Simply put, land tenure refers to the legal or customary regime under which land or natural resources like forests and fisheries are owned or "held" by an individual. First used in the middle ages, the term comes from the French verb "tenir," which means "to hold" ("tenant" is the present participle of "tenir").
Tenure is a set of rules — sometimes formal, sometimes informal — invented by society to govern behavior and the use of land and other resources. Throughout human history, many different forms of land tenure — or tenure and access rights to natural resources like water bodies and forests — have been established by different peoples and cultures around the globe.
The rules of tenure determine who can use what resources of the land for how long, and under what conditions.
Tenure has significant implications for development. Where the poor and vulnerable have limited and insecure rights to land and other natural resources, it is difficult for them to overcome hunger and poverty. Conversely, equitable and secure rights can support social and economic development and the sustainability of the environment.
Weak governance is a cause of many tenure-related problems, and attempts to address tenure problems are affected by the quality of governance. Weak governance is found in formal statutory land administration as well as in informal and customary tenure arrangements. It flourishes where the law is complex, inconsistent or obsolete; where people who work in land agencies lack motivation and are poorly trained and paid; where decision-making processes are not transparent; and where civil society is weak.
The poor are particularly vulnerable to the effects of weak governance as they lack the ability to protect their rights to land and other natural resources.