courantes relatives à la nature et à l'incidence des données foncières, y compris leur poids dans l'élaboration des stratégies. Une réunion d'experts qui s'est tenue au siège de la FAO en septembre 2005 a étudié les données recueillies au niveau mondial par une série d'études de cas traitant des données foncières, qui ne laissent aucun doute sur l'importance des données foncières. La nature des données ainsi que les défis que représentent la durabilité, la cohérence, la diffusion et les applications diffèrent selon les circonstances. Le document se termine par une classification générale des exigences en matière de données foncières à l'usage des divers niveaux de gouvernement et indique le rôle que pourraient être amenées à jouer les instances internationales en matière d'élaboration de bases de données foncières. Les données exigibles en matière de stratégies relèvent d'un degré d'abstraction plus élevé que celles utilisées à des fins opérationnelles de façon que les tendances et les associations puissent être analysées.

La importancia de los datos de titularidad territorial en la toma de decisiones

Este artículo resume el pensamiento actual sobre la naturaleza y la magnitud de los datos de titularidad territorial, incluida su importancia en la toma de decisiones. Una reunión de expertos celebrada en la sede de la FAO en septiembre de 2005 analizó los resultados de una serie de estudios de casos a nivel mundial sobre los datos de titularidad territorial, que no dejaron dudas sobre la importancia de los datos de tenencia de la tierra. La naturaleza de los datos y los problemas de sostenibilidad, coherencia, dispersión y aplicaciones varían según el contexto. El artículo finaliza con una clasificación general de las necesidades de datos de tenencia para los diferentes niveles de gobierno e indica cuál ha de ser el papel de los organismos internacionales en el ámbito de las bases de datos de titularidad territorial. Los datos necesarios para el diseño de políticas se encuentran a un mayor nivel de abstracción que los utilizados a efectos operativos, por lo que es posible analizar las tendencias y las asociaciones.

The importance of land tenure data in decision-making

R. Grover, M-P. Törhönen and D. Palmer

Richard Grover, Assistant Dean (Finance & Resources) SoBE, Oxford Brookes University

Mika-Petteri Törhönen, Land Tenure Officer, Land Tenure Service, FAO Rural Development Division

David Palmer, Land Registration and Cadastre Officer, Land Tenure Service, FAO Rural Development Division

This article summarizes current thinking on the nature and significance of land tenure data, including their significance in policy-making. An expert meeting at FAO in September 20051 explored the findings of a series of Worldwide case studies on land tenure data, which leave no doubt as to the importance of such data. The nature of the data and the challenges of sustainability, coherence, dissemination and applications vary according to context. The article ends with a general classification of land tenure data needs for the different levels of government and makes suggestions for the role of international bodies in the field of land tenure databases. The data needed for policy-making is at a higher level of abstraction than that used for operational purposes so that trends and associations can be analysed.

Land tenure and land policy

Land tenure defines the relationship between people and land and other natural resources. It determines who has access to land and who can be excluded from it; the terms and conditions of that access; the rights and obligations that such access gives rise to; how land can be used and controlled; and the means and circumstances by which the rights and obligations can be transferred to others. A land tenure System means that a number of interests can exist simultaneously in the same parcel of land. For example, a right to graze animals or to forage may exist alongside cultivation rights, or the right to use the land at present can coexist with a right to take possession of the land at some point in the future. The ability of a land tenure System to allow for the creation of a number of different and intersecting rights over land makes it likely that there will be a number of people who have interests in the same parcel of land. Land tenure is concerned with regulating these different interests and overcoming potential conflicts among them.

Land tenure is essentially a social phenomenon, comprising rules invented by society to regulate behaviour (FAO, 2002, p. 7). Property “is not a thing but a power relationship - a relationship of social and légal legitimacy existing between a person and a valued resource” (Gray and Gray, 2005, p. 102). It legitimizes access to land and natural resources by individuals and groups and provides the validation by society of claims to land and land rights. The legitimization of access to land is likely to reflect power structures and may not be equitable. “Land tenure structures mirror the distribution of power within society. While access to land is not recognised as a human right as such, it may be considered as a means to achieve fundamental human rights as defined by international conventions” (Commission of the European Communities, 2004).

The social legitimization of land rights means that tenure Systems reflect the social structures of their societies, together with their norms, values and belief Systems, and the shared experiences of the society. Land tenure arrangements therefore vary not only in the rights themselves, but also in terms of the means by which they are defined, recorded and enforced.

Understanding land tenure is central to strategies to achieve food security, alleviate poverty, provide for peaceful closure to confLicts and promote environmental sustainability. “In countries coming out of conflict, fair and just handling of land tenure questions will often be central to reconstruction, both to maintain peace and provide conditions under which sustainable economic growth can be re-established” (Commission of the European Communities, 2004).

Security of tenure encourages investment and the development of sustainable means of using land and natural resources. Flexibility in land tenure allows households to adjust their holdings and production to meet changing circumstances. The variability of land tenure among societies, communities and even within countries adds to the complexity of recording and analysing land tenure data in a consistent manner.

The initial case studies prepared for this FAO project showed that there were some important relationships between land tenure and, for example, the financial strength of farming businesses, the age of farmers, farm sizes and production choices (Grover, 2003). It is likely that there are other important relationships with land tenure - for example, farming methods and their impact on the environment, which also need to be explored. In order to do this, governments and researchers need access to good quality land tenure data. Data on specific aspects of land tenure can allow policy-makers to track the dynamics of land tenure, to identify and quantify emerging issues, to formulate effective development policies, to plan actions for the mitigation of adverse trends and to monitor and evaluate current policies.

Land tenure data for policy-making differs from land tenure data used operationally, for example in land registration and cadastre Systems, which provide information on specific land rights and responsibilities and are used to provide security of tenure or to collect revenues. The data collected for operational purposes may still provide base data for the policy-makers but are rarely useful without an additional analysis and comparison to other data sets. Policy-making requires operational land tenure data to be summarized in a systematic and consistent fashion. The data are therefore of a higher order and more abstract, with detail about the individual case but enabling the identification of broader trends and associations. The operational databases often fail to record changes in land use, which limits their relevance in policy-making.

Land tenure databases initiative

The importance of land tenure data for rural development policies and the pressures on land tenure led the FAO Land Tenure Service to commission a series of studies on land tenure data. The purpose is to support the Member Nations of the Organization in their analysis and understanding of the role of land tenure in rural development. Given that relatively few national agricultural censuses and other appropriate data collection activities record much data on land tenure, this activity supports Member Nations that are considering inclusion of such data by identifying what data may be useful and why.

The articles in this issue of Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives present findings of FAO-commissioned country case studies and regional synthesis studies, which were prepared for the land tenure data expert meeting held at FAO headquarters in Rome in September 2005. Since 2002, FAO has assisted Member Nations in Central and Eastern Europe to understand the importance of maintaining national data on land tenure and, in particular, to understand the land tenure data requirements of the EU accession by analysing the experience of countries already within the European Union (EU). Since 2004, further FAO activities have targeted Africa and Asia and, to an extent, Latin America. Europe is unique in this group in that EU membership provides a strong common factor and defines the needs and requirements for land tenure data. In other regions, the land tenure data scene is much more scattered and complex. For example, Orapan Nabangchang-Srisawalak's (2006a, 2006b) and Brett Ballard's (2006) articles introduce cases of neighbours in Southeast Asia, Thailand and Cambodia. Although they have had very different recent histories, they face common challenges in land tenure, though in different states of development.

It has become evident that, while there is often good state-of-the-art knowledge among the land professionals, which is particularly true in Europe but also in other regions, there is a growing need to increase awareness among policy-makers of the importance of land tenure and the monitoring of changes in land tenure and land markets. The accumulated technical knowledge seems not to have been reflected at the decision-making levels. This issue provides Consolidated knowledge and messages for land tenure professionals and, through them, for policy-makers. The expert meeting identified the following conclusions as having a common global relevance.

Pressures on land tenure systems

The articles in this issue show that land tenure Systems in many parts of the world are being obliged to respond to major economic, environmental and political pressures for change. For example, in Central and Eastern Europe, land tenure has undergone a fundamental change since the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with private ownership and commercial tenancies, which have been created as a result of privatization and restitution of land, replacing state farms and cooperatives (Evtimov, 2006). Accession to the EU requires the new Member States to open up their land markets to foreign ownership and occupancy as part of the EU's policies of free mobility of capital and enterprise (Grover, 2006). In Thailand, the expansion of agricultural land through encroachment into forests has brought about far-reaching economic and environmental consequences as the balance of the ecosystems has been disturbed, yet the newly cleared forest areas are generally unsuitable for agricultural production (Nabangchang-Srisawalak, 2006b). Cambodia has had to deal with the disruption to land tenure and land administration that resulted from civil confLict, war, the collectivization policies of the Khmer Rouge and related dislocations of population (Ballard, 2006). Post-apartheid South Africa faces the tensions of a dual System. A System of well-established property rights and land administration on white-owned private commercial farms is coupled with low security of tenure for the rural black population that lives on them, while the black population living in communal areas is largely outside the formal land administration System (Lahiff, 2006). Land tenure in Benin is characterized by a postcolonial legal and institutional pluralism where formal, informal, communal and individual land rights dynamically alternate, coexist, compete and overlap, thereby failing to provide légal finality and clarity to the land tenure situation (Le Meur, 2006a), which is a common theme in Africa (Le Meur 2006b). Many countries in Latin America face basic challenges that include inequitable distribution of land and low levels of security of tenure (Herrera, 2006).

Land tenure data

Although land tenure data are important for land management and land policy, the variability of land tenure makes it difficult to record. Consistency in recording can be achieved only at the cost of a loss of important detail. Generalization is possible at the level of the shared values embodied in land tenure Systems, but such summaries are likely to lose the local values that define particular tenure Systems. Nevertheless, a hierarchy of data needs can be identified and a satisfactory series of related land tenure databases may be constructed.

Local communities

In a number of countries the lowest tier of government for the delivery of public services comprises several distinct communities. Sometimes communities are divided between local government areas even though they recognize themselves as being part of a wider collective. Communities may be defined geographically, but may also define themselves by reference to characteristics, such as faith or ethnicity, and their leaders may not be recognized as having a place in formal governmental or political structures. In such societies there may be a need for community land tenure rights to be secured by defining, recording and regularizing informal and customary rights and obligations. A local land tenure database can play an important part in preserving informal knowledge and making it more widely accessible. Such knowledge may currently be recorded orally, including in the form of myths and legends retold through generations, possibly supported by monuments and cultural artefacts. The resolution of disputes requires sufficient detail about the tenure rights so that confLicting claims become apparent if there are competing rights in the same land parcels. It also requires information about the locations to which land tenure rights apply. The disputes can be inter-or intra-communities, but can also be between communities and the state or other external interests. Public involvement in the recording and protection of such rights spreads the high fixed costs over the community as a whole, enabling resources that would have to be devoted to the defence of such rights to be released for more productive purposes, and allowing rights to be exchanged and capitalized (Deininger et al, 2003). The linkages between this level of data and the national level may occur randomly through the Personal connections of policy-makers, but are seldom based on systematic processing and dissemination. This may hinder policy-makers' abilities to monitor changes, notice trends and predict developments, for example in food production or in social stability.

Local and regional authorities

Government at the local or regional level requires good quality land tenure data for the effective delivery of public services. The location of activities and people, parcel boundaries, land uses and land tenure rights help determine the optimal delivery of public services, including the best location for a service and the best pattern of delivery. The provision of public services can also require the compulsory acquisition of land; good-quality data are therefore needed to establish whose and what rights are being expropriated and what the appropriate compensation should be. A widespread problem is that government agencies at ail levels often have poor records of their own property rights, which makes them difficult to enforce when these are encroached upon, or when the natural resources are exploited or when the rights have been illegally alienated from public property. The absence of well-maintained data on land tenure hampers the authorities in playing their guardian role and blinds policy-making to potentially serious threats to the environment and to state interests. There can be interagency confLicts and difficulties encountered by one agency in accessing property controlled by another when the property is needed for the delivery of services.

Local and regional authorities are typically responsible for the regulation of externalities and the maintenance of the environment. These responsibilities require spatial planning and development control policies. Land tenure data are important elements in such plans through identifying land uses and the parties that exercise control and management over them. The delivery of land consolidation programmes, aimed at improving agricultural efficiency, is generally at a local level, and requires good land tenure data so that rights can be bought out or exchanged. In essence, local and regional authorities need to be able to produce land tenure databases for their jurisdictions by tiling local land tenure databases, that is joining local databases together and capturing data for the areas between communities.

The trend of decentralization of services from central to regional and local governments has created the need for new local sources of revenue. Often the most sustainable source of revenue, and an option universally available, is the rural property taxation, which to be equitable and effective needs to be founded on a reliable land tenure database (FAO, 2004).


National governments have responsibility for policy in areas such as agricultural productivity, food security and economic development. The policies at this level of government that have an important role include taxation and agricultural subsidies. National governments have the power to change land tenure Systems through legislation in areas such as tenancy, inheritance, mortgage and land registration laws. National governments need to plot trends in land tenure in order to determine which policies are most effective. This requires the summarizing of local land tenure data. It means that, in order for trends to become apparent, the data at a national level must be an abstraction from local data, with a consequential loss of detail. Thus, for example, a national government may be interested in whether the proportion of agricultural land being farmed under broadly similar tenancy rights is increasing or decreasing, in order to assess the effectiveness of tenancy laws, but without needing to know the precise terms and conditions of each lease. At the local level, the differences in the terms and conditions of individual leases may be important, for example, in understanding what is happening with a particular watershed or valley. This may be of considerable local significance, but not necessarily for the overall pattern for a country.

National governments have responsibilities for human rights. Human rights include the right to peaceful enjoyment of property. These may come under pressure during periods of economic, social and political change. National governments need to be able to monitor changing tenure patterns so that they can check whether these are the result of human rights abuses or conflicts between groups within a society. They also need to monitor whether there is discrimination in access to land between genders, or ethnic or social groups. Land rights are a major source of wealth as well as one of the main assets available to those in rural areas to secure sustainable livelihoods.


The international community has an interest in ensuring that effective development policies are pursued so that there is value for money from aid, soft loans and debt relief. Understanding land tenure is central to strategies to promote food security, environmental sustainability and equitable access to land. The impact of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources on the environment and climatic change goes beyond national boundaries. The international community has a need for data are capable of producing demonstration effects so that relationships among land tenure, development, food security and environmental sustainability are apparent, and that countries are able to draw upon guidance from best practice. This implies land tenure data that are comparable between countries and over time. Given the variability of land tenure Systems among societies, this would suggest broad categorizations of land tenure Systems and a high level of abstraction.

Role of international bodies in land tenure databases

The hierarchy of needs for land tenure data suggests that different types of land tenure databases are needed in different circumstances, from the detailed recording of local rights and obligations and the precise locations to which they apply, to information that is comparable among countries. There is a role for international bodies in advising on how land tenure databases can be compiled; instigating research into the relationships among land tenure Systems and matters such as food security, environmentally sustainable exploitation of natural resources, economic development and equity in life chances; and acting as a clearinghouse so that national data on land tenure can be brought together for international comparison.

FAO already undertakes such work in agricultural censuses and these are often the source of data about land tenure patterns at the national level. Encouragement is needed for the compilation of land tenure data at the community and local levels and for the production of data for land tenure policy-making. Such encouragement is likely to be effective only if it is supported by technical assistance, for example in recording informal and customary rights and obligations and devising means to map them. At present, land tenure data from agricultural censuses collated by FAO are limited, as a number of countries either do not record such information or do not report it. There is no international compilation of land tenure data from sources other than from agricultural censuses and, even for these, there is an absence of international standards for land tenure data. For example, the EU collects land tenure data together with detailed information about agricultural inputs and outputs, costs and revenues from a sample of farms through its Farm Accountancy Data Network. Other countries have similar surveys. The collation of such data would be a valuable research resource.

In recent years there has been an active debate about the merits of security of property rights and about land titling as the means to achieve it. It may be time for this debate to move on to the broader question of security of tenure and the security of proprietorship of rights that give access to land and natural resources, and which may intersect with other rights over the same parcel. Securing and protecting tenure rights in the interests of promoting development require the creation of land tenure databases rather than just proprietorship registers. It means moving away from the notion that the aim of securing rights is to ensure that they can be transferred, capitalized and commodified, and that therefore only those rights that can be alienated should be secured. Rather, the full range of land tenure rights should be secured and protected by being recorded, in order to ensure that justice and human rights prevail, as well as by the development of effective policies for environmental protection, food security and economic development.


Land tenure data are important. They provide a basic tool of governance in terms of operational functions for securing rights, managing public assets, protecting the environment, collecting revenues and spatial planning. There appear to be some important relationships between land tenure and economic development, food security and environmental sustainability that ought to inform policy-making. Effective policies require good quality data so that situations can be analysed accurately, effective policies formulated and the consequences of the policies monitored. Understanding the status, changes and trends in land tenure is crucial for policy-makers and requires systematic and timely collection and dissemination of land tenure data. Challenges are posed by the variability and complexity of land tenure, land tenure institutions, and coordination and sustainability of functions.


Ballard, B. 2006. Land tenure database development in Cambodia. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 70–80.

Commission of the European Communities. 2004. EU Guidelines to support land policy design and reform processes in developing countries. COM(2004) 686 final SEC(2004) 1289. Brussels, 19 October 2004.

Deininger, K., Feder, G., Gordillo de Anda, G. & Munro-Faure, P. 2003. Land policy to facilitate growth and poverty reduction. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Co-operatives, 2003: 5–18.

Evtimov, V. 2006. Land tenure databases in Europe; cases from Central and Eastern Europe. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 58–69.

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Herrera, M. 2006. El estado de la información sobre tenencia de la tierra para la formulación de políticas de tierra en América Latina. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 48–57.

Lahiff, E. 2006. Land tenure data in agriculture and rural development: a critical review of dualism in South Africa. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives 2006/1: 94–107.

Le Meur, P.-Y. 2006a. Reflections on land information and policy-making in sub-Saharan Africa. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 36–47.

Le Meur, P.-Y. 2006b. L'information foncière au Bénin, entre pluralisme juridique et dispersion institutionnelle. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/'1: 108–121.

Nabangchang-Srisawalak, O. 2006a. Land tenure data and policy-making in southeast Asia. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 28–35.

Nabangchang-Srisawalak, O. 2006b. Land tenure data in Thailand. Land Reform, Land Seulement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 82–92.

1 The meeting was attended by Brett M. Ballard, Dai Yinping, Richard Grover, Vladimir Evtimov, Adriana Herrera, Mariana Herrera, Edward Lahiff, Kariyan Mei, Pierre-Yves Le Meur, Paul Mathieu, Paul Munro-Faure, Eathipol Srisawalak, Orapan Nabangchang-Srisawalak, Somchai Sitisomrutai, Hiek Som, Mukesh K. Srivastava, Wang Xiulian, Chamna Xoto and Mika-Petteri Törhönen. The authors are grateful for the comments received on this paper by those attending the expert meeting. The opinions in this paper and any errors are the responsibility of the authors.

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